BOONE — New River Light & Power is exploring a potential solar farm site on U.S. 321 near Payne Branch Road, and Boone leaders think the project could help it take a big step toward its 100 percent renewable energy goal.

The Boone Town Council and town Sustainability, Economics and Environment Committee on Dec. 13 agreed to direct Boone Town Manager John Ward to work with NRLP on a document affirming the town’s commitment to purchase solar energy from the site beginning in 2022, when NRLP transitions to a new power provider — NTE Carolinas.

New River Light & Power is a state-owned utility and operating unit of Appalachian State University that serves the ASU campus and parts of Boone and the surrounding community. Currently, NRLP purchases power from Lenoir-based Blue Ridge Energy, which in turn purchases power from Duke Energy.

The two-acre solar farm would be located on ASU/NRLP property on the east side of U.S. near the site of a former hydroelectric facility. Its capacity would range from 200 to 500 kilowatts, according to a presentation by NRLP General Manager Ed Miller to the Sustainability Committee in October. A 200-kilowatt array would include 700 panels capable of producing 300,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, according to presentation materials.

“We hope that a commitment to purchase solar power now by the town will encourage NTE and New River to move forward with planning and construction of the local community solar field so it will be ready by 2022 or sooner,” Ward said.

If the solar farm is completed before 2022, the energy produced until that date would only be available for use by ASU because NRLP’s current wholesale power agreement restricts the utility’s ability to offer community solar programs, Miller said. The town of Boone and its facilities would be a potential customer as part of a community solar program.

“We hope to be able to offer community solar once we enter an agreement with NTE in 2022,” Miller said. “Right now that would be the proposal. We’re still in negotiations with NTE and solar installers. It’s really preliminary.”

Ward said there have been discussions about the town making a 20-year commitment for 200 kW of the array’s capacity. Based on current estimates, Ward said the solar power purchase could add $12,000 to $15,000 to the town’s current annual energy costs. But between now and 2022 and beyond, the costs of solar are expected to continue to decrease, he and several committee members noted.

Quint David, chair of the Sustainability Committee, said the site could provide about 9 percent of the town’s current electricity needs.

Two years ago this month, the Boone Town Council passed a resolution calling on the state and U.S. to transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy by 2050. The town is working to transition all town facilities to clean, renewable energy by that date. A subcommittee of the Sustainability Committee has been tasked with developing an energy action plan for the town.

“We’ve got ... a very big possibility of impacting our goals,” Ward said to the council and committee members. “I saw it as a great acceleration of your timetable.”

In addition to the two-acre site in Boone, Ward and Miller said that NTE is exploring a potential 30-megawatt solar array in the Fayetteville area, which could be further expanded in the future. The array could provide significantly more energy for NRLP customers as well as other NTE customers. Local leaders hope that interest and demand for the 321 site will help demonstrate to NTE that there is demand for the 30-megawatt facility, which would provide energy to customers at a cost savings compared with solar arrays built locally.

“This is big, y’all. This is a real litmus test,” said Lee Ball, committee member and sustainability director at ASU. “(NTE will) see that we’re serious. They’re really kind of testing the waters before they build their large system in the Fayetteville area.”

“Our customers are seeking ... alternatives and choice in renewables for where their energy comes from,” Miller said. We see that as a model going forward.”

Not all town of Boone facilities are in the NRLP service area; some are served by Blue Ridge Energy. Ward said that there could potentially be more renewable energy options in the future in partnership with Blue Ridge.

Boone Town Council Member Sam Furgiuele said he would like to see the town move its energy goal to 2030, noting that the goal could be for 100 percent climate neutrality, which would include carbon offsets.

“There’s more to it than just the renewables. That’s part of our discussion,” Furgiuele said.

David underscored that sentiment, noting that the town can reduce its energy use, utilize carbon assets and change its energy types to achieve its goals.

Also at the meeting, committee member Harvard Ayers provided an update on electric vehicle technologies and their potential utilization by town employees.

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