By Taft Wireback
Several proposed changes in solar energy law await action in the General Assembly’s current session, including the Energy Freedom Act, which could make Faith Community Church’s challenge to the status quo unnecessary.
The Greensboro church has joined with NC WARN, an energy activist group, to challenge a rule enforced by the N.C. Utilities Commission that prevents solar companies from selling the power generated by their equipment to the people who buy or lease equipment from them.
The proposed Freedom Act specifically exempts from commission oversight such “third-party sales of electricity from on-site renewable energy facilities” or, in other words, a solar array positioned on top of a homeowner’s house. If it becomes law, it would legalize the solar partnership between NC WARN and the Greensboro church without the need for commission approval of the local plan, which is aimed at trailblazing a method of financing that could make solar-energy system affordable for more people.
The bill was introduced in March to much fanfare by state Rep. John Szoka (R-Cumberland), but it has been bottled up in committee since passing its first reading in the N.C. House of Representatives shortly after.
Szoka said he is still optimistic the bill could become law this session. He said its continued consignment to the House Committee on Public Utilities stems from some members confusing it with another bill that would alter the percentage of retail electricity that Duke Energy must generate from solar and other renewable sources.
“Quite frankly, it’s taken me longer than I thought it would to educate certain other lawmakers about why we need this,” said Szoka, a retired U.S. Army colonel who believes developing solar energy to its full potential is vital to national security.
His bill already has brought together an unusual coalition of supporters from different political stripes, including four sponsors from Guilford County: Democratic Reps. Ralph Johnson and Pricey Harrison and Republican Reps. John Faircloth and Jon Hardister.
Hardister said he questions Duke Energy’s argument that third-party sales could threaten the long-term viability of the power grid that the utility maintains to serve all residents.
Hardister said his distaste for government economic controls also underlies his support for Szoka’s bill.
“I’m not a great fan of government mandates telling people where they have to buy their electricity,” he said. “So I think something like the Energy Freedom Act is a perfect opportunity to allow the free market, consumer demand and environmental protection to all work together.”
Harrison supports the measure based on her background as an environmentalist who wants to reduce the use of fossil fuels that run most large-scale power plants.
She said she isn’t sure whether supporters can push it through against entrenched opposition from Duke Energy: “They are definitely fighting the third-party sales. They’ve been fighting that hard, tooth and nail.”
See the companion article: ‘Red tape preventing Greensboro church from getting solar energy‘