Duke Energy Shows A Solar-Unfriendly Side

Well, it looks like Duke Energy isn’t quite “all in” on clean energy after all.

True, the company last year agreed to go along with a Google idea and develop a program that will help big businesses use more renewables – from actual new generating plants – to power their operations. But now comes word that Duke, like a lot of electrical utilities, is growing skittish on distributed solar and wants to shortchange folks who have rooftop installations.

north carolina solar

A North Carolina home solar system (image via Solar Energy USA)

The outlines of the issue here are familiar, having played out in a number of states in the past year or so. To encourage the installation of more solar power and all the benefits that come from it – reduced CO2 and pollutant emissions, reduced peak demand, etc.  – when home solar customers produce more energy than they need and send some back to the grid (where Duke Energy sells it at the full retail rate, of course), the system owner gets credited for the surplus at the retail price.

Duke’s argument is that this homemade power isn’t worth the full retail rate. The company says its “avoided costs” – the amount of money Duke saves with power from residential systems – is significantly less than the retail rate. That’s because it still has to maintain the poles, wires, substations, etc. that help serve those solar customers when they aren’t producing solar power. Like at night.

In North Carolina, according to the Charlotte Observer, Duke is looking to pay small solar customers what it pays big solar generators, a fast-growing sector in the state – less than 7 cents per kilowatt-hour.

This line of thinking inspired CPS Energy, the San Antonio utility, to attempt last year to cut back it full-retail net metering and go to a “SunCredit” worth less than half the retail rate for each kilowatt-hour produced. The comapny backed off under pressure.

In Arizona, the utility Arizona Public Service late last year proposed a monthly charge of around $8 per kilowatt of installed solar for solar customers, but after a big fight, regulators gave APS just 70 cents/kW – about $5 a month for the average solar customer.

California and Colorado have also seen utilities pushing back on net metering, but so far, analysts haven’t seen anything happen that could really hurt the growth of solar.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.