by Jeff Sykes | @jeffreysykes

A Greensboro church with a long history of community activism is taking that spirit to the front of the battle for solar energy in North Carolina. Faith Community Church in downtown Greensboro entered into a third party agreement with NC WARN recently to have solar panels installed on the church roof at no cost and to buy a portion of the power generated.

Beyond the expansion of solar power in the Triad, and a reduced energy bill for the church, the groups submitted a request for a ruling from the NC Utilities Commission that would clarify the legality of third party sales of solar energy.

The groups held a ribbon cutting last week as the solar panel installation neared completion. The 5.2 kilowatt solar array is expected to be operational next month, pending final permits.

Crews from Yes! Solar Solutions in Cary installed the panels as part of the power purchase agreement between NC WARN and FCC.

Rev. Nelson Johnson, pastor of Faith Community Church, and Jim Warren, executive director of NC WARN, jointly wrote an op-ed piece in May in support of legislation currently before the general assembly that would clear the way for more affordable rooftop solar installations.

House Bill 245, known as the Energy Freedom Act, is sponsored by Cumberland County Republican state Rep. John Szoka. The act seeks to clarify the historical assumption that Duke Power, and other large utility companies, have a monopoly on power generation in their service area. Szoka’s bill, which has about 30 co-sponsors, would declare an entity that installs and operates “an electric generating facility” on a customer’s property is not a public utility. This would allow for an expansion of distributed energy resources, such as rooftop solar on homes, commercial and large retail buildings.

Szoka filed the bill in March. It remains parked in the Committee on Public Utilities.

Both Johnson and Warren say the bill could resolve the uncertainty about the legality of third party solar.

In the op-ed piece, Johnson states that he’s been visited three times by consultants peddling a disinformation campaign that “solar power hurts the poor and people of color.” The wellfinanced campaign against the expansion of solar energy has been documented in national media, according to Warren. The fundamental premise of the campaign is that as wealthy homeowners install solar panels, lower income customers will have to pay higher rates.

Johnson said that the national NAACP, and various state chapters, have rejected the argument.

“The NAACP agrees that solar power helps communities of color and all customers,” Johnson wrote. “One reason is that every new solar panel reduces overall usage from the electricity grid, thus reducing the need to keep building expensive power plants and continually raising rates.”

Warren said this week that the bill has broad support from Republicans and Democrats. Several major companies, including Lowe’s, Target and Walmart, wrote House Speaker Tim Moore in March to express support for the bill. The companies expressed an interest in power purchasing agreements for solar energy.

“Changing North Carolina law to allow us “”and others”” to purchase renewable energy from third-party providers would create an even more positive business environment and would help us continue to create jobs and contribute to an even more robust local economy,” the letter states.

Warren said NC WARN has polling data that shows about 80 percent of North Carolina voters are in favor of expanded solar, and the increased competition. Even the US military has expressed interest in increased distributed energy resources, he said.

Strong support comes from Republicans who favor the bill because it is good for business and increases competition in the private sector, Warren said.

“It’s just about to where the only opposition to the bill is Duke Energy, front groups, and their allies in the legislature,” Warren said. “People across the political spectrum don’t like monopolies. They often tend to be unhelpful and are bad actors in our society. We are going to find out where the genuine ideologies are.”

The solar array installed at Faith Community Church costs about $20,000. Johnson said the church had been discussing moving toward solar energy for about 18 months, before deciding to participate in the test case with NC WARN.

“We’re happy to engage in this partnership that can help leverage solar power’s savings and jobs to more communities while reducing the effects of Duke Energy’s monopoly control that has such negative impacts on power bills, clean air and water, and climate change.”

The power purchasing agreement means that NC WARN owns and operates the solar array installed on the church roof. The church will buy electricity from the system at the rate of 5 cents per kilowatt hour, with an option to buy the panels in three to five years. Johnson said the church hopes to realize a 15 percent reduction in its regular energy bill.

“For us it involves reducing our electric bill, but it also gave us the opportunity to model for ourselves and for other churches an approach to helping reduce carbon emissions, our carbon footprint,” Johnson said. “That was very important to us.”

About 10 area pastors attended the press conference on June 17, where Warren and Johnson discussed the significance of lower costs, environmental integrity and being a participant in reducing the carbon footprint.

“We think the sun is God given and every ray there from,” Johnson said. “A corporation should not have an entitlement that it should be the only one to harness that and use it to produce electrical power. We are hopeful that we can work with other churches to do the same thing and then to encourage members of those churches to consider solar on their homes.”

Johnson said he was glad to participate in the test case that could bring clarity to regulations regarding third party solar.

“If we had purchased (the panels) then we wouldn’t be paying anybody for electricity, and the savings would be much greater, but there would be the debt from the panels themselves,” Johnson said. “That’s the creative innovation in this thing. It allowed for the solar panels to go up. It allowed for the reduction of carbon resources to start right away. It also is a test case to help other businesses and churches do the same thing.”

Warren said that although the cost of installing solar power has come down, it is still burdensome to many families and small businesses. Most solar panel electricity is generated via large, utility scale arrays set out in fields, such as the one in McLeansville. That energy is fed straight into the grid and sold to Duke Energy. Warren said that rooftop solar uses the same technology, but at a smaller scale.

There is growing interest in the business sector from companies willing to put in solar arrays at no costs to rooftop customers. Warren explained that well-financed companies are interested in installing these systems and selling the power to the customer at a rate lower than what Duke currently charges. Long-term contracts that come with such deals are also attractive to businesses.

North Carolina is one of four remaining states where regulations seem to prohibit third party, often called “no money down”, solar power financing agreements. Recent decisions in Georgia and Iowa have cleared the way for third party sales in those states.

North Carolina regulations have been built over the years to protect Duke’s interests in the private sector and the company’s grip on state government, Warren said.

“Our test case is challenging that assumption,” Warren said. “Based on what we’ve found in the state law and the case law, we are making a strong legal case that third-party sales from NC WARN to Faith Community Church is permissible.” !