I have a way to cut your electricity bill, thumb your nose at Duke Energy and do your bit for the planet's survival: Have solar panels installed—at a deep discount—on the roof of your house.
But don't thank me. Thank Solarize Durham, if you live in Durham. Or, coming soon, Solarize Raleigh. These DIY enterprises use a concept invented in crunchy, liberal Portland, Ore., where neighborhood groups got tired of waiting for the utility company to bring them rooftop solar.
Solarize Portland uses volunteer marketers and group purchasing to drive prices down.
Now the federal government is backing the scheme. A $10 million grant from the Department of Energy is being used to fund residential solar projects across the country, including Solarize Raleigh.
Solarize Durham, however, is first, because it didn't wait for government money. NC WARN, the Durham-based environmental nonprofit, took the lead, working with neighborhood associations. A private firm, called Yes! Solar Solutions, was chosen to do the installations.
Solarize Durham is signing up homeowners now. The more that sign, the lower the installation prices will be.
Solar power doesn't work for every house, but where it does, it cuts electric bills dramatically, usually by half or more. You'll not only pay less to the merged Duke Energy-Progress Energy utility colossus, you can sell them some kilowatts and get paid.
Also, should Duke's rates continue to increase, you'll be glad your solar-power rate—based on the cost of sunlight you're using—is zero. That's after the substantial up-front costs of installation, of course.
Finally, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing that solar power is Clean with a capital C—no carbon emissions. No climate change.
No one in the Triangle has pushed harder for clean-energy sources than Jim Warren, director of NC WARN. So it was fitting, when Warren greeted me at Yes! Solar Solutions in Cary, that we found ourselves in a building so clean it could have been a well-scrubbed nursery school.
In fact, Stew and Kathy Miller, Yes! co-owners, are entrepreneurs who started the Primrose nursery schools in Cary, sold them, and began anew with home remodeling before plunging into solar. In five years, they've completed 200 residential installations, the Millers said, half last year.
Warren sang the Millers' praises, calling Yes! the best solar installer in the state. Yes! buys high-end equipment—including panels from Norway and a gadget called the Sunny Boy TL from SMA, the top-selling inverter company in the world. (The inverter syncs the panels to your house.)
In Raleigh, there has been some controversy over the idea of selecting a single installer. Some installers think that if they aren't chosen, it will hurt their business. On the other hand, Warren said, the whole idea of Solarize is to "build the buzz" for solar, which should help everybody.
Solarize Durham selected Yes! because of its track record, Warren said, but also because a single company can, with a volume of business, buy equipment in bulk and reduce its own charges.
Having volunteers do the marketing, the Millers said, will allow them to discount sticker prices by up to 32 percent. Yes! will provide free assessments, recommend how many panels to install and handle all the required paperwork.
So how much does this cost? Typically between $14,000 and $19,000 per house, depending on its size, the sponsors say. But federal and state tax credits reduce the bottom-line cost by 65 percent, to between $4,000 and $6,500.
The 30 percent federal tax credit can be used over a two-year period. The 35 percent state credit—one of the most generous in the nation—can be stretched over five years if your taxable income is relatively small.
Interestingly, North Carolina has a progressive policy framework to encourage solar power, and it's paying off. Last year, our state was second in new solar power installations, behind only California, according to NPD Solarbuzz, which tracks the industry.
Most of our installations are of the large solar farm variety, though, which produce power measured in megawatts and sell it all to a utility, usually Duke Energy. Just 1,300 North Carolina homes have rooftop solar panels, according to Duke Energy.
Until recently, rooftop solar was out of reach, pricewise, for most homeowners. But solar is on a tear throughout the world, and as the technology matures, prices have dropped by 80 percent—not counting volume discounts.
In other words, Solar is now affordable, which scares the utilities to death. Their traditional business model is giant power plants and transmission lines to customers. But if the customers can produce their own power, as the utilities trade group Edison Electric Institute (EEI) warned last year, companies like Duke Energy face a bleak future not unlike Ma Bell before the cell phone.
As a result, clean-energy proponents worry that Duke will use its undoubted political clout to interfere with solar's growth. Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, used to work for Duke Energy. So did Rep. Mike Hager, a House Republican leader who's been quoted as saying solar should stand on its own—without state policies supporting it.
Currently, there's a battle brewing over so-called net metering. Duke currently pays 11 cents per kilowatt hour to residential solar customers for the surplus power they produce, for example, on a weekday when they're not home and the sun is shining. It's the same 11 cents Duke charges that customer when it's supplying the power.
The net-metering rate is money in the customer's pocket and helps bring solar's costs down a bit. Which may be why Duke now wants to pay not 11 cents but 5-7 cents, which is based not on its charges, Duke says, but on its costs.
Get it? Duke should be free to mark up its costs. You—after spending thousands to install solar power—do not.
The N.C. Utilities Commission will decide.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Battle Brewing Over Solar Power."