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Report says solar installations rebound in the Southeast; state policies make a difference

Solar farm in Cabarrus County, N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein says Duke Energy's carbon plan fails to consider incentives in recent federal legislation that will speed up adoption of solar energy.
David Boraks
A solar farm in Cabarrus County. North Carolina ranks No. 2 in the region for installed solar capacity.

Solar installations across the Southeast are growing again as the U.S. rebounds from the pandemic and supply-chain delays. Florida leads the region, while North Carolina, which once led the Southeast, is expected to continue slipping down the list in the next few years.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy analyzed data on current and projected solar projects for its annual "Solar in the Southeast" report. It found that strong pro-solar policies in Florida, along with federal incentives, are fueling growth in both large solar farms and rooftop installations.

The seven southeast states from — Tennessee, the Carolinas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida — now have 18.8 gigawatts of solar generation installed. That's triple the number six years ago, when the alliance published its first report on the industry's growth.

Florida has about 7.3 gigawatts. North Carolina remains in second place, with 4.8 gigawatts, but likely will fall behind Georgia by 2025, said the report's author, Bryan Jacob.

 solar in the southeast by state 2022
Southern Alliance for Clean Energy
Solar in the Southeast 2023
Installed solar capacity by states in the Southeast, end of 2022.

"North Carolina used to have the most solar in the Southeast, and the second most in the entire country behind California. Florida, was kind of a latecomer," Jacob said.

He said Florida changed its policies to make it easier for utilities to raise rates to pay for solar farms. Meanwhile, rooftop solar installations are growing faster in Florida because the state has maintained generous rates for rooftop solar owners who send energy back to the grid. The state also is leading the way on "shared solar," which lets customers pay an extra fee to "subscribe" to solar power to reduce their carbon footprints. Duke Energy is among the companies that offer the service there.

North Carolina has gone in the other direction, and Jacob says the company has not met its previous forecasts for adding solar farms.

The state ended solar tax credits in 2015 and has given Duke Energy more control over the pace of new solar installations. Duke is also ending incentives for rooftop solar beginning Oct. 1, when it will slash what it pays customers for excess power they generate.

Duke spokesman Randy Wheeless said solar remains an important part of its plans to reduce its use of fossil fuels.

"North Carolina has pursued smart and steady growth in solar power over the past decade. As Duke Energy looks to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, solar will continue to be a key to new carbon-free electric generation in the future," he said.

Duke will present regulators with updated plans for growth in solar and other renewable energy on Sept. 1.

Overall, Duke has the most solar generation installed of any utility in the Southeast, with 6.2 gigawatts in the Carolinas and Florida. But the alliance projects that Florida Power & Light will surpass Duke as the biggest solar operator by 2025. Jacob said that's because of FPL's "Real Zero" program that calls for aggressive growth in installations in the coming years.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy report also notes that rural electric cooperatives have been slower to adopt solar than other companies. Jacob said a new federal program offering funding to co-ops could help speed up adoption in those areas.

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Corrected: June 20, 2023 at 8:46 AM EDT
This story has been updated to correct the states covered by the report. It includes Mississippi, but not Virginia.
David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.