By Jim Warren, NC WARN
The national campaign by entrenched fossil fuel corporations to stanch the rapid growth of solar power is now playing out full-bore in the North Carolina legislative and public opinion arenas. What needs to be a healthy debate about our state's electricity and climate path forward is being hijacked by Duke Energy and Koch brother forces that are distorting issues in dire need of clarity.
As the Washington Post detailed on March 7, the Kochs, monopoly utilities and front groups quietly began a coordinated scheme against solar power more than two years ago after the electric industry's trade group called solar an existential threat to old-school utilities dependent on an ever-growing demand for fossil fuel and nuclear power.
In the past, NC WARN has worked constructively with the conservative John Locke Foundation around common interests in promoting competition and avoiding corporate welfare in the electricity industry. So we are troubled by recent Locke claims that seem aligned with the Duke-Koch campaign, and that they rely heavily on six year-old projections and other spurious information by the fossil fuel funded Beacon Hill Institute.
Among the many fallacious claims is the Locke assertion that solar power has driven up rates in North Carolina. This reflects a serious misunderstanding of state rate-making, market trends and history.
As Duke Energy's own former CEO, Jim Rogers, recently explained in an opinion piece, the nearly 40 percent increase in residential electricity rates since 2001 has been dominated by construction and operation of coal, gas and nuclear plants, and that "meanwhile, the costs of solar continue to fall."
In fact, what the Locke folks lament as the "mandated" state requirement for Duke to generate a small portion of its electricity from renewables is, in fact, not at all related to the four general rate hikes by Duke or subsidiary Progress Energy since 2010. That so-called Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (REPS) is also totally separate from the annual fuel adjustment that almost always raises rates.
Residential customers in the Duke Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Progress monopoly service areas can clearly see the stand-alone renewable power charge that currently adds a mere 39 to 83 cents to their monthly bills.
Why would Locke claim solar power is driving rates up when it is patently untrue? And when every new solar panel helps avoid the new power plants Duke keeps using to justify hiking customer rates?
COUNT ALL COSTS
Also ignored by anti-solar forces is that sun power is already cheaper than most conventional generation when all costs are counted. For example, in an ongoing regulatory proceeding, Duke Energy argues that the billions of dollars it spends on its coal ash tragedy should not count when comparing coal with solar, nor should carbon emissions, health damage and other very real costs.
In that same proceeding, Duke argued that contract terms for its purchase of solar power should be tightened in its favor, even after solar developers complained that Duke is stalling or killing over 100 independent large-scale solar projects due to onerous contract conditions. Regulators decided to make no changes, so Duke's political allies are now pushing legislation to cement those contract changes, which would further disadvantage solar companies, as the most important part of the "freeze REPS" initiative in the "regulatory rollback" bill.
The Duke-Koch factions condemn the North Carolina solar tax credit as a subsidy that singles out one electricity source. They disregard evidence by Research Triangle Institute and others proving the solar credit as a great investment — a generator of statewide jobs and revenue. Meanwhile, solar bashers stubbornly ignore the many billions in subsidies the coal, gas and nuclear industries keep gobbling up over many decades. Duke lobbyists hope lawmakers forgot about the $80 million federal tax subsidy Duke gladly banked when opening the $2.4 billion Cliffside coal-burning plant in 2012.
Contrary to the propaganda, no one claims solar can carry our full electricity load at this time. But as Rogers makes clear, "Despite its intermittent nature, solar often produces power at the times of day when utilities need it most, during peak periods." That makes solar extremely valuable because it nullifies Duke's business plan to keep building power plants and raising rates while controlling state government.
True conservatives and 80 percent of state voters know Duke's monopoly control needs to be loosened to allow competition, the objective of state Rep. John Szoka's Energy Freedom Act.
Duke executives are pretending neutrality as their allies attack various aspects of North Carolina's successful solar industry policies, thus furthering the monopoly's interests.
With rapid advances in renewables, energy storage and other clean technologies being announced almost monthly, it will be tragic if our growing solar industry is slowed or collapsed by deceptive propaganda fueled by corporate forces out of sync with the public well-being.
(Jim Warren is the executive director of NC WARN, a Durham, North Carolina-based nonprofit that works for climate and energy justice.)