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Duke Energy's five-year solar rebate program paid out $45 million, but left many on the waiting list

Solar panels on a roof
David Boraks
Some experts think switching to an electrical system with more distributed power generation, like rooftop solar panels and community solar farms, would reduce the risk of widespread power outages.

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Duke Energy's now-ended five-year solar rebate program paid out about $45 million between 2018 and the final round of rebates in January. The company says more than 2,800 customers remain on the waiting list in case projects don't get done, but few — if any — will get rebates.

The program was supposed to end last year, but more than $1 million remained because of projects that never were completed. So Duke held a lottery in January for a final bonus round of rebates totaling $1,034,732.

Of that, $21,000 went to commercial customers and $1,013,732 to residential customers, according to a filing with the North Carolina Utilities Commission. Altogether, this round of rebate projects adds up to 2,604 kilowatts of generating capacity. Over the full five years, rebates totaled 100 megawatts of new rooftop solar among homes, businesses, and nonprofits and churches, according to Duke spokesman Randy Wheeless.

The program's goal was to create incentives for customers to adopt solar power by reducing the upfront installation costs. In the latter years of the program, Duke offered up to $4,000 for homeowners and $30,000 for businesses. The rebates were so popular that they were oversubscribed every year.

Three years ago, Duke switched from a once-a-year application period to twice a year. And it replaced the original first-come, first-served approach with a lottery, after the crush of applications overwhelmed its systems.

The rebates were required by a 2017 state law. Duke originally pledged to offer $62 million in rebates for a maximum of 100 megawatts installed. But Wheeless said Duke got far fewer applications than expected from nonprofits, which were offered larger rebates.

In the end, Wheeless said, "Residential got most of it — and a lower price per rebate. So the total dollar figure was lower."

Rebates have helped spur growth in rooftop solar use. Solar advocates are hoping Duke will develop a new incentive program to keep the industry growing. But for now, this is the end of the line for solar rebates in North Carolina.

But Duke also has pushed to eliminate other incentives. State regulators have approved rules changes that reduce what solar owners get paid for energy sent back to the grid. Those rules took effect Oct. 1 for business rooftop solar owners statewide — and for residential customers in the Duke Energy Progress territory, including Raleigh, Asheville and eastern North Carolina. Duke is awaiting approval for the residential rules changes in the rest of the state.

Under previous rules, solar panel owners whose panels produced more electricity than they needed could get credits on their bills equal to whatever they paid for electricity, known as "net metering." Duke Energy is reducing those credits and also is adding a $10 monthly solar fee on top of the existing monthly fee it charges every customer. Existing residential customers can keep the old rates until 2027.

Although the original idea was to incentivize rooftop solar, Duke has argued — and state regulators agreed — that rooftop solar customers are getting an unfair subsidy.

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.
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