CARY — The long rows of solar panels in southern Cary can power 200 homes, but they had an easier task their first day on the job. As Mayor Harold Weinbrecht threw the switch, the mega-wattage of the sprawling array flowed into – wait for it – an inflatable snow globe with a snowman inside.
There was a slight sigh of relief as the giant globe expanded and the snow confetti started blowing. Dec. 21, the shortest day of the year, wasn’t the most obvious time to open a solar farm, so the town and its private partner were well-advised to ease into a lighter use.
The solar-power system, spread across seven acres, is the first to involve the Cary town government. It’s operated by FLS Energy, a solar business, but the collectors sit on land the company leases from the town. SAS Institute hosts a similarly sized array, but the new Cary project is the largest for a Wake County government.
“You can’t get a good perspective of it from this view,” said Town Manager Ben Shivar to a crowd of a few dozen. From an aerial view, “it is astonishing, amazing,” he said.
Cary makes about $45,000 a year from the project, which the town authorized in August 2011.
FLS Energy in turn sells the electricity back to Duke Energy, which is paying subsidized rates for solar and wind power as it tries to reach a state requirement that investor-owned power companies use more renewable resources.
The power grid then distributes the electricity to nearby neighborhoods and the water treatment plant.
“Projects like what’s behind us were unthinkable just five years ago,” said Michael Shore, CEO of FLS Energy.
If the 1.9-megawatt project is a success, Cary will look into establishing other sun-power energy sites. The town already plans to operate its own solar array at Fire Station 8, scheduled to open this spring. And more governments are likely to jump on board, according to Emily Barrett, Cary’s sustainability manager.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if others come soon,” she said.
But the largest arrays, some say, will appear in North Carolina’s rural outskirts rather than in suburbs like Cary.
“They’re more likely to appear in farmland,” said Tyler Johnson, an executive for FLS. “They’re farming solar energy now.”