A partnership between a predominately Black church and an environmental group in North Carolina aiming to provide solar power lost its appeal to the state’s highest court after an ongoing battle. The case speaks to the setbacks environmental advocates and proponents of renewable energy have faced in their efforts to promote small-scale sustainable power in the South.
On Friday, the North Carolina Supreme Court rejected a challenge brought by the North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network (NC WARN), a clean-energy advocacy group attempting to challenge the monopoly held by Duke Energy Corp.
In a one-word opinion, the court ruled that regulators were within their rights when they decided NC WARN broke electric-service rules in the state in selling cheap and clean power to the Faith Community Church in Greensboro. Duke Energy has a government-sanctioned monopoly and argued such efforts threatened the corporation.
NC WARN criticized the decision and lamented the blow to cheap small-scale solar power in the state.
“It’s very unfortunate that Duke Energy remains able to protect its monopoly against clean competition and to keep stifling the growth of cheaper solar power across North Carolina,” NC WARN said in a statement released following the decision.
“In an age of accelerating climate crisis, state officials, the public, the news media and civic leaders all must finally begin to demand a clear and open dialogue about Duke’s ongoing, massive expansion of climate-wrecking fracked natural gas while it does the bare minimum in renewable energy,” the organization said.
NC WARN went on to note that Duke Energy, one of the country’s biggest utilities companies, plans to “reach only 7 percent renewables over the next 15 years” — a shortcoming the clean-energy group says has been overlooked by state regulators thanks to a “successful greenwashing campaign”.
A spokesman for Duke Energy, Randy Wheeless, said the corporation welcomed the news. “We are pleased with the swift decision by the N.C. Supreme Court,” said Wheeless.
In 2016, NC WARN was originally fined $60,000 in the lower court by the North Carolina Utilities Commission — this represents a $200 fine for each day of electric service, meant to be paid to the church. The Supreme Court decision upholds that ruling but the energy organization has indicated they believe that penalty will be set aside.
Solar proponents face an uphill battle throughout the Southeast, where efforts to break through the monopolies held by energy companies have proven particularly challenging. Nine states currently ban or restrict third-party power purchase agreements for solar. Of those, four are Southeastern: North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, and Florida. West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Kansas, the other states impacted, are all Southern or border the region.
As a sun-drenched, warm region, the Southeast offers a seemingly ideal environment for solar power. But in states like North Carolina, energy sales are reserved for utility companies. North Carolina is technically second nationally after California when it comes to total solar power generation, but only 17th in small-scale generation.
Charlotte-based Duke Energy currently serves millions of people in the Carolinas, Indiana, Florida, Kentucky, and Ohio, with no real challengers. Much of North Carolina’s solar power is sold by large farms to Duke, which resells that energy.
The Smart Electric Power Alliance ranked Duke fourth nationally among utility companies adding solar power and storage in 2017. Earlier this year, in April, Duke announced that customers can begin signing up this summer for rebates helping with the cost of installing solar panels, a move that came in light of statewide legislation supporting solar energy last year.
But that trend still doesn’t change the energy power structure — something groups like NC WARN want to challenge. Proponents of small-scale solar power want to expand the options available to customers throughout the region.
The effort, and subsequent legal battle, began three years ago when NC WARN paid $20,000 to install solar panels on the roof of the Faith Community Church. The organization then charged the church 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, selling the community clean solar power in the sunny state. That price is notably lower than the equivalent offered by Duke Energy, which charges 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to Inside Climate News, an intentional difference meant to gauge whether regulators would allow NC WARN’s efforts to continue.
Rev. Nelson Johnson, the church’s pastor, supported the act as an environmental justice endeavor. “Out of our faith tradition, when you fight the good fight, that itself is a (way of) winning,” he said.
In 2016, a court sided with the North Carolina Utilities Commission, which argued that NC WARN was acting as a “public utility” and threatening Duke Energy’s monopoly in the process. During that case, NC WARN stopped charging the church for the power and the system itself will likely be donated to that community. The organization challenged the decision, resulting in Friday’s ruling from the state’s highest court.
Despite the setback, NC WARN indicated the organization intends to keep fighting Duke Energy and working to expand solar options in the state. Elsewhere in the country, solar opportunities are becoming more readily available. Last week, California issued a new requirement mandating that all new homes incorporate solar power. The requirement is the first of its kind in the United States.