By John Murawski
A Republican push to expand solar power in North Carolina may stand the best chance yet of ending a state ban that prevents independent energy developers from selling electricity directly to homeowners and businesses.
The Energy Freedom Act would inject a free-market alternative into the state’s strictly regulated utility market by letting independents compete for customers against utility monopolies such as Duke Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Progress.
If enacted, it would further propel North Carolina’s solar revolution, which has already catapulted the state to fourth place nationwide in total solar energy development. Last month 10 major corporations – including Volvo, Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Target and Macy’s – urged N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore to enact such a policy and let them buy power directly from third-party power suppliers.
Republicans have traditionally been wary of renewable energy, with many calling it a taxpayer-subsidized boondoggle. But in recent years solar costs have plummeted and solar expansion has exceeded expectations that would have seemed naive just a few years ago. On Tuesday the Rocky Mountain Institute issued a report predicting that by 2030 the traditional power grid could supply as little as 25 percent of the nation’s electricity as solar panels and storage systems take up the slack.
In North Carolina, lawmakers are also interested in helping domestic military bases achieve a Department of Defense goal of generating at least 25 percent of their power from renewable resources.
“I’m coming at this from a Republican viewpoint,” said Rep. John Szoka of Fayetteville, one of the four GOP sponsors of the House bill. “I believe in free markets and I believe in property rights. This allows property owners to use their property as they see fit.”
Charlotte-based Duke, the nation’s largest electric utility, has been lukewarm to the bill’s proposed financing concept, known as third-party leasing. Under such financing arrangements, an energy developer leases a private rooftop to install solar panels and sells the power directly to the property owner, bypassing the utility entirely.
The developer also supplies the upfront construction and equipment costs, so that the household or business simply locks in on a fixed monthly fee, not unlike a home mortgage.
The North Carolina bill was introduced three weeks ago and has not yet been heard in committee. But supporters are confident because it has Republican backing in a GOP-dominated legislature. The bill’s sponsors include two chairmen and a senior chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Four years ago a proposal to merely study the pros and cons of third-party leasing arrangements went nowhere.
“There was opposition from a lot of people,” recalled former Republican legislator Ruth Samuelson, now a philanthropic adviser in Charlotte. “We said, ‘Let’s give everyone some time to get used to this idea that is probably inevitable.’”