As solar and other renewable energy sources rapidly expand in the market, with prices continually dropping and technology exponentially improving, fossil fuel-based corporate behemoths are scrambling to protect their monopolies.
In January, we reported that Nevada’s public utility company and their cohorts at the Public Utilities Commission killed the sunny state’s solar industry with a 40% tax hike on solar customers. The move drove two major solar companies out of the state, cut up to a thousand jobs, sabotaged consumer investments in solar energy and discouraged the off-grid movement.
It’s part of a calculated effort by investor-owned utilities and corporate front groups like the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
North Carolina is one of four states that actually ban third-party solar sales. Only “regulated utilities” can sell electricity there, such as Duke Energy which enjoyed $23.5 billion in revenue in 2015. The energy giant has campaigned against bills that would benefit rooftop solar, as it threatens their monopoly of producing and distributing energy in the state.
Now, a dispute between the state and the nonprofit North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network (NC WARN) is exposing the dark underbelly of government-corporate collusion.
NC WARN decided to test the state’s repressive measures on rooftop solar. In June 2015 it installed 5.2 kilowatts of solar arrays on the roof of a church in Greensboro. The ‘no money down’ financing arrangement also allows NC WARN to sell the solar power to the church for much less than the rate charged by Duke Energy.
“The test case is a challenge to Duke Energy’s blockade against competition from companies that install sun-power systems on rooftops with little or no up-front cost to the customer. Such financing arrangements have been key to the growth of rooftop solar in many other states. Utilities have fought against such “third-party sales” in order to protect their monopolies from the surge in solar power.”
Duke Energy is incensed about this tiny nonprofit attempting to break that monopoly. Last October, Duke asked its buddies at the North Carolina Utilities Commission to fine the nonprofit NC WARN up to $1,000 per day, which would total $120,000. Sure enough, the utility commission complied, levying a fine of about $60,000 against the nonprofit.
The commission made no bones about the special privilege Duke Energy enjoys in North Carolina, saying the NC WARN solar sale “competes with Duke Energy in its exclusive franchise territory.”
The utilities commission said it would “suspend” the extraordinary fine if NC WARN suspended its electricity sales to the church, which it did.
NC WARN has appealed the decision in the courts, forcing a judicial interpretation of the law that could lead to a major win for energy freedom and a blow to Duke Energy’s monopoly. The nonprofit is mounting an impressive argument against several key tenets of the commission’s ruling.
Attorneys stated in the appeal that the commission’s ruling “is unlawful, unjust, unreasonable and unwarranted … is in excess of statutory authority, affected by errors of law, unsupported by competent, material and substantial evidence, and is arbitrary and capricious.”
“Duke Energy obviously sought the unprecedented penalty in order to stifle NC WARN in various fights against the corporate behemoth,” stated NC WARN Executive Director Jim Warren.
If they lose, they will donate the solar array to the church and look for the next opportunity to challenge the corporatocracy.
North Carolina would do well to follow the lead of other states by ending its ban on third-party solar sales. The thriving rooftop solar industry is a job creator, and more solar energy means less pollution.
The state does allow companies to install rooftop solar with financing plans, but without being able to sell energy back to its customers (at rates lower than Duke Energy’s), the deal is far less attractive to consumers.
The situation in North Carolina is especially odd, considering that the state ranks third in the nation for installed solar capacity. However, 93 percent of that comes from utility-scale operations, which unsurprisingly are being bought up by Duke Energy.
This is the way that corporate giants like Duke Energy want the solar industry to develop, so it can control solar production as part of its energy monopoly. Rooftop solar, and anything that encourages that such as third-party sales, threatens that centralized control.
While Duke Energy fights to keep people from harnessing their own energy, it is focused intently on building new gas-fired power plants. Construction of these plants is a major money-maker for Duke and its investors, even when the plants are not needed on the energy grid.
Rooftop solar threatens new plant construction by reducing demand for those plants and for energy from the grid. Duke’s opposition to rooftop solar also discourages off-grid living.
For now, regulators in North Carolina and other states such as Florida and Nevada are firmly on the side of their corporate partners. However, through noble campaigns such as that of NC WARN, we can expose this corrupt relationship and finally leave fossil fuels behind in favor of a cleaner future.
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