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High Country residents investing in solar power navigate complex policies | News

HIGH COUNTRY — Some residents of the High Country looking to use more renewable energy have already invested in solar power, but many of those say that energy companies have made the option difficult to afford and use. However, change might be on the horizon.

Renee Shulman’s house in Vilas, just outside Boone, has a lush grassy yard, a creek, a fenced-off area for her nearly 20 chickens and a large, shiny solar panel. She is a customer of Blue Ridge Energy.

“I don’t know how much you look at your energy bill,” Shulman said, “but mine is a lot more complicated.”

Sitting at her computer, she scrolled through a spreadsheet in which she has diligently organized months upon months of her energy bills, breaking down the charges into an itemized list.

Charges that are usually baked into regular BRE customers’ bills in singular sums are itemized on hers, explaining how much energy she purchased from BRE and sold from her solar panel, as well as the variety of fees and taxes that go into a complete energy bill.

The lists of energy rates, fees and charges can be labyrinthine and confusing for customers. Shulman pointed a finger at her computer screen and gestured to a month in her spreadsheet in which she bought nearly the same amount of energy as she sold.

“In this month, I paid $81,” Shulman said “I mean, it’s good to be connected to the grid for backup energy, but if I buy and sell an equivalent amount, my electric bill should be… a little closer to nothing, right?”

Shulman said she saves around $40 a month on her energy bill. Her insurance for the solar panel costs $50 per month. She uses net metering, a system in which the power company credits the customer for the electricity they sell to the grid.

Besides paying for the energy she has purchased from the grid, Shulman and other net metering customers also pay a variety of other fees: a distribution energy charge, a basic facilities charge, an energy supply charge and taxes. In total, there are around $53 in additional fees and charges, but this number can vary slightly month by month.

“I don’t blame Blue Ridge Energy. Solar power is variable, that’s the nature of it,” Shulman said. But she said she does believe that the company makes having one’s own solar power complicated, and that minimum amounts in some of the fees makes it so that solar power customers cannot get their bills any lower.

The distribution charge cannot go any lower than $17, Shulman said, regardless of how much energy is sold or bought from the grid. Additionally, the basic facilities charge of $36 does not change. She said she understands that trucks, air conditioning, secretaries and other business expenses must be paid, but questions the basic facilities charge given that she, too, is paying for her own solar power facility at home from which she is selling energy to the grid.

Shulman said that owning solar power is something she has done out of her own beliefs, not because it is economically profitable. The entire setup, including the panels, inverter that processes the electricity and the battery, among other items, cost her around $20,000.

While she saves some money each month on her electricity bill, and gets to purchase energy from BRE at a lower price because of her solar power agreement, it will take a while to make back the upfront cost of the system.

Jason Lingle, director of energy solutions at Blue Ridge Energy, said that BRE pays net metering customers “about the same amount per kWh” of energy that the company is paying for all other sources of energy it purchases.

In regard to the fees, Lingle said that the basic facilities charge and distribution energy charge are considered as “grid charges,” or infrastructure costs for BRE. The energy supply charge net metering customers are paying is the “direct price of energy (BRE) is purchasing.”

Lingle said BRE customers have another option besides net metering for solar: a community solar garden. Customers can subscribe to pay for one or more panels in a large facility owned by BRE if they do not want to make the investment to have their own solar panels, Lingle said.

Especially for renters, students or even people who live on the wrong side of a mountain and get poor solar exposure, a community solar garden is an accessible way to purchase clean energy, Lingle said. These customers are still on a net metering structure, with the renewable energy their purchased solar panel produces “offsetting” their power bill, Lingle said.

Currently, the rate per panel in BRE’s community solar garden is $3.75 per month. In 2019, BRE constructed a new solar garden in Caldwell County because the subscriptions in their other gardens were completely full, Lingle said. Additionally, Lingle said BRE is building more panels in Caldwell County that should be online around the end of the year.

However, net metering looks like it will change for BRE customers in the future. According to Renee Whitener, director of public relations for BRE, the company is deploying a new Automated Metering Infrastructure (AMI) over the next three or four years.

While changes aren’t on the “immediate horizon” for customers, Whitener said, once the AMI system is complete it will provide the tools necessary to roll out new rates, and most likely a whole new net metering structure, for customers. Net metering changes do not address the other charges and fees.

High Country residents may also have access to solar power through NRLP. According to Anna Oakes, media relations specialist at App State, customers of NRLP who want to install solar at their own residence can pay a one-time $100 fee which covers the cost of engineering, installation and metering. Solar customers connecting to the NRLP grid currently do not have to pay a monthly basic facilities charge, Oakes said.

Change is coming for NRLP, too. According to Oakes, with the new wholesale power agreement NRLP has with Carolina Power Partners starting in January 2022, NRLP will be pursuing a new rate structure for self-generated solar customers.

Marisa Mecke is a Report for America corps member at Mountain Times Publications. Report for America is a national nonprofit service program which places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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