North Carolina put more solar power online last year than any state other than California. But companies or homeowners wanting to put solar panels on their roofs face major restrictions. State lawmakers have introduced a bill to change that. It’s drawing opposition from Duke Energy, but also dividing solar advocates.
The cost of solar energy has dropped so fast in the past few years that it’s becoming competitive with other, traditional energy sources; and rooftop solar has grown from novelty to industry.
Renee Rallos, WFAE’s director of communications, bought an installation in October. They’re a quick, unsafe ladder climb from her backyard.
Twelve panels cover about half the roof, facing south to catch as much sun as possible. They glint, purplish, under a thick layer of sturdy glass on this clear, sunny day.
“They are rated for 100 mile per hour winds,” Rallos says. “There’s no moving parts, which is why you can’t hear anything.”
The solar energy powers Rallos’s house when the sun’s out—at night, she relies on the grid. But to get rooftop solar in North Carolina, Rallos had to buy the panels outright, at a cost of about $11,000. Federal and state tax credits will cut that by two-thirds. The rest, Rallos expects to recoup over time.
“It will take me about six years to make my money back,” Rallos says. “In the meantime, I’m using about half the electricity that I would have purchased from Duke Energy on a day like today.”
Still, that’s a hefty cost. A bill in the North Carolina House of Representatives would create two other options. Instead of selling the panels, companies could rent them to customers or simply sell the energy they produce—like a second mini-utility on your roof.
In states where those are already allowed, they’re the most popular options for rooftop solar. The North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association supports the bill, and Jim Warren of environmental group NC Warn calls it a sign of progress.
“Rooftop solar is being recognized across the U.S. as the wave of the future,” says Warren.
It has the backing of influential House lawmakers, including the head of the House Appropriations Committee, and major corporations, such as Walmart, Target, Macy’s, and Volvo—a carmaker North Carolina officials are hoping to woo to the state.
The bill’s sponsor, Representative John Szoka, a Cumberland County Republican, represents Fort Bragg. At first, he says he planned the bill to focus on military bases, which have a mandate to use 25 percent renewable power by 2025. And, he intended to introduce it last session.
“Duke and others asked us not to push too hard; that they were working on renewables, so we kind of backed off on that,” Szoka says. “But, we came back this year, and they didn’t have the progress that I had hoped for, and I didn’t see that in the cards, so we went ahead and started this bill.”
Szoka says the bill grew as he saw more places that could use rooftop solar power: government buildings, universities, and then private companies.
Duke is lobbying against it. Rooftop solar is a micro-fraction of the nation’s energy-make-up, but it presents some long-term threats to utilities. After all, every house using solar power uses less from the grid. Duke spokesman Randy Wheeless says that’s not why the company opposes the bill.
“We think a better idea is a comprehensive approach to solar,” Wheeless says. “There are a lot of solar issues in the state. They’re kind of interconnected, so you could solve one problem, create two others.”
Wheeless points to a rooftop solar agreement Duke supported in South Carolina. It allows leases, but solar companies can’t sell their energy like a utility. It also lets Duke compete by developing its own rooftop solar offering—although the company hasn’t yet done so. The North Carolina bill does not have that language.
So, Duke opposes the bill. But, so do some in the solar industry.
“Duke wins either way, that’s the headline from this bill,” says Bryan Miller, a chairman of the Alliance for Solar Choice, and a vice president of one of the largest rooftop solar companies, SunRun.
To understand Miller’s complaint, go back to Rallos’ backyard rooftop solar panels. She expects they will eventually pay for themselves, not just because of the energy she saves from the grid, but also because of what she makes as a seller to it.
“If I’m not using all the energy I’m producing, I’m selling it back to Duke,” Rallos explains.
Duke essentially pays Rallos the same rate as what it would charge her for energy. This is called net-metering, and it’s common around the country. Also common, utilities are lobbying regulators to scrap it. They argue net-metering is unfair, since it requires paying customers the full retail rate of energy, which they’d otherwise buy wholesale. Miller says he thinks Duke successfully lobbied a provision into the North Carolina bill, to bring that fight to the state.
“They’ve stuck a poison pill in it to make sure that if it does pass, it won’t do anything to create solar,” says Miller. “And we’ve seen utilities across the country employ this same strategy.”
More than 20 different commissions or legislatures are currently discussing changing their net-metering rates, according to solar research firm GTM Research.
The provision in question just says the state commission that determines power rates should investigate the actual costs or benefits of rooftop solar, and charge accordingly. But solar advocates believe the commission and Duke are so cozy, it’s a foregone conclusion the rate will be punitive, to the point where Miller thinks it’s worth scrapping the entire bill.
NC WARN’s Jim Warren advocates a different strategy from Miller.
“The overall Energy Freedom Act is strong and we need to pass it,” says Warren. “And then deal with the question of whether the people of North Carolina will allow Duke and the regulators to put a big tax on rooftop solar power.”
The bill’s sponsor, Representative Szoka says that’s not the intent.
“That is absolutely not true,” says Szoka. “Duke did not see this bill, until I showed it to them in its current form. And I think they would laugh at whoever said that. That was all my wording.”
Szoka says he’s willing to work on the language. But the backlash to the bill, both from Duke and proponents of solar energy, dims the prospects for this long-time priority of the solar industry.