By Dan Gearino
A North Carolina environmental group that tried to challenge the state’s utility monopoly by installing solar panels on the roof of a predominantly African-American church and selling the church cheap, clean power has lost its appeal to the state’s highest court.
Advocates say they are disappointed in the ruling, but they aren’t giving up the fight to lift restrictions on clean energy.
The case involved an attempt to bust through restrictions that solar advocates face in much of the Southeast.
The region has a history of maintaining strong utility monopolies while other states have opened their markets to competition. The result, advocates say, limits rooftop solar in a region with some of the strongest solar power potential.
The utilities argue that electricity generated by customers or sold by third-party providers—in this case the environmental group that was selling power to the church—would upend their business model, leaving them with fewer customers who would then have to pay more for power. Often, when states in the region have changed the rules to expand access to rooftop solar, they have done so within a framework set by the utilities and with restrictions.
“We are pleased with the swift decision by the N.C. Supreme Court,” said Randy Wheeless, a spokesman for Duke Energy, one of the nation’s largest utilities, which serves much of the state. The speed of the ruling was notable, coming just a few weeks after oral arguments.
Who Gets to Provide Electricity?
The North Carolina dispute started three years ago on the roof of a red brick church in Greensboro. NC WARN, a local environmental group, paid about $20,000 to install a solar array on the building and began selling power to Faith Community Church, charging it 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, a rate well below the 11 cents per kilowatt-hour the congregation had been paying Duke Energy.
It was an intentionally provocative project that NC WARN wanted to use as a test case for whether regulators would allow it. The church’s pastor saw the solar panels as an act of environmental justice.
“Out of our faith tradition, when you fight the good fight, that itself is a (way of) winning,” said Rev. Nelson Johnson, the recently retired pastor, who is known across the state for decades of work on social and economic justice issues.
The North Carolina Utilities Commission determined that the arrangement violated state restrictions on who can sell electricity, and it fined NC Warn $60,000 for selling power to the church.
NC WARN appealed, and the state Supreme Court on Friday ruled against it. The justices affirmed a lower court’s decision in the case without elaborating.
The question at the heart of the case was this: Who gets to provide electricity in a warming world where demand for distributed solar power is rising?
According to the lower court’s 2-1 ruling, the answer is that in North Carolina only a utility company can sell electricity to end users. In this case, the utility was Duke Energy, the Charlotte-based giant that serves millions of customers in six states.
“It’s very unfortunate that Duke Energy remains able to protect its monopoly against clean competition and to keep stifling the growth of cheaper solar power across North Carolina,” Jim Warren, executive director of NC WARN, said in an email. The group’s name stands for North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, reflecting its original mission.