If you don't know your history, you're doomed to forget your successes:
North Carolina solar companies owe much of their success to an obscure federal law passed in the wake of the 1973 OPEC oil crisis, when shortages produced lines around the block at gas stations and tipped the U.S. economy into recession. At that time, Americans got about one-sixth of their electrical power from burning petroleum, much of it imported from the Middle East. In a bid for greater energy independence, lawmakers approved The Public Utility Regulatory Policy of 1978, known as PURPA.
Among other things, PURPA required utilities to buy renewable power from independent producers if it cost no more than electricity from the conventional power plants owned by the utility. The aim was to source more power from small renewable facilities, like the Person County Solar Park, easing demand for electricity from coal, gas and—in particular—petroleum-fired power plants.
I will say this again, and keep saying it if that's what it takes: In the clean energy revolution, in the reducing our carbon footprint contest, in the cutting back on pollution effort, it's all about the Megawatts. Yes, allowing for 3rd party leases on residential Solar is great, and it will make it a lot easier for folks to have them installed on their homes, but we're talking 10-15 kilowatts per. An analogy might better get my point across. Say you have a really long wall, that needs to be painted on both sides. On one side, you've got one person using a paint roller, and on the other side, you've got fifty people dabbing with a fine artist's paint brush. When the person with the roller gets tired, another steps up eagerly and starts rolling. On the other side, you're constantly trying to replace each of those fifty people dabbing. I don't need to tell you which side will be finished first, or that one of those sides may never be finished. It's a bad analogy, but it's been in my head for several weeks, and I had to get it out. Here's more on the threat to PURPA:
Duke Energy, the largest utility in North Carolina, is now leading the charge against PURPA. Duke currently is required to buy power from any cost-competitive small-scale solar installation. The utility wants to change the policy so that it would solicit bids to build new solar arrays only when it needs additional generating capacity.
Duke also wants to shorten power purchase agreements so that the company isn't locked into long-term solar power agreements if the price of coal or gas falls, or if a new solar installation proves cheaper.
"Their argument is that renewables will be cheaper than they are today, so [Duke] shouldn't have to pay" for power from existing solar installations under PURPA, said Chris Carmody, executive director of North Carolina Clean Energy Business Alliance. "But they'll turn around and establish a 10-year contract to buy natural gas, which is volatile and has heavy fluctuation. Utility-scale solar has no fluctuation—once the project is built, that's it."
Duke also claims that solar farms are flooding the grid with power on sunny days. This forces the utility to ramp down and then ramp up coal- and gas-fired power plants, which is less efficient than letting generators run at a constant rate. Complicating matters, developers are mostly building solar farms in the rural, eastern part of the state, far from hydroelectric storage systems that could bank surplus solar power.
But renewable-energy advocates say this isn't a problem with solar. It's a problem with the aging power grid—some places haven't seen an update in more than 50 years. North Carolina, they contend, needs better transmission lines and more energy storage.
As always, Duke wants to be in the driver's seat, dictating when, where, how much, etc. It's that same self-indulgent behavior that encouraged the creation of PURPA in the first place, because industry can't be expected to act in the best interests of society. Just the fact they're pissed off Solar farms are going up in the Eastern part of the state, a region that has so many economic challenges we can't begin to address them, tells you all you need to know. Duke Energy doesn't have much of a "market" there due to low population, so the utility has no incentive to support or engage in growth there. But we do.