A congregation and an environmental group in North Carolina got in hot water after installing solar power panels on the rooftop of the church to provide solar power at rates lower than those charged by the local public utility.
The church paid a local environmental group about $20,000 to install a solar array on the roof of its red brick church building in Greensboro before enjoying the benefits of renewable energy from the sun at a bargain price.
Then, state utility regulators moved in and quashed the Cleantech initiative, saying the action was illegal. That was in 2016.
In May 2018, after two years of wrangling with the Tar Heel State’s notoriously dominant power provider Duke Energy Corporation, the mostly-black church and the North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network (NC WARN) lost their ultimate appeal for justice to the North Carolina Supreme Court.
The justices had heard oral arguments four weeks before. When they reconvened, they issued their opinion in a single word: No.
The highest court in the Great State of North Carolina offered no further explanation for their quick decision than had been affirmed the majority decision on a Court of Appeals panel in 2017.
The lower-court opinion agreed with a 2016 order by the North Carolina Utilities Commission that NC WARN was operating as a “public utility” and therefore subject to its regulation. The Cleantech power provider was infringing on Duke Energy’s utility monopolies, which are sanctioned by the state government.
After the state utility regulators ruled for Duke Energy and against NC WARN, the clean-energy advocacy organization responded by filing – and losing – a lawsuit to defend their right to generate solar power independently of the grid. The clean energy challengers to Duke’s supremacy lost all subsequent appeals in the lower courts, as well.
Calling their legal battle a two-year Solar Freedom test case, NC WARN <https://www.ncwarn.org/2018/05/nc-supreme-court-ruling/> stated</a>:
“It’s very unfortunate that Duke Energy remains able to protect its monopoly against clean competition and to keep stifling the growth of cheaper solar power across North Carolina.”
The clean, DIY energy advocates criticized “Duke’s ongoing, massive expansion of climate-wrecking fracked natural gas while it does the bare minimum in renewable energy.”
Speaking for Duke Energy, Randy Wheeless said the country’s second-biggest electricity company “was confident that the original decision by the North Carolina Utilities Commission was absolutely correct,” and added:
“We are pleased with the swift decision by the N.C. Supreme Court.”
Jim Warren, the CEO of NC WARN, understandably took the opposing view regarding energy alternatives:
“Duke Energy’s business policy is to continue doing the bare minimum.”
The North Caroline utility commission ordered NC WARN to refund its charges to Faith Community Church plus a fine of $200 for each day electric service was provided by the defendants. The panel said all penalties would be waived partially if they shuttered their utility business.
Warren said NC WARN expected the penalties – totaling almost $60,000 – would be set aside.
The Smart Electric Power Alliance reported that operating subsidiary Duke Energy Progress, which delivers electricity to the eastern portion of North Carolina, took fourth place in a ranking of national electric utilities for adding solar power and storage units in 2017.
Official filings with state regulators show that Duke Energy plans to reach a scant 7 percent renewable energy sources to supply the state over the next 15 years.
Historically, the southeastern states in the U.S. have lived with government-approved utility monopolies that have been slow to embrace unconventional energy sources. This unwillingness to capitalize alternatives is depriving many homeowners in sunny locales the opportunity to create their own clean energy from rooftop solar panels.
The utilities counter by claiming that electricity generated by customers or sold by third-party providers would overturn their business model as fewer customers would have to pay higher power costs to cover operating expenses.
North Carolina law <https://energync.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/NC_Solar_Consumer_GuidevWeb2.pdf> states</a> that “no ordinance, deed restriction, or homeowners’ association bylaw can prohibit the installation of solar panels.”
There are exceptions, though:
“However, current law does allow for restrictions, such as those contained in HOA bylaws, on solar panel installations that can be visible to a person in public access or common areas.”
Duke Energy can reasonably expect to face future legal challenges to its monopolistic stranglehold on North Carolina’s energy industry as eco-friendly opponents continue their unrelenting march toward a carbonless future.
How long the Duke will be able to stem the tide of public opinion is anybody’s guess but the situation appears to be boiling over.