By David Hudnall
The Durham Community Land Trustees has been hip to the sun for about a decade now.
Where it can afford to do so, the nonprofit uses solar hot-water heaters and implements passive solar design in its affordable housing units. But solar photovoltaic panels have always been too expensive.
Last year, the renewable energy organization NC WARN put up $20,000 and raised another $22,000 from solar enthusiasts to purchase and install solar panels on a DCLT property at 811 Carroll Street, in Durham’s West End neighborhood. The four panels—one for each apartment in the building—went live this winter and are expected to bring $1,700 in energy-bill savings every year.
“The panels do eventually pay for themselves, but if you do the math on the Carroll Street property, it’ll take almost twenty-five years,” says Selina Mack, executive director of the DCLT. “We’d love to do panels on our other units, but it would have to be a similar situation where the panels were a gift. They cost over $10,000 per panel. I mean, where would that money come from?”
It’s a question that dogs solar-eager citizens across the state. Though North Carolina is the fourth-highest solar producer in the nation, you have to travel to rural solar farms to see much evidence of it. For average homeowners, the barriers are high. Third-party leasing—a no-upfront-cost scenario wherein a solar provider installs a system on your property and you pay back a set rate over time—is prohibited by state law. And last year, the General Assembly let expire the very tax credit that helped propel North Carolina to become one of the leading solar producers in the United States.
Which raises the inevitable question: What can cities like Durham do to advance solar in spite of the legislature?