CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Environmental organization Southern Environmental Law Center says that northwest North Carolina electric utility cooperative Blue Ridge Energy is undermining its customers’ 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 “provide simple, straight-forward information about how utilities across the Southeast are treating customers with rooftop solar on their homes,” 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 members’ electric usage. Excess kilowatts-per-hour (kWh) are distributed on the BRE grid and credited to the member’s 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.
“The cooperative benefits rooftop solar members by acting as a ‘virtual battery,’” Whitener continued. “Any 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 weren’t available.”
But SELC characterizes the solar billing as severely limiting the expansion of solar in the region.
“Several years ago, this utility began its efforts to undermine customers’ ability to go solar, and Blue Ridge Energy now hits solar customers with a charge of $53 every month – $29 more than customers without solar,” the SELC said in a Oct. 23 statement.
Whitener defended the solar monthly charges.
“For rooftop solar, the fee includes the cost of using the cooperative’s electric grid to have backup power on demand when their rooftop solar isn’t generating enough electricity to meet their needs,” Whitener said. “This is any time the sun isn’t shining: when it’s raining, dark or during severe weather such as snow or ice.”
Whitener said the increased fees for solar customers help with the infrastructure needed to make solar work.
“The grid must be constructed and well maintained to provide reliable, efficient electricity,” Whitener said. “A 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 Ridge’s grid available for back-up power when they aren’t 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 doesn’t charge net metering members for these services, then solar homes would be subsidized by those members who can’t afford solar, can’t install it due to various factors or simply don’t want solar. And that would be fundamentally unfair. As a cooperative, we look out for the best interests of all of our members.”
Rory McIlmoil is an energy savings program manager with Boone-based environmental organization Appalachian Voices, which has focused more attention on Blue Ridge Energy’s energy efficiency and renewable energy policies in recent years. McIlmoil said Appalachian Voices didn’t work with the SELC on the website but supports the findings.
“The 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,” McIlmoil said in a statement. “That 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 it’s easy to see why they’re being called out for putting the brakes on solar in the High Country.”
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.
“What Blue Ridge is hiding is the fact that, by going solar, members are actually lowering (BRE’s) 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,” McIlmoil added. “In 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.”
Asked to respond to McIlmoil’s comments, Whitener pointed to the cooperative’s net billing and net metering options for rooftop solar customers, saying “this is similar to what other cooperatives across the state offer,” as well as Blue Ridge Energy’s Community Solar program, which allows members who may not have the option of rooftop solar to subscribe to up to 10 panels at the cooperative’s solar farms.
BRE’s wholesale energy provider, Duke Energy, was praised by the SELC for its retail net metering match for solar credits — meaning customers gets full credit for the solar they put into the grid.
“Aside from North Carolina customers with solar systems larger than 100 kilowatts, Duke does not charge rooftop solar customers any monthly solar fees,” the SELC said on Oct. 23.
When asked about Duke Energy’s solar policies compared to their own, Whitener said BRE can’t speak for another utility.
As solar energy looks to expand in the future, the SELC notes that it’s becoming a viable alternative.
“Currently the Southeast has over seven gigawatts of solar installed, and another 10 gigawatts of capacity is projected for installation over the next five years,” the SELC’s Oct. 23 statement said. “Southerners 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.”