Groups vow to block the ruling in state court of appeals and with federal lawsuit
State regulators ruled today that Duke Energy can weaken rooftop solar economics indefinitely with a complicated hash of new rules. The NC Utilities Commission order defies state and federal law, defies state climate goals and supports the worst aspects of monopoly control over our energy system and public wellbeing.
Crucially, the commission blatantly ignored a 2017 state law that clearly requires the regulators to conduct a cost-benefit study before making any changes to net metering rules.
The commission had earlier allowed Duke officials to dodge Attorney General Josh Stein and a host of other critics by refusing to hold a hearing where corporate officials would have to testify under oath.
If it were to stand, this ruling would be a major loss for the solar industry, the NC public and the near-desperate struggle to avert runaway climate chaos. Increasing local solar-plus-storage is a key part of a distributed energy future that is the fastest, cheapest way – by far – to decarbonize this state.
Fortunately, NC WARN and Environmental Working Group are confident that we and other partners can block the regulators’ untimely gift to Duke Energy at the state court of appeals and with a federal lawsuit, if necessary.
“Fox Guarding Henhouse”
Net metering rules determine how solar homes (and others) are credited by utilities for power they feed onto the grid. A 2017 state law, HB 589, states that no changes to those rules may be made until after the commission performs a cost-benefit analysis for rooftop solar.
Duke Energy has long argued the independent cost-benefit study isn’t needed because its own internal data show that solar households don’t pay their fair share of power lines, poles, etc. In fact, that’s Duke’s paramount argument for changing the rules.
It’s amazing that the commission went along with Duke’s assertion – and relied on Duke’s internal data – despite tons of evidence filed in this case showing that customer-owned solar, on roofs, parking lots, etc, provides a strong net benefit to even non-solar customers across Duke territory.
The Attorney General’s Office agrees that Duke’s internal study does not satisfy the statutory mandate to investigate costs and benefits. In addition, as noted in a filing by leading solar companies involved in the case, the lead author of HB 589, former Republican House Member John Szoka, has emphasized that the bill’s intention was for the commission not to rely on Duke’s own study, saying that would be like allowing the “fox to guard the henhouse.”
The commission’s order also violates federal law that prevents discrimination against customers. Under federal Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA), the commission cannot impose differing rates on small rooftop solar customers than those charged to other customers with similar usage patterns.
In a public backlash unmatched in years, thousands of North Carolinians joined 17 solar companies and 60 pro-solar nonprofits calling on the regulators and Gov. Cooper to protect one of the state’s best tools for combatting the advancing climate crisis and protecting consumers against the Duke business model that constantly raises rates to expand the use of dirty, expensive power.
In its order, the commission avoided the tough issues by going along with a compromise Duke Energy pressed upon critics in the solar industry. As those companies know, it remains a losing deal for all except Duke Energy.
Sadly, the commission ignored the rule of law. But it cannot simply bypass state and federal law and allow Duke Energy to constrain cheaper, more reliable rooftop solar power so it can keep building dozens of climate-wrecking, gas-fired power units and constantly raising rates.
This issue is at the core of whether North Carolina finally joins the clean energy revolution or allows Duke Energy to keep stifling our chances to help avert climate and social chaos.