State utility regulators ruled last week that a Durham nonprofit cannot install solar panels on a church, then charge for the electricity. It wasn’t a surprise - state law says only regulated utilities can do that. WFAE's Mark Rumsey talked to environmental reporter David Boraks about the case.
MR: So why did this group do this?
DB: North Carolina is one of only a few states that bans anyone other than regulated utilities - like Duke Energy - from selling electricity. A group called NC WARN wants to change that. A General Assembly bill got stuck in committee last year, so they tried another approach.
They installed solar panels on the roof at a church in Greensboro. The church wanted to go solar to help the environment and save money.
The problem is, a solar installation costs tens of thousands of dollars. And the church couldn’t afford the upfront cost.
So NC WARN did the work for them. The group still owns the panels and it’s paying for them by selling the electricity to the church.
MR: How did regulators find out about it?
DB: NC WARN actually told them. On the day the solar panels were finished, they asked the state Utilities Commission to declare what they’re doing was legal. Here’s NC WARN Executive Director Jim Warren:
We said we want to push this from the regulatory level, and create a test case to require the regulators, the utilities commission, to take a look at it.
But regulators didn’t buy it. They ruled against the group and issued a fine of $200 for every day the sales continue - about $60,000 as of last Friday, when the ruling came out.
MR: What does it mean for solar power in the state?
DB: The practical effect: Regulated monopolies still rule in North Carolina. Not even nonprofits have the right to sell to other nonprofits, as NC WARN argued.
That doesn’t mean you can’t put solar panels on your roof. A growing number of homeowners and businesses do it, using what’s called “net metering.” They’re connected to the electric grid and get credits on their bills for extra power they generate. But you still can’t buy solar power from a third party like NC WARN.
MR. So is there any chance North Carolina will allow these third party solar sales?
DB: NC WARN hopes so. They’ll take it to the state Appeals Court. Warren says courts have changed the law in other states.
Read the N.C. Utilities Commission order at NCUC.net