Environmental and community advocates protested Monday what they call an attack on solar energy by Duke Energy.
Duke executives have said recently that the utility pays customers too much for the surplus electricity residential roof-top solar arrays generate.
Greenpeace and other groups claim it’s an attempt by the nation’s largest utility to protect its monopoly by squelching solar power. They say it’s part of a growing number of battles over solar pricing in other states.
“Solar energy is cleaner energy for everybody,” Greenpeace organizer Monica Embrey said at a news conference outside the Duke Energy Center. “Duke should join its customers and the 20th century and stop blocking the sun.”
About 1,300 N.C. homes have rooftop solar arrays. Embrey predicted that lower prices for that energy would devastate the state’s solar industry, which last year ranked second-largest in the nation, mostly because of commercial-scale installations.
Duke pays solar customers the average residential retail cost of electricity, about 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, under a net-metering standard that is about a decade old. It wants to pay them closer to what it pays for electricity generated by large-scale solar farms, about 5 to 7 cents.
“Over the last few years solar has definitely grown tremendously in North Carolina,” said spokesman Randy Wheeless. “But with that comes a realization that we need to reassess that technology and rules to make sure they reflect what’s happening today.”
Duke maintains that paying higher rate to residential solar customers, who rely on the electric grid only part of the time, essentially forces consumers without solar to bear the full costs of power plants and transmission lines.
Wheeless said it isn’t clear when Duke would bring the issue before the N.C. Utilities Commission.
Rev. Kojo Nantambu, president of the Charlotte NAACP, said dropping the price paid for solar electricity will block the technology from benefiting poor communities. Programs to offer low-interest loans for solar panels are operating in three N.C. cities and will be launched in Charlotte this year.
Nantambu noted that Duke Energy Carolinas, which serves Charlotte, has raised rates three times since 2009 to pay for conventional power plants. “How hypocritical can you be?” he said at the news conference.
Charlotte City Council member John Autry added that if consumers and companies like Duke can’t find common ground “then we’ve got some serious issues.”
Similar changes have been debated in Arizona, Colorado and California, Embrey said. She said the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which produces model legislation, is behind those conflicts.
Duke buys about 300 megawatts of solar capacity in North Carolina, Wheeless said, and owns another 10 megawatts in rooftop solar projects. Duke Energy Renewables, an unregulated business, has 12 N.C. solar farms with a total capacity of nearly 60 megawatts.