There’s good news for alternative energy and northeastern North Carolina in the announcement that Duke Energy Renewables will build a massive solar energy project in Pasquotank County. But this sunny story also casts a shadow.
First, the sunny part. A 20-megawatt site will be built this year and two other solar sites are planned for the same area in 2015. The completed project will spread solar panels over more than 500 acres and generate electricity equal to the annual use of 8,200 homes. Building the project will create hundreds of jobs in a county that sorely needs them.
The project gives a major boost to North Carolina’s thriving solar industry. The state is now fourth is the nation in installed solar energy behind California, Arizona and New Jersey.
But the advance is clouded by the policies of Duke Energy Renewables’ parent company, Duke Energy. While the subsidiary is pushing solar power forward, critics say the utility is inhibiting solar power in North Carolina. The utility, for instance, wants to reduce payments to customers who sell back their excess electricity from solar panels. The utility also guards its monopoly status in the state which cramps the market for companies that want to sell solar power directly to customers.
In the case of the new project, the electricity will be sold to District of Columbia customers, George Washington University, American University and George Washington University Hospital. Under current state law, it can’t be sold to North Carolina customers, such as N.C. State University and WakeMed. They are required to buy from Duke Energy.
Jim Warren, head of NC Warn, a Durham-based non-profit that advocates for a swift change to renewable energy, said the Duke Energy Renewables project shows there is a demand for solar power, but North Carolina isn’t getting full access to it.
“It’s tragic that (Duke Energy) continues to leave their home state monopoly customers out of the solar business,” he said.
Randy Wheeless, a Duke Energy spokesman, said the utility already promotes solar energy through energy it buys from solar generators, and it is now accepting bids on a 300-megawatt solar project.
But the issue isn’t that Duke Energy isn’t doing anything to promote solar power. The issue is that it’s not doing enough. Clearly it has an interest in protecting its monopoly and rates based on power plants that are largely powered by fossil fuels. But given the change in energy sources and the climate, the nation’s largest utility needs to do more to supply renewable energy to its home state.