For decades, textiles and manufacturing dominated North Carolina’s rural economy. Those were the industries that employed the most workers, and the industries that suffered the greatest losses in the Great Recession. Eight years later, a surprising industry is helping rural communities get back on their feet.

In 2007, North Carolina became the first state in the South to adopt a renewable energy and efficiency standard.[i] This standard effectively requires that a certain portion of North Carolina’s electricity come from renewable sources or improved efficiency. Since then, the state has strongly committed to renewable energy, especially solar energy.[ii] And the commitment has paid off big time. 

Clean Energy Investment

North Carolina spent $135 million on clean energy incentives between 2009 and 2013, which generated $2.67 billion in investments.[iii] Private investment should generate an additional $8.1 billion over the next 10 years. And it turns out that rural counties are seeing the bulk of this investment. Catawba, Davidson, Duplin, Person, Robeson, and Wayne Counties – all rural counties - all received the greatest amount of clean energy investment, getting more than $100 million each.[iv]

The state now has 150 utility-scale solar facilities, with 60 of them in rural counties.[v] These facilities don’t just provide jobs – they also provide local tax revenue, and generate income for farmers and landowners who lease some of their property to a solar farm. This kind of economic activity should go a long way in rural communities that have struggled to find their footing in the wake of the recession.

Major Investments
Source: RTI International, February 2015

Between 2012 and 2013, North Carolina’s solar industry employment growth was 10 times faster than the national average,[vi] and the industry now employs over 3,000 residents.[vii] Large companies with sizable data centers have also signaled that they see North Carolina – and its rural communities - as an environmentally friendly and progressive place to do business.

“The state’s strength in solar has also attracted companies with energy-intensive data centers. American Express chose North Carolina for a $400 million data center because of the state’s robust clean energy policy, and Apple built the largest privately owned solar facility in the nation at its data center in Maiden.”[viii]

Pew researchers predict clean energy investments will slow down once the state tax credit expires in 2015 and the federal tax credits decrease in 2016, but “the sector will nevertheless continue to generate an average of $523 million in annual revenue from 2017 to 2013.”[ix] State lawmakers recently introduced a Senate bill to extend the state tax credits through 2020, citing the tremendous effect clean energy investments have had on poor and rural counties. The bill has already gained bipartisan support, and lawmakers are optimistic about it passing both chambers.[x] Based on the results so far, investing in solar energy is a wise step – not just for North Carolina’s environment, for its economic growth as well.

Even before the recession, North Carolina was losing manufacturing and agricultural jobs, and rural areas in particular needed to find different industries to develop. With cheap available land, solar energy is an industry in which that rural North Carolina actually has a competitive advantage, and it is just one example of an alternative strategy for rural economic stability in the 21st century.

[i] The Pew Charitable Trusts. (October 2014). Clean Economy Rising: Solar shines in North Carolina. Available at

[ii] See note i

[iii] RTI International. (February 2015). Economic and Rate Impact Analysis of Clean Energy Development in North Carolina—2015 Update. Available at

[iv] See note iii

[v]Brun, Lukas; Hamrick, Danny; Daly, Jack. (February 2015). The Solar Economy

Widespread Benefits for North Carolina. The Duke Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness. Available at

[vi] See note i

[vii] The Solar Foundation. (2015). The National Solar Jobs Census 2014. Available at

[viii] Ibid. 

[ix] See note i

[x]deBruyn, Jason. (February 20, 2015). “N.C. ranks No. 1 in South for solar energy capacity.” Charlotte Business Journal. Available at