By Taft Wireback
A Greensboro church and a statewide activist group put themselves on a collision course with Duke Energy on Wednesday over the divisive issue of solar energy and who can sell the power it generates.
Faith Community Church and the advocacy group NC WARN unveiled a partnership in which the Durham-based nonprofit has installed solar panels on the African American congregation’s rooftop to produce electricity for sale to the church.
The arrangement between two not-for-profit entities could represent a new twist on North Carolina utility rules that generally reserve the right to sell electricity for public utilities such as Duke Energy.
But the partners believe their plan should pass muster legally, and they say it could provide some of the church’s power at a lower rate than it now pays Duke Energy.
“We see ourselves as a small church, but our mission is not small,” said the Rev. Nelson Johnson, the pastor of the Arlington Street church.
The church ultimately aims to make the benefits of non-polluting — and possibly cheaper — solar power more accessible to low-income and minority communities, Johnson said.
Pastors from other African American churches throughout the community attended the groups’ news conference Wednesday morning and said they share Johnson’s vision.
Later Wednesday, NC WARN filed a petition with the N.C. Utilities Commission seeking the supervisory board’s blessing on the new partnership. The group asked the commission for a “declaratory ruling” that the relationship is lawful.
Jim Warren, the executive director of NC WARN, said a favorable decision could be trendsetting and inspire similar partnerships statewide. He called the relationship with Faith Community Church a “test case” targeting the state’s solar policy, and he questioned Duke Energy’s hold on the sale of electricity.
“We believe the state needs competition, not monopoly control of rooftops,” said Warren, the longtime leader of the group that takes a populist approach to issues ranging from nuclear power to hazardous waste disposal.
Duke Energy plans to oppose the petition, arguing that allowing such arrangements on a large scale would erode the utility’s ability to function successfully and leave some consumers without a reliable source of power.