Harrison Cole (ETM): Tracking Down Solar Power Prospects with GIS

Harrison Cole and Solar FarmsWith North Carolina being the third highest state in solar energy installed capacity, many startup companies have formed to take advantage of this opportunity. The company that I am interning for is called Holocene Clean Energy, LLC. They were founded in 2009 and are based in downtown Raleigh. The company has many previous successes installing solar farms across the state. I work in the developmental department, where we identify different areas throughout the East Coast to install solar farms.

You may ask yourself how solar can be affordable to everyday people. The answer is that there are many tax credits and financing available. However, in December 2015 the NC tax credits for solar energy expired, and because of this, we only work with projects that have the capacity of five megawatts and above. These types of projects are referred to as distribution projects.

Currently, the project I am working on is finding land in southern Virginia that will house a 20-megawatt or greater project. Projects of this size are referred to as transmission level projects. When I am looking for these transmission level projects, a solar farm must have at least 150 acres available, but also have the transmission line running through the property; which can be a bit of a problem to identify.

To find these tracts of land, I look through the county’s GIS website, as well as land for sale on various webpages. Once a tract of land is identified, we contact the real estate agent or owner with a letter of interest. If the interest is mutual, we hand it off to our legal analyst to fill out the necessary paperwork for the lease. Once this is agreed upon, we go through the various utility commissions to ensure the process that we follow is uniform.

The aspects that I enjoyed most about my job included my continued learning about the solar industry and the process for installing solar farms. An understanding of GIS and how to use it was critical for this job. I am constantly using GIS to look at land parcels and access the acreage, as well as finding the owner of the parcel of land.

The position involves a lot of bureaucratic work because we deal with government officials as well at utility officials, who often do not have the best reputation for wanting to install solar farms. This is a lot more involved than I previously thought, including going through the NC Utilities Commission for approval. On the same note, the paperwork that goes into the process can be very tedious. Some steps of the process involve getting documents notarized, which can take additional time. Overall, the whole process can take a total of 24-36 months for everything to get approved and installation of the farm.

Once my semester with the internship ends, I am hoping for a full-time job offer. Holocene is continuing to develop solar farms and has big plans over the next few years in creating around 30 megawatts of new power. My dream location would be in Charleston, South Carolina because the solar industry there is just starting to really take off. They also still have state tax credits in place, so it makes solar energy a much more viable option for customers.

Overall I would consider my internship to be very successful and I learned a lot about myself as well as the solar industry. I learned that I work better with a project to work toward, as opposed to going out and doing something myself. I like to be around coworkers as well because it helps to keep me focused. I also like to have people around that like to talk because this is one of the main ways that I can learn the industry, and if they have previous experience, I want to learn what they already know.

Ultimately, I would like to stay in the solar industry because it is my passion and it is continuing to grow. I would like to eventually get my MBA so that I can pursue a higher position, or even start my own company. For my career, I would like to stay in the developmental side of the system, but also expand my horizons into the financial side, so that I have a better understanding of the whole process.