Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Solar War Continues in North Carolina: Nonprofit vs. Duke Energy

Energy
Solar War Continues in North Carolina: Nonprofit vs. Duke Energy

In one of the remaining four states that explicitly ban third-party solar sales, a small nonprofit is continuing its fight against the nation’s biggest utility over the right to sell solar power to churches and other nonprofits without the utility’s involvement.

North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network (NC WARN), a 28-year-old environmental nonprofit with an annual budget of around $1.1 million, is fighting Duke Energy, a massive energy company that raked in $23.5 billion in revenue in 2015 and is valued at $54.4 billion.

Last year, the nonprofit wanted to clarify state law regarding third-party sales, so it picked a fight with the utility Goliath to spark a test case. NC WARN installed solar panels on the roof of a Greensboro church for free and started selling the energy back to the church at significantly lower rates than Duke Energy would charge. In typical power purchase agreements, customers pay the owner of the solar array less per watt than they’d have to pay a utility company, making residential solar more affordable and thus more accessible for customers.

NC WARN installed solar panels on the roof of this Greensboro church for free and started selling the energy back to the church at significantly lower rates than Duke Energy would charge. Photo credit: NC WARN

The energy giant’s lost profits from NC WARN’s arrangement with Faith Community Church are minuscule, yet Duke Energy asked the North Carolina Utilities Commission last October to fine NC WARN up to $1,000 per day for selling energy to the church. At that time, it would have cost the nonprofit as much as $120,000.

On April 15, the utilities commission fined NC WARN $200 per day, amounting to roughly $60,000 and the nonprofit suspended its sales of solar electricity to the non-denominational, largely African-American church pending an appeal.

NC WARN will donate the solar array to the church if a final decision deems its actions illegal. But the group still has another chance to convince the commission to side with its vision for affordable renewables.

NC WARN argues in its appeal filed on May 16 that it is neither acting as a public utility, which would violate North Carolina law, nor competing with Duke Energy.

“Duke Energy obviously sought the unprecedented penalty in order to stifle NC WARN in various fights against the corporate behemoth,” wrote NC WARN Executive Director Jim Warren in a statement.

A Solar Company Operating in a Hostile State

Duke Energy Communications Manager Randy Wheeless cited Raleigh-based Baker Renewable Energy as an example of a company that operates legally, offering solar financing plans without selling the energy back to its customers.

But without third-party sales, “There’s no good way for churches, synagogues, town halls or schools to get clean energy if they want it right now because they can’t take the tax credit,” Jason Epstein, executive vice president and general manager of Baker, told DeSmog.

He said that beginning with “a model that deals with nonprofits” would be best, at first, so as not to “open up the spigot all at once.” Then the state could roll out residential third-party sales once the market is established.

Solar installers such as Baker would definitely get on board if third-party solar ever becomes legal in North Carolina. “If that’s an option available we’d team up with financing teams. Of course,” said Epstein.

Baker’s former “sample purchase and payback model” (archived here) included a state incentive for residents and businesses to purchase solar panels, a 35 percent tax write-off, which the North Carolina legislature let expire in 2015. Duke Energy failed to take a position on the measure, despite receiving a letter from Baker and other energy companies begging the energy giant to support the credit.

Without the state incentive, solar buyers only have the federal credit to work with and a solar system from Baker now costs more than $15,000, according to Baker’s numbers. Even those who could afford to purchase the panels wouldn’t break even for 18 years.

“Instead of selling $21,000 systems, the market has shifted towards people with greater means who can afford $60,000 systems that offer a quicker return on investment,” said Epstein.

The expiration of the tax credit “has affected our sales,” Epstein sad. “I think any solar company in the state would say it has. Our residential and light commercial work is down 40 percent.”

Wheeless said that Duke Energy has approximately 4,000 customers who use rooftop solar. But while North Carolina currently ranks third in the nation in installed solar capacity, 93 percent of that capacity comes from utility-scale operations due to the state’s ban on third-party sales.

Conflicting Stances on Renewable Energy

While Duke Energy has fought third-party solar sales in North Carolina and in Florida, it has taken different stances on the practice in other states. In South Carolina, for example, the company actually took part in a compromise agreement that expanded residential solar in the state.

As a result, Baker “is doing significantly more work in South Carolina,” said Epstein. “It saddens me because my company is based in Raleigh, I’ve been here for seven to eight years and employ people who work here. I want to work in North Carolina.”

However, Epstein said several times that Baker has a good relationship with Duke Energy.

Wheeless told DeSmog he wants stakeholders in North Carolina to get together, as they did in South Carolina, to discuss a wide range of solar options and that just focusing on third-party sales is a nonstarter, something he has said previously to the media.

Warren said this line is “a recipe for delay. It came [first] at a time where Duke was clearly very concerned about third-party sales. They were spending a lot of money on lobbyists to try to beat back that Energy Freedom Act [of 2015],” which would have legalized third-party sales.

Duke also purchased a majority stake in REC Solar last year, which makes money from third-party solar sales in California and Hawaii, states that permit these agreements and where Duke Energy does not directly operate.

Despite holding back residential solar in some states, Duke Energy, Wheeless said, is “absolutely” concerned about environmental pollution. He said the company has invested $4 billion in wind and solar across 13 states and has “retired about 40 coal units in the past five or six years.” But Duke has replaced these coal plants with natural gas facilities and natural gas contributes large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon, into the atmosphere.

Duke wants to build up to 15 new natural gas plants in North and South Carolina alone and NC WARN is challenging them on this, too. Duke will likely acquire Charlotte-based Piedmont Natural Gas as it hopes to pipe gas 554 miles from West Virginia, through Virginia and into eastern North Carolina.

“We believe natural gas is going to be the backbone of energy generation going forward,” said Duke President and CEO Lynn Good.

When DeSmog asked Wheeless about the dangerous methane that comes from natural gas, he had no direct response, only citing Duke Energy’s work with “hog operations to capture that methane and burn it at our own plants, taking out harmful emissions.”

In contrast, Warren said, “The people on this planet are in a world of hurt and we need to be expanding solar and cutting emissions as fast as we can.”

Duke Energy plans to invest $3 billion in renewables over the next five years. “We don’t have an absolute [percent of total output] target” for renewable energy over those years, said Wheeless, “but we feel like we know where we’re going.”

Yet Duke does have a target for solar, wind and biomass energy for 2029: “a measly 4 percent,” as Greenpeace’s Monica Embrey described it.

Keeping Up the Pressure

Warren and NC WARN have no plans to relent in their campaign against the big polluter, Duke Energy.

“It’s hard to say if we’ll win our appeal,” said Warren. “We feel strongly that this project is in accord with the state constitution, which prohibits monopolies, but also state policy that promotes the expansion of renewable energy …

“We want to clarify that Duke doesn’t get to lock off these rooftops and prevent competition, especially when you’ve got an industry that wants to be involved with upfront solar in this state.”

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Solar Beats Coal for Entire Month in UK for First Time

100 Solutions to the World’s Most Pressing Challenges

New Solar Loan Program Now Available in 14 States

Dubai to Build World’s Largest Concentrated Solar Power Plant

Eating too much black licorice can be toxic. Nat Aggiato / Pixabay

By Bill Sullivan

Black licorice may look and taste like an innocent treat, but this candy has a dark side. On Sept. 23, 2020, it was reported that black licorice was the culprit in the death of a 54-year-old man in Massachusetts. How could this be? Overdosing on licorice sounds more like a twisted tale than a plausible fact.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sustainable t-shirts by Allbirds are made from a new, low-carbon material that uses a mineral extract from discarded snow crab shells. Jerry Buttles / Allbirds

In the age of consumption, sustainability innovations can help shift cultural habits and protect dwindling natural resources. Improvements in source materials, product durability and end-of-life disposal procedures can create consumer products that are better for the Earth throughout their lifecycles. Three recent advancements hope to make a difference.

Read More Show Less

Trending

There are many different CBD oil brands in today's market. But, figuring out which brand is the best and which brand has the strongest oil might feel challenging and confusing. Our simple guide to the strongest CBD oils will point you in the right direction.

Read More Show Less
A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

Financial institutions in New York state will now have to consider the climate-related risks of their planning strategies. Ramy Majouji / WikiMedia Commons

By Brett Wilkins

Regulators in New York state announced Thursday that banks and other financial services companies are expected to plan and prepare for risks posed by the climate crisis.

Read More Show Less

Support Ecowatch