Duke Energy urges regulators to fine advocates in solar case

Solar panels at Faith Community Church in Greensboro have become a test of N.C.’s laws against non-utility sales of electricity.
Solar panels at Faith Community Church in Greensboro have become a test of N.C.’s laws against non-utility sales of electricity. File

Duke Energy says the state Utilities Commission should fine an advocacy group $1,000 a day for selling power from solar panels to a Greensboro church.

NC WARN, a Durham group that frequently squares off against Duke, is challenging a state law that says only public utilities may sell electricity. Solar companies and municipal power providers are taking sides.

So-called third-party sales were also the focus of failed legislation this year that would have allowed renewable-energy developers to sell directly to customers.

The North Carolina Utilities Commission has consistently ruled against such interpretations of the law, but it asked for comments before deciding the WARN case.

Duke, in filings Friday, said WARN’s request for permission to sell electricity “must be rejected and its blatant disregard for the law and this Commission’s authority should not be condoned.”

WARN has sold power to Faith Community Church in Greensboro since July, without permission, Duke noted.

Duke asked the commission to issue a cease-and-desist order and fine WARN up to $1,000 for each day it violates the law. Those fines could reach about $120,000 if they’re applied to the four months WARN has sold power to the church.

Duke spokesman Randy Wheeless said the commission has assessed fines in other cases and that it’s the commission’s call whether to do so again.

Wheeless said WARN has lost a number of challenges of Duke that the company viewed as baseless and that “there should be consequences for doing that.”

WARN argues that Duke is trying to squelch green energy and advocates for it.

“Duke Energy is entitled to disagree with us, but seeking to financially hammer this 27-year-old nonprofit is more proof that Goliath wants neither competition, criticism, nor scrutiny,” director Jim Warren said in a statement.

WARN insists it is not a public utility because it isn’t selling power to the public but to a specific nonprofit, the church, and providing a “service” in paying the upfront costs of the solar array.

The commission’s Public Staff, which represents consumers, agreed with Duke that the commission can’t legally allow third-party electricity sales. The staff said the commission should order a halt to the sales but did not recommend a fine.

ElectriCities, which represents municipal electric utilities in the Carolinas and Virginia, also sided with Duke.

Interfaith Power & Light, which advocates against climate change as part of the North Carolina Council of Churches, said the commission faces a “moral imperative” to rule that WARN and other third-party sellers should not be regulated as public utilities.

The Energy Freedom Coalition of America, representing solar companies including SolarCity, Silevo Solar and Zep Solar, asked Friday to become a party to the case. The coalition said current law serves as a barrier to companies that lease solar arrays or buy their power.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender