Duke Energy should stop fighting solar as a choice

Monica Embrey
Monica Embrey AHMER INAM

Thursday, at Duke Energy’s shareholder meeting, community members will demand that the company stop blocking access to solar energy. The message is clear: the monopoly utility that is responsible for dumping toxic coal ash should not be working to prevent clean energy solutions.

Duke has been working to convince customers that it has embraced solar. Unfortunately, attention-grabbing headlines are mostly a distraction from ongoing lobbying efforts to block solar choice. Tea Party supporters, environmentalists and big businesses like Walmart have lined up in support of the Energy Freedom Act, which would allow for third party energy sales and options for no-money-down solar. North Carolina is one of four states that doesn’t allow third party sales. Duke is lobbying utility-funded state legislators to kill the bill.

Duke opposes distributed rooftop solar because it threatens its energy monopoly. What’s good for North Carolina residents – allowing solar choice, providing financing options, and ensuring full compensation for electricity sent back to the grid, a process known as net metering – is not good for Duke’s stranglehold on the energy market. Duke wins when customers pay more to prop up coal, gas and nuclear plants. They lose when customers gain access to solar from a company that isn’t Duke.

Not only is Duke trying to keep customers from accessing solar from other companies, Duke has virtually no plan to offer it either. Over the next 15 years, Duke’s plan for renewable energy capacity is a measly 4 percent of its energy mix. It is currently less than 1 percent. As the largest utility in the country, Duke has a responsibility to lead the way toward a cleaner future.

Duke has a plan for maintaining dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear, and its monopoly: make lots of donations to the lawmakers that regulate utilities, and then lobby them for favors. It is an unacceptable use of shareholder dollars to pay regulators to write rules in the utility’s favor. A 2015 Facing South/Institute for Southern Studies report found that based on lobbying clout and election spending, Duke tops the list for special interest influence in North Carolina.

Duke recently sent a letter to legislators asking them to oppose the Energy Freedom Act. In the letter and throughout media coverage, Duke reiterates a tired line about wanting to address solar comprehensively. What Duke means is that they’d like to water down any solar policy that helps break its monopoly. The company that is regulated for the good of the people is working to pull the strings.

Duke is grasping at straws to maintain relevance in an era that demands solar choice and energy democracy. A giant monopoly powered by mostly fossil fuels is bound to go extinct if it can’t adapt. Today, Duke’s customers will remind the company that we’re no longer asking, we’re demanding they get out of the way for energy freedom.

Monica Embrey is a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace based in Charlotte.