Church fights Duke Energy for 3rd party solar energy

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Solar panels on top of Faith Community Church in Greensboro (WTVD)

At Faith Community Church, there's a sense that they're living the story of David and Goliath because the small church in Greensboro is going up against Duke Energy.

"We're doing it for a lot of reasons," said Rev. Nelson Johnson, pastor at Faith Community Church. "I thought it would be a wonderful thing to get a lower cost of energy and reduce the carbon footprint, and thereby be consistent as good stewards of the Earth."

Earlier this year, Johnson teamed up with the environmental advocacy group NC WARN to install solar panels on the church's roof.

NC WARN paid for them and is selling back the power to the church for half of what Duke Energy was charging.

"It just makes sense," said Johnson. "It makes common sense. It makes theological sense. It makes environmental sense and economic sense."

But it may be against state law. North Carolina is one of four states that doesn't allow 'third party sales' of solar energy. Only regulated utilities can sell power and Duke has questioned whether NC WARN is breaking the law.

"We're arguing that it does not break the law," said NC WARN head Jim Warren. "This is a test case to try to really leverage a more open solar power industry in the state at the rooftop scale."

"The sun is up there," Rev. Johnson said. "It comes down on this roof. The solar panels are up there, they connect to a box over there, and they turn my lights on and work our machines. I see no reason to restrict that based on making the rich already richer."

Both Johnson and Warren firmly believes Duke Energy is trying to thwart policies or legislation that would enable third party sales.

"It was very important to Duke to not allow third party financing to come in, because that's the camel nose under the tent chipping away at that monopoly control."
And, in fact, Duke Energy spokesperson Jeff Brooks acknowledges the company did opposed a bill that would have done just that earlier this year.

"One of the challenges of third party sales is these third party organizations," said Brooks. "They look like utilities but they're not really utilities regulated under the model that we operate."

Brooks said the company isn't opposed to third party sales in principle but says the model doesn't always put consumers' best interests first.
"We've seen time and time again in states that do have third party sales, where customers are trapped in these 20-plus year contracts and don't have a recourse for being able to get out of them because it's not a regulated industry," he said.

Brooks said Duke Energy would consider third party sales as part of a broader, holistic set of reforms but wouldn't want them as a stand-alone policy.

"We believe that a holistic approach that involves stakeholder groups of all these interested parties coming together and looking at this entire issue is more productive than trying to address it through one-off activities here and there," Brooks said.

"When you begin to inject one-off solutions, it often has the side effect of affecting other customers' rates or reliability issues for the company, and we can't do that for our customers."

The debate is likely to be re-ignited next year.

NC House Representative John Szoka introduced the bill that failed to pass last year, the Energy Freedom bill, and says he'll put it back on the agenda when lawmakers return to Raleigh.

But where Szoka's bill has support from a cadre of companies, including Walmart, Google, and Apple, he's more interested in what it means for the North Carolina's military bases.

"They have a real interest in reducing their energy costs," Szoka said.

According to Szoka, the Department of Defense is the single largest energy consumer in the world, spending $18 billion annually on power.

He said in 2007, under President Bush, the military set a goal to use 25% renewable energy by 2025, but state law gets in the way of North Carolina military bases achieving that goal because they can't outsource solar generation to third parties.

"We're putting North Carolina's bases at a disadvantage if we don't authorize third party sales, at least for military installations," Szoka says. He adds that it could jeopardize military bases in the state during the next round of Base Realignment Closures (BRAC).

"You have to challenge the law in order for it to be changed," said Rev. Johnson. "And there's every good reason for it to be changed. At the end of the day people outweigh money. It's the people who have to come together and say, 'This is absurd.'"

From a seat near the pulpit of his small church, Johnson sees the issue in plain terms.

"Why wouldn't they want us to pay less than half?" he asked. "Why wouldn't they want us to participate in environmentally safe energy? Why wouldn't they want that to spread from churches to homes and neighborhoods? Most ordinary people would want that. Who would not want it? Whoever is making a lot of money out of doing it the other way. That's the only conclusion you can come to on that."

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