Duke Energy threatens to cast a shadow on North Carolina's growing solar industry

Renewable energy industries including solar and wind are alive and well in North Carolina. Thanks in part to important policies such as the state renewable portfolio standard over 18,000 of my fellow North Carolinians have jobs working towards improving our air and water quality and building a strong clean energy economy. At least 1,400 jobs are accounted for from the solar industry alone.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Duke Energy is threatening to cast a long and wide shadow on North Carolina’s growing solar industry by upending a successful policy known as net metering that is helping homeowners and businesses save money on their utility bills by going solar. To counter this attack, groups gathered Monday morning outside Duke Energy headquarters in Charlotte to protest the company’s efforts to reduce the amount it pays for solar energy in North Carolina.  Duke is attempting to reduce the amount it pays homeowners almost in half, from 10 – 11 cents (the amount households currently pay for electricity) to 5 to 7 cents per kilowatt hour.  The company is also questioning the value of solar energy in general and that of the policies that have spurred the recent growth of the clean energy economy in the state.

Photo link: http://cleanenergyworksforus.org/renewables/solar-energy/  Caption: North Carolina stands out as the clear solar leader in the South

Specifically, Duke Energy has gone on the offensive against rooftop solar in North Carolina.  Duke Energy CEO, Lynn Good, spoke to reporters last week about clean and renewable energy generation within her company's generation fleet. She zeroed in on two aspects of solar generation that, despite constituting less than one percent of Duke Energy’s electricity supply, seems to be giving the utility fits.

First, solar's inherent "intermittency." We prefer the term variability, which conveys the fact that utilities deal with fluctuations every second, regardless of whether it's from demand shifting or over/under provisioning of generation. Solar variability is forecast-able. And we know that it won't be available when it's dark outside. Unfortunately for Duke Energy, they don’t have the same insights and tools for predicting the equipment failures from the large suite of aging fossil and nuclear plants in their portfolio.

Solar, in its distributed rooftop form, is able to produce electricity where and when it’s needed – chiefly during the most-expensive, hot peak demand days (to run all the air conditioners) from a wide diversity of systems (adding to grid reliability) all the while NOT contributing emissions that are bad for your health or warming the planet. More distributed solar ultimately means less power from polluting coal power plants, utility savings on expensive distribution and transmission upgrades and better air quality.  We should be thanking our neighbors for installing solar on their roofs, keeping our air clean and providing some additional clean electrons to the neighborhood.

Pic Link: http://www.rmi.org/Content/Files/eLab-DER_cost_value_Deck_130722.pdf  Caption: Rocky Mountain Institute (2013) e-Lab: A Review of Solar PV Benefit and Cost Studies

A recent study from the Union of Concerned Scientists showed that North Carolina sent $1.8 billion dollars out of state to purchase coal. That was the second highest total amount among all states, trailing only Texas which sent a $1.85 out of the state to purchase coal.  Duke Energy was responsible for $1.7 out of the $1.8 billion dollars that left our state’s economy.  Those are dollars that could be invested in renewable energy like solar and energy efficiency in our state, creating good jobs that can’t be outsourced.


Pic Link: http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/clean_energy/Burning-Coal-Burning-Cash-2014-Update-National-Findings.pdf   Caption: Where North Carolina’s $1.8 billion goes to purchase coal

Finally, Ms. Good says that rooftop solar is not being adopted by low or fixed-income customers. Ms. Good should release more data (while maintaining customer privacy) to back up her assertion. My hunch is that net metering is being adopted by a wide variety of families and local businesses thanks to stable and fair net metering policy that folks can depend on. These solar families and businesses are benefiting all of us, and more to the point, all of Duke Energy's customers, by opening a new pathway for private capital to invest in North Carolina solar businesses. Every new solar rooftop means that much less imported coal, oil and gas we have to pay someone else in another state or country to run our economy.

Now it doesn't mean that we think net metering is the only policy pathway we need to grow renewable energy resources like solar in our great state. The solar industry, along with families and businesses going solar, need a reliable and fair net metering policy to continue to grow. It will ultimately keep North Carolina’s energy dollars local and continue to move our great state towards true energy independence with cleaner air and water included. Rather than clinging desperately to the old centralized model for electricity and holding North Carolina back, Duke should be figuring out how to speed the deployment of solar and make itself part of our state’s future.