If built, the SAS project would generate 10 times as much electricity as the state's biggest existing solar installation to date, potentially producing about 1 megawatt of electricity.
That's sufficient to power about 185 homes when the sun is shining. Though large on North Carolina's green energy scale, a 1-megawatt solar facility that generates power in daytime would be puny compared to the 900-megawatt Shearon Harris nuclear plant in Wake County that generates power round the clock. Still, the move highlights a trend by companies to invest in green technology and curtail their own greenhouse gas emissions.
"We're always looking for ways to be more environmentally friendly but in ways that also make bottom-line, economic sense," SAS spokesman Dave Thomas said. "And if there's a way to do that with solar energy, we're for it."
But "it may turn out that it's not feasible for us to do this now," Thomas cautioned.
SAS will try to make that determination in the coming weeks.
If SAS pulls it off, it would set the solar standard for the state, eclipsing other projects many times over. The biggest project in North Carolina, at the N.C. Zoo in Asheboro, generates 105 kilowatts of electricity.
A solar farm at N.C. State University near the RBC Center generates 75 kilowatts. Projects sized 2 megawatts and smaller don't require approval from the N.C. Utilities Commission. But SAS would have to notify the commission if it decides to sell its juice onto the state's power grid.
Thomas said SAS initiated the study to determine whether generating solar power on campus is economically viable. Such a project could qualify for state and federal tax benefits, potentially saving SAS several million dollars. Under North Carolina's Renewable Energy Tax Credit, corporations are eligible for credits worth 35 percent of the cost of a clean-energy installation, or up to $2.5 million per project.
At the federal level, businesses can get back 30 percent of expenditures in solar technology until the end of 2008. After that, the solar tax credit will revert to 10 percent, though Congress may extend the current benefits. That complicates planning of some projects because of the time it takes to build solar-energy infrastructure, said Justin Barnes, an energy policy analyst with N.C. Solar Center, a nonprofit with N.C. State University.
For big companies just entering the planning process, it's hard to determine what level of federal tax credits they will be eligible for, Barnes said.