By Emery P. Dalesio
RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina’s highest court is taking up a case that could force new competition on the state’s electricity monopolies.
The state Supreme Court on Tuesday will consider the Utilities Commission’s decision to fine clean-energy advocacy group NC WARN for putting solar panels on a Greensboro church’s rooftop and then charging it below-market rates for power.
The commission told NC WARN that it was producing electricity illegally and fined the group $60,000. The group said it was acting privately and appealed to the high court.
If the group prevails, it could put new pressure on Duke Energy’s monopoly. State regulators say a ruling for NC WARN would allow companies to install solar equipment and sell power on site, shaving away customers and forcing Duke Energy to raise rates on everyone else.
That’s because if NC WARN’s deal with Faith Community Church is allowed, the precedent could open the door for others to lure away from Duke Energy “the customers with the highest profit potential, such as commercial and industrial customers with large energy needs and ample rooftop space,” attorney Robert Josey Jr. wrote in a court filing.
Losing those power sales would force the country’s No. 2 electricity company to make it up by charging remaining customers more to cover the cost of all of its power plants, transmission lines and repair crews, wrote Josey, an attorney for the Public Staff, the state’s official utilities consumer advocate.
The dispute is whether NC WARN is producing electricity “for the public,” which would mean it’s intruding on the territory of the publicly regulated monopoly utility, or whether the move was allowed because it was a private power deal with the church alone.
NC WARN installed the church’s power panels in 2015 as part of what it described as a test case challenging Duke Energy’s monopoly position to generate and sell electricity.
North Carolina was one of nine states that as of last year explicitly disallowed residential customers from buying electricity generated by solar panels on their roof from a third party that owns the system, according to the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center. State law allows purchased or leased solar panels, but not payments simply for the power they generate.