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GREENSBORO, N.C. — If you need hard proof that North Carolina is in the Sun Belt, take a look at numbers released this year by the solar energy industry’s trade association: North Carolina ranks No. 3 in the United States for solar power capacity installed in 2013, according to the Greensboro News & Record.

That strong growth is likely to continue, according to Duke Energy, as the company is making a big push to develop its solar energy network.

Duke Energy said on Dec. 19 that it has acquired a solar energy project in Rocky Mount to add to its rapidly growing network of solar panel farms.

In September, the utility said it will buy power from five other plants in the state and has signed 33 contracts to buy power from smaller solar generators.

Duke Energy said that it plans to spend $500 million to build power generation farms or buy power from solar producers in the coming years.

Duke Energy is also ready to build three sites in Bladen, Duplin and Wilson counties after receiving state approval in early December.

At 65 megawatts, the Duplin plant will be the largest solar generator east of the Mississippi River.

The expansions will add 278 megawatts of power capacity to Duke Energy’s system — a fraction of the company’s 22,000 megawatts generated in the Carolinas — but a step toward the state’s requirement that the company earn 12.5 percent of its sales from renewable energy or efficiency by 2021, according to a new report by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Read full story: The Greensboro News & Record