First legal round shows the “Public” Staff supporting the climate-busting scheme that would cut rooftop solar value by 30-plus percent
The opening round of legal arguments in a hotly contested regulatory case with major ramifications for Duke Energy’s business model yielded a solid front of opposition to the corporation’s decade-long effort to block competition from solar power. Initial comments in the net metering case are available on the website of the NC Utilities Commission (NCUC).
It’s no surprise that the NCUC’s so-called Public Staff filed comments supporting Duke’s proposal, continuing a years-long pattern of pro-monopoly bias by managers of the state entity entrusted to protect North Carolinians from utility recklessness.
Attorney General John Stein deepened his recently stated position in a parallel proceeding: that the NCUC must delay the case until it has determined what role rooftop solar will play in the forthcoming carbon plan and until it has conducted a required, independent investigation of the full costs and benefits of customer-sited solar generation. Crucially, Stein also rejected Duke’s claim that it had done its own such analysis, saying that Duke analyzed only the costs of rooftop solar while ignoring the many benefits.
Most intervenors joined Stein, emphasizing that state law (2017’s HB 589) plainly requires the NCUC itself – not Duke Energy – to order that independent cost-benefit analysis. Three rooftop solar installers who intervened quoted Rep. John Szoka, who led passage of HB 589 and insisted then that the NCUC – not Duke Energy – must lead the study.
The Public Staff simply ignored the statutorily required analysis of costs and benefits, claiming that the minimal analysis done by Duke “capture[s] the majority, if not all, of the known and verifiable benefits of solar generation.”
Meanwhile, Karl Rábago, an expert witness for the Environmental Working Group (EWG), argued that the NCUC should perform a full study using the National Standard Practice Manual for Benefit-Cost Analysis of Distributed Energy Resources. Referring to the Duke proposal, Rábago concluded that the “chilling effect of these complex changes on the efficient growth of the customer-sited generation market will be adverse and lasting.”
EWG also contends that Duke Energy’s plan would limit access to solar and further exacerbate the climate crisis in violation of state policy.
First-time intervenors 350 Triangle, 350 Charlotte and NC Alliance to Protect our People and the Places We Live filed joint comments stressing the need for the value-of-solar study and provisions for allowing access to solar by low-income households. They argued that Duke’s plan disincentivizes solar and thereby exacerbates the climate crisis.
Durham’s Donald Oulman, intervening as an individual, filed evidence that adopting Duke’s new net metering arrangement would double his electric bill and those of customers with rooftop solar systems similar to his.
Initial comments and an expert’s report opposing Duke’s plan were filed Tuesday by NC WARN and co-intervenors Sunrise Durham and the NC Climate Solutions Coalition.
Even the five nonprofits that originally sided with Duke’s plan seemed half-hearted in their support for it. They even strongly implied that it should be rejected if a key “smart thermostat” incentive is disapproved by the NCUC – as it was by South Carolina regulators who had earlier approved the remainder of Duke’s net metering proposal.
Duke Energy’s scheme has grown fiercely controversial as 17 solar companies are appealing for Gov. Cooper’s protection and as calculations by the companies – and Duke itself – show it could devastate the market by slashing up to 35 percent of customer value while hopelessly complicating solar sales. More than 50 pro-solar nonprofits also oppose the scheme.
Duke Energy’s choke-solar scheme is in real trouble, even with support by the Public Staff, which is supposed to represent the people of North Carolina. The Public Staff has many dedicated workers. But for well over a decade, its politically appointed leaders have been too cozy with Duke Energy, and the Utilities Commission has relied on them far too often.
The gut-wrenching climate crisis amplifies the need for independent state agencies.