NC WARN seeks legal right to sell solar power to Greensboro church

Environmental advocacy group NC WARN is testing North Carolina’s utility monopoly law by installing solar panels on a Greensboro church and selling electricity directly to the African-American congregation.

NC WARN and Faith Community Church announced the unorthodox arrangement Wednesday morning, declaring their challenge a “test case” to break Duke Energy’s state control of power sales. The Durham advocacy group also asked the N.C. Utilities Commission to bless the deal and said it will press its case in court if the Utilities Commission rejects the argument, as is likely to happen.

“This is an unprecedented project,” said NC WARN director Jim Warren. “There will be no dismantling of the equipment at any point.”

NC WARN plans to sell electricity to the church and the church’s Beloved Community Center for 5 cents a kilowatt hour, less than half the price the church currently pays to Duke . NC WARN can’t begin selling power to the church until Duke configures the church’s utility meter to allow the solar power to flow directly to the church.

Duke, the nation’s largest electric utility company, will ask the Utilities Commission to reject NC WARN’s application.

“It looks like NC WARN wants to get into the electric business but they’re asking for a pass on all the rules and obligations that go with it,” said Duke spokesman Randy Wheeless.

NC WARN was founded in 1988 to oppose hazardous waste incinerators and expanded its watchdog mission to oppose nuclear power plants and coal-burning power plants. The organization has filed legal actions to block power plant construction and has also staged civil disobedience campaigns at Progress Energy and Duke Energy corporate headquarters and organized protests at company shareholder gatherings.

If NC WARN loses its legal challenge, Warren said, it would donate the 5.2-kilowatt rooftop solar array to the Faith Community Church. Under state law, the church can use electricity it generates from its own solar panels.

The Public Staff, the state agency that represents the public in utility rate matters before the Utilities Commission, is reviewing NC WARN’s petition. James McLawhorn, director of the Public Staff’s Electric Division, said if NC WARN sells power to the church, the Utilities Commission could rule that NC WARN is acting as a public utility and could issue a cease-and-desist order to NC WARN and to the Faith Community Church.

“Obviously they would be in violation of state law if the commission ruled that way,” McLawhorn said.

Duke could disconnect the church’s electric account, but the company would likely be reluctant to take that step, he said.

North Carolina is a regulated utility market that restricts the authority to sell electricity to approved utilities. Households and businesses can own their own solar panels and use the energy they generate. But third parties, such as solar developers, can only sell directly to an electric utility, not to a business or household.

In a regulated utility market, a utility is obligated to supply power to everyone in its service area, bound by state reliability standards and responsible for restoring power outages.

Solar developers for years have tried to find a chink in the system that would allow them to own solar arrays and sell power directly and completely bypassing the electric utility, but to date they have not succeeded in getting regulatory approval to do so.

Changing state policy would require action from the state legislature, which currently has a pending bill to do just that. But the Energy Freedom Act has not moved out of committee since it was introduced in March by Republican lawmakers with the encouragement of Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Target, Macy’s and other corporations.

Charlotte-based Duke opposes a change in North Carolina law, and without the company’s support Energy Freedom Act is not expected to get a hearing.

A little over half the states in the U.S. allow third-party leasing options, with Georgia enacting its policy in March, but many of the states do not have strictly regulated utility markets like North Carolina. Duke officials supported South Carolina’s policy to allow third party sales, adopted last December, but it was paired with other energy provisions the power company liked.

Murawski: 919-829-8932