CARY, N.C. — Here’s a tip of the Skinny’s hat to SAS, Progress Energy and SunPower for their collective efforts to make a five-acre “solar farm” on the SAS campus a reality this week. Electricity generated from the thousands of SunPower solar panels that are tracking Sol is now part of the Progress grid.

Now the bad news. Watch out, consumers. Renewable energy is going to be delivered in a variety forms in the future under current state law. No doubt federal mandates will soon follow. But end users are going to pay higher rates.

“Just because it’s renewable doesn’t mean it’s cheap,” warns Progress spokesperson Mike Hughes.

While The Skinny doesn’t like to be a Grinch, the fact is that the growing movement to reduce reliance on traditional power sources, such as cheap and plentiful coal, will mean higher costs. The SAS plant is a perfect example.

The first solar project to become part of the Progress grid, it also is a private enterprise. Progress is paying SAS for the power. Neither company will disclose the price, but Hughes acknowledged Progress is paying a premium for the sun juice that is enough for about 100 homes – when Sol shines.

And as Progress pays more for power, so do the common folk.

Remember when electric and natural gas rates surged this summer as overall energy costs spiked? Just as gas hit $4 a gallon, it appeared our utility bills would increase 30 percent this winter. And renewable energy supporters such as Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman said the time was right to impose a “carbon tax” to keep energy costs high to encourage change.

Carbon offsets, solar, wind, biomass and other alternatives might be good for the environment, but $4 gas and spiraling home utility bills wrecked the economy.

Media and government folks are transfixed on real estate and Wall Street as being the prime reasons why the economy has tanked. Overlooked now, but certainly not forgotten by consumers, is the fact out-of-control energy costs did a lot more harm to millions of family budgets here and abroad than did home foreclosures and Wall Street graft.

Thanks to the global economic turmoil, prices for energy have plunged. Our winter heating bills won’t be as high as forecast, and gas is cheaper than it has been in years. However, the damage has been done.

Consumers remain shell-shocked. Who will ever again spend $50,000 on an SUV when fear persists that gas will skyrocket once more? And look at the mayhem in Detroit. GM’s finances are so bad that it has delayed plans for a new factory to build its battery-powered Volt – supposedly its salvation product.

As technology for renewable energy improves and installations such as the SAS farm become more common, perhaps the cost of “green” power will come down. Let’s hope so.

Sustainable energy is here to stay. The question remains: can we afford it? The environmentalists say we must for the good of the planet. But what good is a planet without lights you can afford to turn on – or vehicles you can’t afford to drive?

Let’s pray we find a balance that’s good for all.