By John Murawski
Durham environmental advocacy group NC WARN is asking the state appeals court to break Duke Energy’s longstanding monopoly on electricity sales in the state by letting NC WARN resume selling solar-generated power directly to a Greensboro church.
NC WARN is asking the N.C. Court of Appeals to do what the N.C. Utilities Commission refused to do in April when it slapped NC WARN with a $200-a-day fine totaling $60,000. The Utilities Commission agreed with Charlotte-based Duke that state law does not allow NC WARN or other “third parties” to compete for electricity customers against monopoly utilities.
NCWARN has until Jan. 3 to submit its legal filings to the appellate court; oral arguments are expected sometime next year. A lot is riding on the case, which could open up North Carolina’s power market to private solar developers selling electricity directly to homeowners and businesses if NC WARN prevails.
NC WARN director Jim Warren said the Greensboro church is a test case for consumer choice and for fuel choice.
“We absolutely believe we can win at the Court of Appeals,” Warren said. “From Day One, we have had a very strong legal argument.”
The organization argues that it’s offering a financing arrangement to Faith Community Church, which will own the $20,000 solar panels once they’re paid off. The financing argument was rejected by Duke, the Utilities Commission and the Public Staff, the state’s advocacy agency for utility consumers.
The commissioners said in their April ruling that NC WARN “does not explain why sales of power are a necessary feature of its program. Adding this feature provides no apparent benefit to NC WARN’s program; rather it only converts a perfectly legal transaction into an unlawful one.”
The Public Staff told the appellate judges in a Dec. 19 filing that the monopoly system works only if it is not undermined by letting unregulated competitors cherry-pick customers without any legal obligation to provide electricity to everyone. The Public Staff told the appellate court that the arrangement between NC WARN and the church does not include a total amount owed or other payment terms standard in a financial contract.
“Clearly, the only thing of value FCC (Faith Community Church) is obtaining for its payments under this agreement is the electricity created by the PV (photovoltaic) system owned by NC WARN,” the Public Staff wrote.
The Utilities Commission in April ordered NC WARN to return all sales proceeds to the church with 10 percent interest. NC WARN put the money into escrow until the courts resolve the matter.