North Carolina regulators reject solar power test of electricity monopoly law

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A nonprofit that installed solar panels on a church will appeal a decision by regulators that said it couldn't charge for electricity, the group's executive director said Monday.

The nonprofit North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network last year installed solar panels on the roof of Greensboro's Faith Community Church and billed the congregation almost half of Duke Energy's average electricity price. NC WARN will appeal in state court after regulators declared illegal its arrangement to recoup the solar power system's cost, executive director Jim Warren said.

The group installed the church's power panels as part of a test case aimed at winning approval for third parties to step in and sell electricity to nonprofit consumers. State law allows only regulated utilities such as Duke Energy to sell power.

"The ability to help finance and get past that up-front, down-payment hurdle has been very important in moving rooftop solar forward," Warren said.

North Carolina is one of only five states that bar solar energy from being sold by anyone but utilities, according to the U.S. Energy Department. These ban sales from companies that install rooftop solar panels at little or no cost and then sell the energy generated to the property owner.

The North Carolina Utilities Commission ruled late Friday that the group's arrangement with the Greensboro's church violated the state's system of legal electricity monopolies. The regulator hit the group with nearly $60,000 in fines, which would be suspended if it refunds the church's payments with interest and donates the solar equipment to the church.

"North Carolina by statute does not permit retail electric competition," the commission's order said.

Legislators last year failed to pass a change that would allow third-party sales. Meanwhile, some conservative lawmakers want to end the solar industry's preferential tax treatment and a law requiring electric utilities to get 12.5 percent of the power they sell from renewable energy and energy efficiency by 2021. This year's legislative session begins next week.

"NC WARN wanted to be a public utility and sell electricity while ignoring all the rules to properly do so. State law and the commission's ruling were very clear," Duke Energy spokesman Randy Wheeless said.

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