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WNC Business

Private sector interest grows solar energy industry

Sep 08, 2023 12:24PM ● By Randee Brown

According to CEO Ben Catt, Pine Gate Renewables started small in 2014 with the preliminary step of land acquisitions and interconnection applications for solar energy creation. The company has grown to encompass full-scale development, financing, and operations of major solar array projects nationwide.

“We started with the fundamentals,” Catt said. “First, you have to have land to build the assets on.

Speaking to their business model of being an independent power producer, projects take a long time to get through planning phases, construction, and then into operation for 30 to 40 years. Catt said they now specialize in increasingly complex and sophisticated areas as their projects get larger.

There are pretty massive differences in the industry now compared to nearly a decade ago when the company was founded, according to Catt. The amount of energy Pine Gate brought online last year was about the same as the amount the entire country produced in 2014.

“Everything done in the last decade has become more sophisticated,” Catt said. “Every project costs upwards of $100 million and we are rapidly approaching our 100th project. Capital markets have evolved exponentially, and evaluating projects and how they interact with the energy grid has changed in a big way.”

Headquartered in Asheville, Pine Gate Renewables employs over 300 people. Catt said while there are employees working on projects in more than 30 states, a strong concentration of employees are located in WNC. Their partner company Blue Ridge Power, whose focus is on engineering procurement and construction, employs about 1,000 people who are similarly located across the country with a concentration in WNC.

North Carolina is a very interesting state for a solar company, according to Catt. For a very long time the state was ranked in the top two or three states for solar capacity in the early days of renewables. Ten to 15 years ago, California was way ahead of the rest of the country. There were challenges and the cost was prohibitive, but as cost curves began to fall, NC had the advantage of a state tax credit that was incredibly beneficial and impactful for scaling.

Catt said the state legislature had a fairly progressive foresight to implement incentives for renewable energy, and this paired with a standardized treatment of property taxes created a stable and sustainable environment for solar businesses to grow. The support coming from the state legislative body paired with a strong, well-organized grassroots campaign to educate the legislature helped them to understand that this could all be a growth engine for jobs in the state.

While Pine Gate is always looking to incrementally improve their projects, Catt said the technology in the field has been around for a long time. The long-term, reliable track record of equipment success is continuing, and the company is becoming more and more creative in how they are actually installing facilities. He said they want to be thoughtful partners with every community they are in, and they are becoming more efficient and less impactful to the land they are building on.

Thoughtful partnership involves job creation in their various communities as well, according to Catt. Employees building these facilities move on to build another, and there is also permanent staff operating each facility. Job growth goes back to how new the industry is — filling the demand of building the facilities has a tremendous local component, then smaller groups of people like electricians grow to specialize in maintaining them. 

“Blue Ridge Power is a great example,” Catt said. “A company that didn’t exist a couple of years ago now has 1,000 employees. Buildouts take a long time and companies are leveraging that to grow their staff.”

Industry trends Catt said he is noticing include increasing energy storage capacities as well as a huge engagement from non-utility energy buyers like large corporations and small businesses. 

“None of this is because of legislation,” Catt said. “This engagement is purely driven by companies that want to be good citizens for their community and how they operate. They are taking leading positions of being at the forefront of working to have the cleanest energy mix possible to ensure community members have really clean air, and that’s really encouraging for the future. A true commercial foundation to procure clean energy has really impacted development over the last few years, and that foundational piece allows for a lot more to come.”