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NC Supreme Court affirms ruling in solar sales fight

The Supreme Court of North Carolina upheld prior rulings that found a nonprofit utility watchdog group violated state law through its contract to sell solar power to a church.

In a one-word decision, the Supreme Court on May 11 affirmed the September 2017 decision by the North Carolina Court of Appeals that rejected the request by North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, or NC WARN, to overturn an adverse ruling by state regulators. The Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 ruling, affirmed the April 2016 order by the North Carolina Utilities Commission that NC WARN violated state law by acting as a public utility through its power purchase agreement with Faith Community Church in Greensboro, N.C.

The church is in Duke Energy Corp.'s service territory.

The commission levied a fine of about $60,000 on NC WARN for the power sales contract but agreed to suspend the fine subject to certain conditions. These conditions included a refund of all billings, with 10% interest, that it levied on the church; the cease and desist of any further attempt to sell or advertise the sale of electricity to consumers; and the donation of the 5.2-kW rooftop solar system it installed on the church's building to the church.

NC WARN argued in filings with the commission that its agreement to sell power to the church from a solar system the group owns and installed does not constitute an activity of a public utility. The advocacy group maintained the agreement between two nonprofit entities does not constitute sales to or for the public.

"NC WARN knowingly entered into a contract to sell electricity in a franchised area and sold electricity without prior permission from the commission subjecting itself to sanctions," the commission wrote in its order.

"Duke Energy was confident the original decision by the N.C. Utilities Commission was absolutely correct. We are pleased with the swift decision by the N.C. Supreme Court," Duke Energy spokesman Randy Wheeless said in a written statement.