How to break Duke Energy's stranglehold on North Carolina's power industry— and maybe save our coasts in the process | Citizen | Indy Week
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How to break Duke Energy's stranglehold on North Carolina's power industry— and maybe save our coasts in the process 

A week ago, writing about Gov. McCrory's push for offshore drilling, I looked to my crystal ball. The oil and gas industry financed a study which (predictably) predicts fabulous economic results if the Atlantic is opened to fossil-fuel exploration. By 2035, North Carolina could have 55,000 industry-related jobs, it said.

Really?

Anything's possible, I guess, but what scares me is that the industry may be right in the short run but dead wrong after that. If so, the North Carolina coast could be subjected to a furious buildup for 20 years only to see the markets for oil and gas collapse after we're all-in.

If the worst happens, we'll have a dystopian shorefront of useless refineries, needless pollution and one wretched job to do: cleanup.

Seeking to lighten this dreary outlook, I went to the Solar Summit in Raleigh, which was held—appropriately—on Sunday. Around the world, solar power's future is bright; bright enough, perhaps, to slay the fossil-fuel industry before the first drill pierces our ocean floor.

In North Carolina, though, solar development is sluggish due to the machinations of Duke Energy, our dominant electric utility—and McCrory's longtime employer.

The bad news from the summit: the possible expiration of state tax credits for solar power at the end of 2015. Will the General Assembly extend them? "The solar industry is in a tizzy," said Bob Kingery, co-founder of Southern Energy Management Co.

The good news: N.C. House Bill 245, dubbed the Energy Freedom Act, which was unveiled last week by a bipartisan cast of co-sponsors. Solar advocates call it "the no-money-down solar bill." Said an exuberant Caroline Hansley, a field organizer for Greenpeace: "It's a game-changer!"

HB 245 is so monumental for solar's future that it may not matter if it passes in its current form or even in the current session. The mere fact that it was introduced by four conservative Republicans with a mix of Republicans and progressive Democrats among its 26 co-sponsors is game-changer enough, because from now on the debate in the General Assembly won't be whether the state should go solar but how fast.

Under HB 245, renewable-energy companies would be allowed for the first time to build solar-power (or wind-power) systems for customers and bill directly for the electricity, even though they aren't utilities. One caveat: The system must be on the customer's property.

In effect, it's legislation to break Duke's stranglehold on power sales in most of the state, opening us up to competition, lower prices and, best of all for the environment, electric generation free from the carbon emissions that result in climate change.

As things stand now, if you want solar-electric panels on your house—a photovoltaic system—the up-front cost is on you. Typical rooftop systems cost between $10,000 and $30,000 depending on the size of the house, paying for themselves in savings on your electric bill in under a decade.

Still, it's a big up-front expense, which explains why the number of houses in North Carolina with rooftop PV is fewer than 3,000, even with the 35 percent state tax credit and a 30 percent federal credit (which will expire at the end of 2016 unless Congress renews it).

In other states, entrepreneurial companies are installing small-scale PV at their own expense. Customers sign a lease, buying power at a contract price below what the local utility company is charging.

According to Greenpeace, 24 states permit such "third-party" sales; in 21 others, their legality is unclear. Only five states outright prohibit them—including North Carolina. Why? Duke Energy's clout.

Not surprisingly, however, using the law to protect monopolies—and their prices—is anathema to many conservatives as well as progressives. Which is fortunate given that we have a Republican-controlled General Assembly in which the virtues of free enterprise are often sung.

"Free enterprise," said John Szoka, the Cumberland County Republican who is HB 245's principal sponsor, "is the cornerstone of the success of the United States."

Szoka added that it's not just households that would benefit from his bill. Businesses, too, want rooftop solar they can lease rather than own, which is why Walmart, Lowe's, Macy's, Target, Family Dollar and Cargill all support his legislation.

The Fayetteville Observer, Szoka's hometown paper, reported that he's "encountered resistance" from Duke Energy. A Duke spokesman said the company "has concerns."

Well, sure. As Bob Kingery said, monopoly utilities like Duke have provided reliable electric power to North Carolina for many years at prices below those of other states. But Duke's nuclear plants aren't safe, and its coal- and natural gas-fired plants aren't clean—and the cost of reducing Duke's carbon emissions is pushing its prices up while solar and wind costs continue to drop.

My crystal ball tells me, in 20-30 years, solar and wind will overtake coal and gas for electric generation, and electricity will displace oil as the main ingredient in transportation and heating. Which means we should put a cork in any offshore drilling now, before that market collapse is upon us.

It also tells me that Duke can't fight the (renewable) power much longer and should try being part of the solution.

We need an orderly transition from giant power plants owned by a monopoly to rooftop and community-scale solar and wind systems that anyone can own—including, it seems to me, Duke itself.

Why not? Duke can hire the installers, finance the systems and let its customers take advantage of the tax credits—as soon as the General Assembly votes to keep the credits going.

Or, it can let others capture the future while it hangs on to the past.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Change the Game."

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