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Environmental groups challenge Duke Energy over proposed solar plan

Solar panels sit at the solar farm on White Cross Road in Chapel Hill on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.

Solar panels sit at the solar farm on White Cross Road in Chapel Hill on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.

On March 29, three climate justice nonprofits filed a joint challenge to Duke Energy’s Solar Choice Net Metering proposal, arguing that changes would disadvantage future solar customers, particularly those who are low-income. 

More than 17 solar installation companies and 54 nonprofits have opposed Duke Energy’s changes to its net metering policy, according to a press release by NC WARN, an energy and climate justice nonprofit. 

“What it would do is allow Duke Energy to extract more money from people with rooftop solar,” said Ziyad Habash, leader of Sunrise Durham’s Duke Energy Campaign

Duke's proposed changes would lead to an estimated 25 to 35 percent drop in the value of solar production for the average homeowner, according to the press release.

The changes would also revise net metering rates so that homeowners are credited at the avoided cost rate instead of the retail rate. The avoided cost rate is the price that the utility company would have paid to produce the energy itself, whereas the retail rate is the price at which the utility company sells the energy to customers.

Net metering enables homeowners to sell unused energy generated by their panels back to the grid and be compensated by their utility company, which can be a good investment for homeowners that can afford the out-of-pocket cost of panels, according to EnergySage.

Under Duke's current net metering plan, customers in Orange County are likely to see a return on their investment within ten to 13 years, but that payback period would likely be extended under proposed changes. 

Habash said Sunrise Durham opposes Duke's proposal because the organization believes the proposal will make investing in solar much less appealing to residents. 

“So, if you get paid less for your solar panels, or for your excess energy, than you were before, your panels have essentially dropped in value,” Habash said. 

Noah Kittner, assistant professor in UNC's department of environmental sciences and engineering, said savings that customers see on their electricity bills by producing their own energy from solar panels would diminish under the new proposal. 

Kittner also said the proposal would only make solar more accessible to more affluent households.

“What I would say is that it probably makes it even less likely that low-income or marginalized communities that might benefit the most from installing rooftop solar — it makes it less financially attractive for them to install solar on their roof,” he said. 

Support for the proposal

Despite some opposition, other major environmental and solar groups in the region have publicly shown support for Duke Energy's plan. 

The proposal was signed in agreement with other solar businesses and clean energy advocates — including North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, Vote Solar and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy — alongside Duke Energy last November. 

“We believe this deal could set the initial stage for more programs aimed at increasing solar access while also helping the state reach its carbon reduction goals," Vote Solar Southeast Senior Regional Director Lindsey Hallock said in a press release. 

Randy Wheeless, communications manager at Duke Energy, wrote in an email that customers with rooftop solar panels would not be hurt by the new proposal. 

“We will compensate solar owners for their power back to the grid at rates that match the value of power to the company at that given time,” he wrote. 

A March 29 press release from NCSEA said the changes would have significant up-front savings with a direct rebate and will reduce utility costs for all N.C. residents with new solar pricing signals.  

“This is a proactive method of or measure to be able to really keep financial incentives on the table that continue the long term growth and sustainability of the industry,” director of marketing and communications at NCSEA, Matt Abele, said in an interview with the DTH. 

Solar investment

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Alamance County resident Jan Carico said installing solar panels has been a great investment for her. As a single woman living alone, it has proven financially beneficial for her.  

“It provides independence," she said.

But investing in solar panels can certainly be a daunting process. Several of Carico's neighbors, for example, have expressed interest in installing solar panels, but don't have the financial means to do it. 

North Carolina ranked seventh in solar energy capacity across the nation, according to a report Solar Energy Industries Association report

The proposal is yet to be approved by the N.C. Utilities Commission, but Abele said he hopes to see it approved by the end of the year. 

Still, the opposition to the proposal has filed initial comments against the proposal and will pursue a legal fight against Duke Energy. 

Habash said in an email that Sunrise Durham will be submitting a second round of comments to the N.C. Utilities Commission in response to Duke Energy’s arguments for the proposal. 

“Duke Energy cannot be allowed to put rooftop solar further out of reach for working people, and the Utilities Commission should reject the proposal,” Habash said in the NC WARN press release. 


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