Commentary: N.C. solar demand shows need to revisit programs

The director of the NC Sustainable Energy Association says North Carolina needs to revisit state policies and programs to make sure all customers have access to solar power.

Ivan Urlaub

If there were any question about how much demand there is for solar energy in North Carolina, the fact that Duke Energy’s solar rebate program was launched for a mere 17 days before effectively “selling out” for the year should settle that debate.

After launching the program on July 9, the utility announced on July 26 that its annual participation caps for both residential and commercial customers in the Duke Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Progress territories were fully subscribed, except for some additional capacity set aside for nonprofits.

It’s exciting to see the tremendous interest North Carolina homeowners and businesses showed by applying for the program with such immediacy. The first quarter of 2018 had more than 600 filings for rooftop solar construction 98 percent of which were residential solar systems which was the second most in any quarter over the past six years.

Although the caps on rebates from Duke Energy for residential and commercial customers have been met for 2018, there is still time this year for nonprofit organizations interested in solar to secure rebates to reduce the cost of their project. And, for those home and business owners interested in installing solar as part of the rebates program in the near future, now is the perfect time to contact your local solar installer and have your system designed and scheduled for installation starting in October of this year to be eligible for the 2019 rebate program.

The success of this program is also gratifying because the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association (NCSEA) worked closely with state legislators and Duke Energy during the development process to ensure that the solar rebates program was designed to be as meaningful and practical as possible for all customers. (The new solar rebates program was created in 2017 by the NC General Assembly via House Bill 589, “Competitive Energy Solutions for NC”, and signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper on July 27.)

Clearly, our collaborative efforts worked, and we’re pleased that our desired outcome was achieved, giving somewhat greater access to clean and affordable solar energy to more customers across the Tar Heel State.

I, for one, am not surprised that customers are recognizing the value of solar to their own wallets and monthly budgets, in addition to the environmental, health and economic benefits. And solar energy doesn’t just benefit the people who install it on their rooftops — it benefits all customers. The individual customer receives the rebate, which lowers the up front cost of the project, but those solar projects also stimulate North Carolina’s home-grown clean energy market, create jobs, and generate economic activity that helps leverage private investment. Solar is a clean, distributed renewable generation resource that helps lower market prices of electricity for all ratepayers. The more solar is installed, the less coal and natural gas power is needed over the long term.

The flip side is that the swiftness with which the new solar rebates were claimed 17 days warrants another discussion: Should legislators increase the available solar capacity for next year’s rebate program to get closer to meeting customers’ demand? Could we all benefit economically from finding a better approach to utility-run solar programs that is less “on-again, off-again” than this year’s experience? Ongoing uncertainty for customers and solar businesses benefits no one.

We need to get back around the table with energy customers, utilities and decision makers to make sure we have an expanded program and policies going forward that meets customers’ demand and maximizes solar access for all North Carolinians, including those who currently lack a feasible path to installing solar and being powered by the sun.

The NC Sustainable Energy Association is proud to have been a voice for electric customers in the design of this new solar rebates program over the last two years, and we are thrilled that we played a role in what will bring significant additional solar generation to fruition in communities across North Carolina. As part of our ongoing mission, NCSEA looks forward to continuing our partnerships with energy providers and their customers to help develop innovative solutions that open our growing clean energy market, allowing solar power and all clean energy to be accessible and affordable for us all.

Ivan Urlaub is executive director of the NC Sustainable Energy Association, a nonprofit organization supporting clean energy in North Carolina.

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