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Duke skipping Carolina solar fight as Apple, Google pick sides

Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good at an energy summit at the Charlotte Convention Center last year. North Carolina lawmakers are considering bills that could thwart or accelerate solar development in the fourth-biggest U.S. market. Its largest utility owner, Charlotte-based Duke Energy, isn’t taking sides.
Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good at an energy summit at the Charlotte Convention Center last year. North Carolina lawmakers are considering bills that could thwart or accelerate solar development in the fourth-biggest U.S. market. Its largest utility owner, Charlotte-based Duke Energy, isn’t taking sides. jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

North Carolina lawmakers are considering bills that could thwart or accelerate solar development in the fourth-biggest U.S. market. Its largest utility owner, Charlotte-based Duke Energy Corp., isn’t taking sides.

“There have been a half-dozen bills in this session dealing with energy,” CEO Lynn Good said Tuesday in an interview with Bloomberg News in New York. “It’s difficult to handicap which ones will go through” and she declined to say whether she supports legislation covering solar energy.

One of those bills would let homeowners lease or finance solar systems through developers like SolarCity Corp. Under this model, consumers pay little to nothing up front for rooftop panels. That’s helping make residential power the fastest- growing part of the U.S. solar industry and is cutting into utilities’ revenue.

North Carolina is among a handful of states that currently ban electricity sales by anyone other than the utility, and overturning the ban would probably be a drag on Duke’s revenue as more competitors offer electricity to consumers, said Kit Konolige, a utility analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.

“It’s a big deal, and it’s causing issues for the industry across the country.” Konolige said.

Still, he understands why Good is reluctant to make her preferences public. “Utilities have a lot of stakeholders and they’re so visible in the local scene they don’t want to offend people over one contentious bill.”

While Duke isn’t taking a public stance, utilities in Arizona, Wisconsin and Hawaii have campaigned against residential solar power, typically by asking local regulators to impose various fees for customers who install rooftop systems.

Google, Apple

Another North Carolina bill would cap utilities’ required purchases of renewable energy at 6 percent of demand in 2015, less than half the current target of 12.5 percent. It passed the state’s House of Representatives in April and must now be approved by a Senate committee before proceeding to a vote.

Some of Duke’s largest customers are fighting the legislation. Apple Inc., Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. co-signed a letter on May 27 opposing the repeal of the clean energy mandate.

“Alterations risk undermining the state’s commitment to renewable energy,” the companies wrote. That commitment was part of the reason the technology giants invested in power- hungry server farms in North Carolina.

Solar Power

Duke is already increasing its use of clean power, Good said. It’s adding 500 megawatts of solar power in North Carolina over the next few years, and is on track to meet the current target.

“We’re trying to get to 12.5 percent by 2021,” she said.

Politicians are probably aware of Duke’s stance on these issues without Good taking a public stand. The company is North Carolina’s top power broker, ranking second in lobbying clout and fifth in political spending, according to the Institute for Southern Studies.

Instead of lawmakers introducing legislation, Good would prefer to see all the parties hammering out compromises that could serve as the basis for policy.

“In a collaborative process, you could have an opportunity to raise all of the issues,” she said.

The Observer contributed.

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