By Taft Wireback
The Rev. Nelson Johnson found it strange that in recent months, three different people approached him in his professional capacity about an issue that seemingly didn’t have much to do with religion.
They wanted to talk about solar energy.
“Their concern was for black people not to be exploited by the solar initiative,” said Johnson, the pastor of Faith Community Church on Arlington Street with a largely African American congregation. “It was the argument that solar was going to be rapidly developed by people who have the money to install solar.”
Other less-affluent folks, a group made up disproportionately of African Americans, would be part of a dwindling customer base left behind to pay much higher rates for power provided the old-fashioned way from a traditional utility, they argued.
Johnson didn’t see it that way, he said last week, especially after learning that at least one of his visitors was a consultant for Duke Energy.
Greensboro’s Faith Community Church and a North Carolina group that advocates for solar energy joined forces today to test state rules for the deployment and financing of such rooftop power systems.
And now his church is the middleman in a frontal assault on statewide rules that make it more difficult for homeowners, small businesses, churches and others to go solar.
It’s the latest chapter in a solar industry saga in which North Carolina soars above other states in many categories of solar deployment linked to large-scale commercial power projects, but paradoxically it lags in dispersing this burgeoning technology onto rooftops throughout its cities and rural areas.
The Arlington Street church’s sin against the established power grid stems from who it wants as a solar partner. Johnson and his congregation want to buy power directly from a nonprofit group that has installed a new, 5.2-kilowatt solar array on the church’s roof — in violation of state rules that only allow Duke Energy and other regulated utilities to sell electricity at retail rates.
No third-party sales
North Carolina remains one of a handful of states with such rules. And the congregation is joining with its nonprofit partner, the Durham-based NC WARN energy activist group, to challenge the rules because they make it harder for a people of limited means to afford rooftop solar arrays — individually owned solar units that usually serve houses and other smaller buildings.
The aim of such so-called third-party sales is to make solar installation easier on the pocketbook — the church’s new system cost about $20,000 — by allowing the buyer to pay for it over time by purchasing the power the solar system produces from the company that installed it.
The Greensboro case likely will unfold before the N.C. Utilities Commission during the next few months, Duke Energy plans on petitioning the Utilities Commission to invalidate the church’s purchase arrangement with NC WARN, company spokesman Randy Wheeless said.
Nevertheless, the utility will go ahead soon to activate the church’s new solar array near downtown Greensboro by connecting it to the statewide power grid with a special metering device, Wheeless said.
“We have an issue with something else, not the church,” Wheeless said.
NC WARN is pursuing the contract with the Greensboro church as a test case before the Utilities Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor. The activist group has said it will simply give the solar equipment to the local congregation if it ultimately loses its appeal. Duke Energy officials cited that as a factor last week in explaining why they are willing to connect the church’s solar array to the grid before the Utilities Commission rules.
Recent publicity at the national level suggested that utilities nationwide have embarked on a campaign to persuade lower-income minority groups that solar power is good for the well-heeled but bad for them, an effort supposedly underwritten at least partly by wealthy conservative activists Charles and David Koch. Duke Energy does not have any such organized effort underway to turn African American and other minority leaders against solar power, Wheeless said.
See companion article: ‘Freedom Act would allow third-party sales of solar power in N.C.’