By any measure, the solar array on the roof of the Faith Community Church in Greensboro is small. A little more than five kilowatts. It’s barely enough to run the building’s central air conditioning for one hour a day.
But the impact of the installation could have significant legal implications. And as Reverend Nelson Johnson said at the ribbon-cutting back in June, it also – in his opinion – has moral and religious ramifications.
“We don’t think that a monopoly named Duke has entitlement, inherent entitlement, to ground the sun’s energy that’s given and filter it through a money-making mechanism that leaves some people on the sidelines and in the ditches of debt, because they cannot pay their bills,” said Nelson.
The church, it turns out, did not pay to install the solar panels, like a homeowner would. Instead, NC Warn, an advocacy group, paid for the panels and is selling electricity back to the church at about half the rate Duke Energy charges.
It’s called third-party sales, and it’s illegal in just four states in the country: North Carolina, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Florida.
Jim Warren, the executive director of NC Warn, says he and others simply got fed up with that reality, and came up with this plan: “Why don’t we just go ahead and do a solar installation as a third-party arrangement and use it as a test case and find out if the regulators or the courts will clarify this, if the legislature doesn’t do it first.”
North Carolina is a regulated monopoly. That means, for most customers, Duke Energy is legally bound to be the sole provider of electricity. For the right to serve as a monopoly, the company must be regulated by the state’s utilities commission.
“Actually, the state law seems clear to us,” said Randy Wheeless, a spokesman for Duke Energy. “Third-party sales are not allowed in North Carolina. This protects a lot of people. It prevents Duke Energy from trying to take a customer from a municipal utility or an electric co-op. So the laws have been in place and have actually worked pretty well, considering the electric rates for Duke Energy are about 20-percent below the national average.”
Wheeless says that matters especially to low-income customers. Another argument made by Duke Energy and others is that as wealthier homeowners install solar panels and go off the grid, the cost of maintaining that grid, in the form of higher rates, will fall to those least able to pay.
Warren argues that third-party sales is a better solution to that problem.
“We don’t want solar to be something that’s just available to people with means,” he said. “This needs to be democratized and spread across the economic spectrum. And third-party financing helps moves us in that direction.”
Reverend Johnson takes it one step further. He says solar is a civil rights issue.
“Because the Civil Rights Movement was about the dignity and the worth and the enormous unrealized potential of all of god’s children, and this is the very same thing,” said Nelson.
Wheeless says it’s more of a business issue than a civil rights cause.
“Obviously, there’s money to be made in solar power,” he said. “We’re building four solar farms in North Carolina right now. A number of solar developers are building as well. And what we need to do is to have a firm grasp of what the rules and regulations of solar power should be in North Carolina in the future.”
Wheeless says the company hopes to work out those future rules through the General Assembly – something that is unlikely to happen in the current session.
That will likely leave it to the State Utilities Commission. It is expected to take up the case of Faith Community Church – and its illegal solar panels – at some point in the next few months.