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Editorial: NC WARN is right in its solar power lawsuit against Duke Energy

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NC WARN’s 5.25-kilowatt solar system on the roof of Faith Community Church (Photo: NC WARN)

Last week, a split state Court of Appeals panel ruled in favor of Duke Energy and against the consumer watchdog group NC WARN [2] in a dispute over whether it could generate solar power from panels it had installed on a Greensboro church roof.

This morning’s lead editorial in the Greensboro News & Record [3] does a good job of explaining why NC WARN shouldn’t give up in its quest to promote widely distributed third party electric generation and sales. This from the editorial:

“Durham nonprofit NC WARN, which promotes clean energy, installed solar panels on the roof of Faith Community Church and sold the electricity generated to the church for the bargain price of 5 cents per kilowatt/hour. Duke Energy contended the arrangement encroaches on its monopoly as a regulated utility.

The N.C. Utilities Commission agreed, and in a 2-1 decision Tuesday, so did the N.C. Court of Appeals. But the dissenting opinion, written by Judge Chris Dillon, justifies a further appeal to the N.C. Supreme Court. A different outcome there is certainly possible.

This case presents new circumstances in North Carolina and can address the legal questions arising from small, off-the-grid renewable energy developments.

State law was written for the era of big energy plants. Does it allow for small-scale projects like the one on the roof of Faith Community Church? If not, shouldn’t it be updated?….

Competition is the hallmark of the free-enterprise system, but state law protects utilities such as Duke Energy, which is granted a monopoly in the Greensboro area and much of North Carolina. In return, it is required to serve all customers and to submit to regulation by the N.C. Utilities Commission, which sets the rates it can charge.

While NC WARN took just a tiny slice from Duke’s sales, one solar installation can lead to many more….

There would have been no case at all if the church had installed its own solar panels to create electricity for its own use. The violation, according to the Utilities Commission, came from the sale by NC WARN of electricity it generated. No one found any fault on the church’s part.

Duke Energy welcomed the majority opinion, while NC WARN embraced Dillon’s view. The split decision grants an automatic right of appeal to the Supreme Court, and NC WARN should pursue its claim there for a definitive ruling.

In the meantime, the legislature should consider whether it means to bar arrangements such as this. When a public utility invests billions of dollars in big power plants to meet the energy demands of millions of customers, granting regional monopolies makes sense. But when small solar arrays can supply homes or businesses with electricity, perhaps the law should make room for such providers.

Duke Energy is a public utility. If NC WARN meets the same definition under the law as Duke by supplying electricity for a single church, the law may have made a mistake.”

Click here [3] to read the entire editorial.