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Pioneering community-owned renewable energy

The true pioneers of community solar in the southeast are those taking on the enormous goal of bringing it to their respective community or institution, whether it be a faith community, municipality, school or service organization. Any honest assessment would certainly conclude that such projects are especially difficult in our region of the country. Some of the projects that AIRE has assisted are highlighted below. Together, we’ve learned much from these efforts. But for each success, there are many more aspiring pioneers that were never quite able to develop a project. These experiences are equally important for the sake of building knowledge and its contribution to finding new solutions.

Now, our collective learnings are taking place in the rapidly changing political and energy landscape. While new threats to renewables and smaller-scale solar in particular will emerge, growing interest and the market fundamentals point to expanded opportunities. For AIRE, those opportunities are grounded in the recognition that solar is becoming more affordable, grid power is subject to inflation, the potential to improve livelihoods and community wealth through local and regional solar value chain creation, and the net-positive public value of solar.

Rowan-Cabarrus Community College

Rowan-Cabarrus Community College is led by an extraordinarily visionary senior management team. They started with the idea that solar power should be a significant energy source for the college, and that the on-campus solar projects they intended to build should be seamlessly integrated with curriculum for the benefit of students, faculty, staff and the greater community. After all this is an institution of higher education.

But this was to be a major initiative and thus they recognized that the scale and impact befitting their vision would require significant financial resources. AIRE began working with the college in 2013 to help it develop solar on campus with third party financing as the original plan. The college, through its foundation, received a very generous donation to leverage what was hoped to be an empathetic third party investment in solar on the campus. However, after evaluating many investor proposals, it became clear that the most aimed to take the donor money, all of the tax credits (discounted, of course), all of the power sales revenue for many years, and some even asked for a buyout fee when the system was conveyed to the college. Even though the project was bankable under investor terms, we felt is simply wasn’t best for the college.

rccc solar photoDrone photo of the 268kW roof-mounted solar system on Rowan-Cabarrus Community College’s Salisbury, NC campus

We began to see the downside to projects of this scale using third party tax equity finance because the investor claimed the lion’s share of the benefit, rendering the college’s benefit to little more than rents for 10 years and delayed benefits for the remainder of the system’s life. In short, we saw the colleges value being diminished by the tax equity proposals. We started with the axiom of “doing well by doing good,” an admirable ambition. Striking that balance here proved harder said than done. 

At the same time, prices of solar were dropping off the cliff. We began to evaluate other strategies to bring solar on campus and keep the teams audacious solar vision moving. RCCC decided to reconceive the plan in two phases, the first now would be a roof mounted system along with a solar electric vehicle charging station.
To date, the RCCC Foundation’s renewable energy developments include a 268 kW rooftop solar array (operational Q1, 2017), a 50 kW carport solar array (operational Q1, 2017) installed by Yes Solar Solutions of Raleigh, NC. Awaiting final project capital is a shovel-ready 1,000 kW ground mounted solar array (property, permitting, zoning, construction planning, system design, interconnection agreement & equipment installation complete; operational Q4, 2017 or Q2, 2018.)

Highland United Methodist Church

Highland United Methodist Church’s 45 kW roof-top mounted solar electric system

Sustainability initiatives that improve the environment – and save money – are nothing new for the congregation of Highland United Methodist Church of Raleigh, NC. Highland UMC has installed low-flow plumbing fixtures that conserve both water and $400 per year of the church’s operating budget. They have a community garden that produces 2,000 lbs of produce each year. Most recently a group of the church’s members engaged AIRE to assist them in developing a 45 kW solar electric system (large enough to create the yearly electricity required by 8 energy efficient homes) on one of the sanctuary’s flat roof spaces. The system, when donated and owned by the church, will save $6,000 or more each year in electricity cost, producing clean energy for the system’s 20 plus year remaining lifetime. The solar electric system was designed and installed by Inman Solar.


The Hospitality House

The Hospitality House’s 9 Collector Solar Hot Water Heating System and Project Team

The Hospitality House of Boone, NC is a non-profit community support center that transitions individuals and families from crisis to stability, poverty to sustainability and homelessness to self-sufficiency through the provision of food, shelter and supportive services. The Hospitality House worked with AIRE to lower their energy bills by developing a solar hot water heating system at their home facility. The solar water heating system is comprised of nine solar energy collectors (each four feet wide and 12 feet high) and a 600 gallon water storage tank that produces about 25% of the hot water required for the the 70 bed facility and its commercial kitchen.

“We want to be good citizens and community members. By developing this solar hot water heating system, we’ll spend less money on utilities,” said Todd Carter, Hospitality House development director. “These are our two largest bills. Money we save here can be redirected to our mission – helping people.”

The project was completed with $25,000 in funding from Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation and $18,000 from Appalachian State University’s Appalachian & the Community Together (ACT) program. The solar system was designed by Renewable Design Associates (RDA) of Ashveille, NC and installed by Sundance Power Systems, also of Asheville.


Elon Community Church’s 5 kW roof-top mounted solar electric system

Elon Community Solar

Elon Community Church, United Church of Christ (ECC) rang in 2013 with a brand new 5kW solar electric system on the roof. ECC’s Senior Pastor Randy Orwig’s wrote in their January newsletter:

“Solar panels on our roof will begin to demonstrate that the future need not be bleak, but that peace brings wholeness in all aspects of our lives. It’s a start, another step along the way, as we share the peace of being the people we are meant to be.”

Since 2010, ECC’s Green Church Committee has been working diligently with the Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy (AIRE) to install a solar array funded by their community. AIRE’s financial model allows community investors to own and operate the system for six years while realizing the tax incentives offered for renewable energy development. After this period, the system is then donated, or sold at a deep discount, to ECC. AIRE worked with the church to identify and engage potential funders within their supporter base. AIRE managed the financial and legal structuring of the business entities developing the solar system and owned by those church members funding the project. The installation was conducted by Sundance Power Systems, Inc. who offers service throughout North and South Carolina, and is “committed to participating in the healing of the planet and creating a sustainable quality of life for humanity through the introduction of renewable energy into society at large” (www.SundancePower.com). ECC’s new solar array was fully funded by investors and donors from the church’s community, dedicated to demonstrating their commitment to the care of God’s Creation.



Carrboro Community Solar’s 5 kW roof-top mounted solar electric system at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market

Carrboro Community Solar

On January 23, 2013 citizens and government officials from the Town of Carrboro held a ribbon cutting ceremony to celebrate the installation of a 5kW solar photovoltaic system on the Farmer’s Market at the Town Commons. In an effort to “lead by example” the Town of Carrboro contracted with the Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy (AIRE) to assess the physical and financial feasibility of the project, manage the financial and legal structuring of the development, and oversee the installation process. The installation was completed by Sundance Power Systems, Inc. who offers design and installation services throughout North and South Carolina (www.sundancepower.com).

Fully funded by a group of local citizens, the Carrboro Solar Community Initiative (http://carrborosolar.com) provides clean energy to Carrboro’s Town Hall, an example of local energy independence, and an educational opportunity on the benefits of renewable energy. Utilizing AIRE’s innovative approach to community developed renewable energy, local investors formed Carrboro Community Solar, LLC (CCS) which will own and operate the system for six years, in order to recognize the full financial benefits. At the end of the six years, CCS will donate or sell the system to the Town of Carrboro at a deep discount, for the future benefit of all Carrboro’s citizens.

AIRE Demonstration Project: First Congregational United Church of Christ

This historic church, located in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, was the first group to utilize our Innovative Social Finance model and engage in our Project Development process. Their 10kW system (42 panels) was installed by Sundance Power Systems and is situated above their Fellowship Hall.

Nine individuals raised the capital investment for the project, all but one of which are a member at First Congregation United Church of Christ. “First Church Solar, LLC”, the company AIRE assisted members in organizing, envisions donating the system to the church in about six years, at which point many of the investors will have made their money back, and some with a return. Return on Investment (ROI) depends on the tax appetite and financial portfolio of each individual investor.

As First Church Solar, LLC was able to raise more money than required for their first solar project, they are planning to organize and capitalize another such project on a church in their community.

The commitment at First Congregational is but one example of the desire among communities of faith to make our society more sustainable. As Reverend Joe Hoffman said in his liturgy at the solar dedication, “We know that human life on Earth, especially in the United States, has not been kind to Earth. We confess that we have used more than our share of Earth’s resources and seek to live more in harmony with Earth’s ways and with respect for all Earth’s creatures and life systems.”

View the slideshow for this project HERE


Pilot Project: Boone Community Solar

Boone Community Solar
Solar Electric Performance

Community volunteers and member-owners
installing a 2.4 kW solar electric/photovoltaic
system on the roof of The Greenhouse in
Boone, NC

The goal of Boone Community Solar was to explore the question: “why is there so little renewable energy in a place like Boone?” Boone’s rooftops and parking lots have excellent solar resources, which, if developed create jobs, raise locally owned investment opportunities, and forge community owned civic infrastructure that improves the economy and environment of all those living in the region.

In 2009, North Carolina spent over $2.5 billion to import electricity. We could keep a large portion of this money in our state economy by developing renewable energy systems in North Carolina. By developing the solar and renewable energy resources available in our state, North Carolina can generate almost 40% of the energy it consumes.

The goals of the Boone Community Solar pilot project were to:

  • Make solar energy accessible and affordable for all citizens
  • Increase public participation in energy and economic development
  • Demonstrate how tax-equity finance works for community-scale projects

Boone Community Solar was featured in a national report by John Farrell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. The report entitled “Community Solar- A New Model For Local Ownership” can be viewed HERE.


AIRE - pioneering community-owned renewable energy
a fiscally sponsored project of Inquiring Systems Inc.
164 South Depot St. • Boone, North Carolina 28607 • info@aire-nc.org • phone: 828.268.5022
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