Carolina utility looking to keep customers by offering community solar

One of the many benefits of community solar is the ability to offer the clean energy benefits of solar to renters and others who can't install their own panels. (© iStock)

Worried about market share as more people turn to ever-cheaper solar energy, some utilities are planning “community solar” projects to retain customers looking for clean energy alternatives.

A recent Associated Press article noted the trend that SELC has been encouraging for years.

“It’s both an opportunity and defensive maneuver,” wrote AP reporter Emery P. Dalesio. “Sunshine-capturing technology has become so cheap so quickly, that utilities are moving to preserve their core business against competition from household solar panels.”

The article noted Duke Energy, for example, is planning a large community solar project in South Carolina this year. Customers can buy, or “subscribe” to, a number of a project’s panels.

“Anyone who has spent a summer in South Carolina knows we have an abundance of sunshine,” said Blan Holman, managing attorney of SELC’s Charleston office. “That has led to a boom in both solar production and solar power. We’re certainly hoping to see more projects like the one Duke is planning this year. It’s great for the environment, and great for South Carolina.”

The Duke project is scheduled to begin with a modest rollout through two of its subsidiaries, Duke Energy Progress and Duke Energy Carolinas. Chapel-Hill based SELC attorney Lauren Bowen says each subsidiary will build a one-megawatt project. Together, the projects will produce enough electricity to power more than 300 homes.

The full-scale plan, she said, is for a total of 14 megawatts, split between the subsidiaries.

Bowen says Duke has not revealed where these solar arrays would be built, but she’s excited about the opportunity for putting solar into the reach of more customers.

“Community solar is a fantastic way to bring the power of the sun to people who have traditionally been left out of solar’s benefits,” Bowen said. “We’re excited Duke Energy is exploring this cost-saving option for customers in the Carolinas.”

SELC has been advocating for utilities to both embrace community solar themselves, and to drop the roadblocks that make it difficult for private solar companies to build similar shared arrays.

Shared-solar systems have the potential to bring the cost-cutting benefits of solar power to renters, to homeowners living on tree-shaded lots, and to low- and moderate-income families who may be unable to afford the up-front costs of rooftop solar.

Customers who sign up get credit on their power bills for the amount of electricity their panels produce, which adds clean, emission-free energy to the power grid.

According to the AP article, Duke is also looking to add a similar community solar project in North Carolina, but has not provided details.

The sunny Carolinas seem like a great place to make this work on a bigger scale.

“The sun is so much a part of the culture in the South,” said Katie Ottenweller, an SELC attorney in Atlanta who focuses on solar energy. “It brings tourists to our beaches and helps get crops to market. But we’re just starting to tap the huge potential it has to power our homes, churches, and businesses. And the technology to do that is getting better, and cheaper, every day.”

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