If you need hard proof that North Carolina is in the Sun Belt, take a look at numbers released this year by the solar energy industry’s trade association: North Carolina ranks No. 3 in the United States for solar power capacity installed in 2013.

That strong growth is likely to continue, according to Duke Energy, as the company is making a big push to develop its solar energy network.

Duke Energy said on Dec. 19 that it has acquired a solar energy project in Rocky Mount to add to its rapidly growing network of solar panel farms.

In September, the utility said it will buy power from five other plants in the state and has signed 33 contracts to buy power from smaller solar generators.

Duke Energy said that it plans to spend $500 million to build power generation farms or buy power from solar producers in the coming years.

Duke Energy is also ready to build three sites in Bladen, Duplin and Wilson counties after receiving state approval in early December.

At 65 megawatts, the Duplin plant will be the largest solar generator east of the Mississippi River.

The expansions will add 278 megawatts of power capacity to Duke Energy’s system — a fraction of the company’s 22,000 megawatts generated in the Carolinas — but a step toward the state’s requirement that the company earn 12.5 percent of its sales from renewable energy or efficiency by 2021, according to a new report by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

What’s a megawatt?

A common illustration is that a megawatt is the amount of continuous power it takes to power a number of homes for a year.

Weather and other issues can affect that number, but for North Carolina, a megawatt can power 95 homes continuously for a year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

That association ranks states based on the amount of solar megawatt capacity installed in 2013. North Carolina comes in third, behind California at No. 1 and Arizona at No. 2.

North Carolina’s new solar energy of 334 megawatts can power 31,809 homes, the group said.

Of course, being far sunnier, California’s new installations of 2,745 megawatts can power 608,000 homes.

An October report by the Pew Charitable Trusts applauded North Carolina’s aggressive policies that encourage solar power.

The report said that in 2007, North Carolina became the Southeast’s first state to adopt a renewable energy standard for power companies.

Solar and other renewable energy sources have helped the state’s economy, Pew reported.

“North Carolina’s clean energy policies support the growth of new industries,” the report said. “Statewide, private investment in clean energy totaled $2.6 billion from 2009 to 2013 and will generate an additional $8.1 billion over the next decade, according to Navigant Research.”

Pew reported that individuals and utilities in North Carolina will spend a projected $1.6 billion installing solar energy in 2014, and $1.7 billion in 2015.

The Triad has been a player in the solar business since 2008, when Missouri-based SunEdison announced that it would build a 16 megawatt solar farm in southern Davidson County — the largest solar farm in the nation at the time.

It sells the power to Duke Energy as well.

More corporate solar energy is coming to the Triad.

Chapel Hill-based Strata Solar already operates a 40-acre solar system in Rockingham County and is planning operations in Forsyth and Yadkin counties. Its solar panels went up in 2013 at the Pelham site, and Strata has millions of dollars ready to invest across the state.

Rows of blue panels there and on thousands of acres elsewhere are ready to soak up the sun from the Carolina sky.


Contact Richard M. Barron at (336) 373-7371 and follow @BarronBizNR on Twitter.

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Contact Richard M. Barron at (336) 373-7371, and follow @BarronBizNR on Twitter.

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