Duke Energy initiative looks to add diverse businesses to the solar energy industry

HALIFAX COUNTY, N.C. — On a quiet, rural road in Halifax County, farmer Haywood Harrell starts a new day.

“It’s a heritage,” Harrel told Channel 9′s Ken Lemon. “I grew up a sharecropper.”

He has thousands of acres waiting for new seeds.

“It’s a struggle out here,” Harrell said.

Harrell’s fields and tractors don’t immediately bring to mind electric cars and solar power, but he says the thing he wants to plant most is a resource sprouting big in Cabarrus County: solar farms.

Power suppliers tell us Harrell could make as much as $700 an acre with a solar farm compared, to the $35 to $50 an acre from crops.

Harrell is banking on a new program backed by Duke Energy called the Diversity in Clean Energy initiative, or DiCE, to help.

“It’s always good to have something you can bank on,” he said.

The program is designed to create a database of Black and diverse businesses that can contribute to what is expected to be a booming industry, especially in North Carolina, which is one of the leading states for clean energy production.

The list of people the program is looking to engage includes not just energy suppliers, but contractors, logistics, transportation and everyone else it takes to get power from the farm to homes and businesses.

Big names are backing the initiative including Microsoft, GM, Kroger and T-Mobile.

“We all came together and said this issue is bigger than just a corporation. It’s something that impacts all communities,” said Irvine Sloan, Duke Energy’s vice president for strategic account management.

He said the corporations have not just created a database with names of diverse businesses in clean energy, they’re also networking and marketing for them.

“Where we want to get to is where diverse owned businesses are part of our working economy,” Sloan said.

They want to help smaller suppliers with Black ownership attract attention and compete for contracts.

“We want to create a platform to continue to grow and continue our span to grow over years and years to come,” Sloan said.

That’s big for Ajulo Othow, owner of EnerWealth Solutions, a solar provider in North Carolina.

“Too often we are the last to know or the last at the table,” Othow said.

Othow is president of the board of directors of the Black Owners of Solar Services. She said DiCE is designed to allow businesses that can often go overlooked to be seen and included in an industry with few Black faces.

“There are thousands of solar businesses across the country, and right now our network consists of about 50 businesses,” she said.

All that corporate effort ends up impacting farmers like Harrell.

He is working to make space on his land where Othow can put solar panels on his farm. That will give the former sharecropper the money he needs to keep his family tradition going and growing.

“I want this product to keep going,” he said.

The DiCE database is set to launch in the late summer or early fall of this year.

(WATCH BELOW: The push for more solar farms in North Carolina)