Carolina Solar Energy is a utility-scale solar pioneer in its home state of North Carolina. The company was founded in 2004 by Richard Harkrader, who worked to bring the first Renewable Portfolio Standard legislation to the state in 2007. After more than a decade leading the business, his daughter Carson Harkrader joined the company and took the reins as CEO.
Carson’s background in global diplomacy, business management and wind energy have helped her grow Carolina Solar Energy into new states and create new opportunities for solar development, sometimes against tough odds.
In this episode, Harkrader talks about the importance of connecting with local communities to advance utility-scale solar projects and the dedication to solar policy work that has contributed to Carolina Solar Energy’s success. An edited portion of the interview is below, but be sure to listen to the full podcast for more insight on the state of solar in the Southeast.
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SPW: Your team is developing projects in three states — North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky. Can you tell me why those three states and not South Carolina?
Carson Harkrader: Carolina Solar Energy was founded here in North Carolina by my father. He started the company back in the early 2000s and was part of a small group of people that helped North Carolina pass legislation that was the first renewable portfolio standard (RPS) in the Southeast. North Carolina is our home state where I grew up, and we had a legislature at the time that was willing to pass that legislation that then went on to help North Carolina become one of the top states in the country for solar energy.
The company was born and bred here, and most of our projects that we’ve developed are located here. We spread from North Carolina first up into Virginia and then about three years ago, over into Kentucky. We have never gone into South Carolina — we’ve looked at it a number of times, but I was always against the idea for two reasons. One, that there were just a lot of solar developers already very active in South Carolina, and a lot of competition. Our company has always tried to find little niches where we’re hopefully early to the market and maybe get out in front of a lot of the other developers who will come along behind us.
The other reason is that here in the Southeast, in the regulated markets, you have to be so in touch with the legislatures and the utilities commissions in the states where you’re operating, it really takes a lot of time and resources. Whereas by moving up into Virginia and Kentucky, those states are covered by the PJM interconnection region, which sets a lot of the rules that regulate how we operate. Then, the projects are able to sell their power freely into the market.
We still do a lot of policy work, especially in Kentucky, but it doesn’t feel like we have to have our finger on the pulse every day like we might need to in a state like South Carolina.
What has been the most rewarding moment of your career with Carolina Solar Energy so far?
We had a 50-MW project in eastern North Carolina in what’s called the extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) of a very small town called Grifton. We needed to get our permit to have the project be able to move forward and we had some pretty staunch local opposition there. We really had to take a lot of time with that project, working with the mayor and with the city council talking about the benefits of the project to the town. We were able to show that if the town annexed this project, this small town that had really been on hard times was going to make a little over $1 million in increased property tax revenue over 30 years.
We had city council meetings where there were 100 people there to oppose our project, very upset and concerned. But by bringing in our expert witness, talking about what the project was going to be and sharing photos, we were able to slowly explain to people the very low impact that the solar project was going to have. We proposed some pretty big setbacks from the neighborhood that was the most concerned and then the neighbors on the other side of the project actually said, “We really want this project, we love the fact that this area is quiet and we want it to stay that way and we’d much rather have the solar project come in than a big residential development.”
By working through things step by step, we were able to get our permit. I think I ended up going out there almost 20 times over the course of close to a year. It’s really, really rewarding being part of these local communities and hearing the mayor now talk about the tax revenue from the project and what it’s meant to the town.
What is preventing you from developing more projects?
The biggest constraint that we face is interconnection. The best sites for solar are those that don’t require big upgrades, or hopefully any upgrades to the transmission grid. So if we can find a project that can use what we term “available capacity” — existing transmission or distribution lines — all you have to pay for is the actual cost to add new hardware to interconnect the project to the grid. Most of our projects across the Southeast have been those types of projects, but they are harder and harder to find as more solar and wind has gone into the grid. That “available capacity” has been used up and so that makes projects more expensive to interconnect.