CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. â Environmental organization Southern Environmental Law Center says that northwest North Carolina electric utility cooperative Blue Ridge Energy is undermining its customersâ ability to use solar power, but Blue Ridge maintains that its rates for solar customers are fair.
A new website, www.ratesofsolar.com, was announced by the SELC on Oct. 23 with the goal to âprovide simple, straight-forward information about how utilities across the Southeast are treating customers with rooftop solar on their homes,â according to its statement. Visitors can search over 400 solar policies across a six-state area.
According to the SELC, Blue Ridge Energy charges net metering customers with rooftop solar $29 more per month in flat monthly fees than residential customers without solar.
For its solar customers, Blue Ridge Energy offers two different options, net metering and net billing, according to its website.
Net metering is available for renewable energy systems of up to 25 kilowatts and members use their own energy generated to offset all or a portion of a membersâ electric usage. Excess kilowatts-per-hour (kWh) are distributed on the BRE grid and credited to the memberâs electric account. These accumulated kWh can be used to reduce usage in future months. The extra kWhs are reset to zero every May 31.
The basic facilities charge for net metering is $36 a month and is not offset by any credits. In addition, net metering members also pay a distribution charge of 2.73 cents per kWh for a minimum of $17 a month.
Net metering members who need extra power from the grid pay 6.16 cents per kWh from June to October and 5.83 per kWh from November to May. Blue Ridge members who consume more than 1000 kWh usually save money on the net metering rate, Blue Ridge Energy spokesperson Renee Whitener said.
Non-solar members pay a basic facilities fee of $24.17 a month plus wholesale power costs of 6.16 cents per kWh from June to October and 5.82 cents per kWh from November to May, plus a distribution charge of 4.11 cents per kWh.
Net billing is available for renewable energy systems up to 100 kW; members sell all the solar power generated to the grid and are paid five cents per kWh. Net billing members pay the same basic facilities as regular residential customers, $24.17, plus a supplemental basic facilities charge of $2.91. Net billing members purchase all the power their home consumes from the cooperative. The net billing rate is a better option for members who consume less energy due to energy-efficient or seasonal homes, Whitner said.
Whitener said that BRE has 20 net billing customers and 143 net metering customers and that solar users choose one or the other.
âThe cooperative benefits rooftop solar members by acting as a âvirtual battery,ââ Whitener continued. âAny excess electricity generated by their system is credited to their account and can be used at a later date when needed. This enables rooftop solar members to avoid spending thousands of dollars on a backup battery that would be necessary for reliable electricity if the grid werenât available.â
But SELC characterizes the solar billing as severely limiting the expansion of solar in the region.
âSeveral years ago, this utility began its efforts to undermine customersâ ability to go solar, and Blue Ridge Energy now hits solar customers with a charge of $53 every month â $29 more than customers without solar,â the SELC said in a Oct. 23 statement.
Whitener defended the solar monthly charges.
âFor rooftop solar, the fee includes the cost of using the cooperativeâs electric grid to have backup power on demand when their rooftop solar isnât generating enough electricity to meet their needs,â Whitener said. âThis is any time the sun isnât shining: when itâs raining, dark or during severe weather such as snow or ice.â
Whitener said the increased fees for solar customers help with the infrastructure needed to make solar work.
âThe grid must be constructed and well maintained to provide reliable, efficient electricity,â Whitener said. âA utility has hundreds of millions of dollars in investment in thousands of miles of power lines, substations, transformers and other equipment in fixed capital costs. Those who want to install solar generation on their roof and want Blue Ridgeâs grid available for back-up power when they arenât generating enough power (or available to receive power when they generate too much) pay for their fair share of cost of the grid. If Blue Ridge Energy doesnât charge net metering members for these services, then solar homes would be subsidized by those members who canât afford solar, canât install it due to various factors or simply donât want solar. And that would be fundamentally unfair. As a cooperative, we look out for the best interests of all of our members.â
Rory McIlmoil is an energy savings program manager with Boone-based environmental organization Appalachian Voices, which has focused more attention on Blue Ridge Energyâs energy efficiency and renewable energy policies in recent years. McIlmoil said Appalachian Voices didnât work with the SELC on the website but supports the findings.
âThe added fee that Blue Ridge charges members who want more clean energy and the freedom to invest in their own solar systems is punitive and discriminatory,â McIlmoil said in a statement. âThat fee alone nearly doubles the cost of a typical solar system over its lifetime. No other electric co-op in the state has as bad of a solar policy as Blue Ridge, so itâs easy to see why theyâre being called out for putting the brakes on solar in the High Country.â
McIlmoil says solar energy put into the grid helps BRE reduce the amount of power it has to purchase from Duke Energy, its wholesale energy provider.
âWhat Blue Ridge is hiding is the fact that, by going solar, members are actually lowering (BREâs) overall cost of serving that solar member, and saving (BRE) money on the power bill (BRE) pays to Duke Energy, which lowers costs for all members,â McIlmoil added. âIn other words, the high fixed fee imposed on members who go solar actually shifts costs onto the solar members, not the other way around. This goes to show how far Blue Ridge will go to discourage the growth of solar energy in the High Country.â
Asked to respond to McIlmoilâs comments, Whitener pointed to the cooperativeâs net billing and net metering options for rooftop solar customers, saying âthis is similar to what other cooperatives across the state offer,â as well as Blue Ridge Energyâs Community Solar program, which allows members who may not have the option of rooftop solar to subscribe to up to 10 panels at the cooperativeâs solar farms.
BREâs wholesale energy provider, Duke Energy, was praised by the SELC for its retail net metering match for solar credits â meaning customers gets full credit for the solar they put into the grid.
âAside from North Carolina customers with solar systems larger than 100 kilowatts, Duke does not charge rooftop solar customers any monthly solar fees,â the SELC said on Oct. 23.
When asked about Duke Energyâs solar policies compared to their own, Whitener said BRE canât speak for another utility.
As solar energy looks to expand in the future, the SELC notes that itâs becoming a viable alternative.
âCurrently the Southeast has over seven gigawatts of solar installed, and another 10 gigawatts of capacity is projected for installation over the next five years,â the SELCâs Oct. 23 statement said. âSoutherners have some of the highest residential electric bills in the country and going solar is one of the few options consumers have when it comes to making their own energy choices.â