Aerial view of a neighborhood street with two homes that have solar systems

How Solar Friendly is your NC Neighborhood?

Each day we get calls from hopeful homeowners who want to know their home’s solar potential. Even with the perfect south facing roof and no shading from trees, you’re not completely out of the proverbial woods yet. There are 3 main entities which have a say on how, where, and if you can install solar on your home. These are the top dastardly barriers that you should look out for when figuring out if where you live is solar friendly, in order of importance:

  • Electric Utility
  • Homeowners Association (if you have one)
  • Local permitting and inspections department aka Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ)

All solar customers in NC have to get the proper permits and approval through their utility and local jurisdiction and many also have the added burden of their Homeowner’s Association. Luckily we handle all of the onerous paperwork and hoop jumping on our customers’ behalf. We have lots of experience dealing with these entities, which makes the process smoother and more efficient– but this is still one of the biggest barriers to solar cost and install speed in the US. This is especially true when compared to other countries with high solar adoption like Germany — where the permitting and interconnection process is more streamlined and standardized.

Electric Utility

Your utility is the most important 3rd party entity influencing your ability to make the switch to solar. Each utility can set their own rules for how you interconnect to their electric grid and how they credit you for your solar production. How your utilities handle these factors can make or break the viability of your home solar system.

Types of Interconnection

Most of the time, homeowners with solar will be generating more electricity than they can use when the sun is up, so knowing how the utility compensates for excess generation sent to the grid is crucial for determining the economic benefit of a project.

Net Metering

In a true net metering scenario, all excess electricity you produce is either credited back to you on your account at the same rate as charged, or purchased from you at the same rate you pay.

Sell-Excess

This allows you to use the electricity created with your solar panels to power you home during the day, but you are still forced to sell back the excess at a much lower rate than what you pay. It can work out pretty well if you have a high daytime electric demand, especially since we can size the system to minimize how much you export.

Buy-All-Sell-All

This requires you you sell all electricity back to the utility at a low, wholesale rate.

Other Fees

For example, these can include being taxed on solar electricity generated as a source of income (this is a ridiculous policy in VA), interconnection fees, pesky admin fees, etc.

Types of Utilities

Despite the apparent omnipresence of NC’s regulated monopoly utility overlord Duke Energy (and its rechristened conquest, Duke Energy Progress), there are more than 100 unique utility providers across North Carolina. NC Utilities are broken into 3 main groups:

Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs)

  • Have net metering in NC
  • These are the big guys. They are regulated monopolies which have all aspects of their service and electric rates overseen by the North Carolina Utilities Commission.
  • Examples: Duke Energy, Duke Energy Progress, and Dominion Power

Electric Membership Cooperatives (EMCs)

Municipal Utilities

  • Not Net Metering, probably Buy-All-Sell-All around 4 cents
  • These are utilities administered by local municipalities. They generally have the highest rates for electricity in the state and the worst solar interconnection policies. This means that the customers who could benefit from solar the most (those with the highest bills) are prevented from doing so because of their local government.
  • Examples: Rocky Mount, Wilson, Wake Forest Power, Fayetteville PWC

This map shows the approximate service territories for all utilities in North Carolina and lists whether (to our best knowledge at the time of publishing this) they offer net metering. For utilities that we work with less frequently, we always research the utility’s policy before designing a solar system so we can avoid horror stories like what happened to this Sanford couple.

What are your options if your utility is not solar friendly?

The best solution to this issue is a solar PV system with battery backup. This way, all excess electricity is stored in your home battery (Tesla PowerWall, LG Chem, or sonnenBatterie) and each day after the sun goes down, your batteries provide electricity until they run out. After your batteries are drained, you would buy electricity from the grid at the same rate you do now. This does add a premium to the price of the system since batteries are the most costly component. If solar + storage isn’t a viable option for your home at the moment, you can still take action toward getting solar into your community.

  • Double check with the utility company, see if their policy will be changing anytime soon.
  • Contact North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association to find out how you can advocate for Net Metering options with your utility and make solar an option for you and your home.
  • Urge your utility to join the 21st century by adopting net metering, especially if you are in a co-op!

Homeowners Associations (HOAs)

After your utility, Homeowners’ Associations are the biggest 3rd party impediment that can create a roadblock to going solar. If you don’t have an HOA then 1) count your blessings, and 2) feel free to skip this section.  In 99% of cases, HOAs are not hard barriers for solar, but they can slow the process down and might impact your system design. 

Solar Access Law

In 2007, North Carolina passed a solar access law (N.C. Gen. Stat. 160A-201) which prevents an HOA from establishing rules that outright prohibit solar after Oct 1, 2007. However, The law does allow HOAs to create restrictions and regulations on solar installations on the front of a home and on roofs that face common/public areas.

In cases where an HOA regulates front of roof installs, we work with homeowners to present their case for approval to the HOA. To support our argument, we equip homeowners with custom 3D renderings of what the panels will look like on their roof and with pictures of solar systems we have installed on comparable homes in similar communities in the past. Most of the battle with HOAs is a lack of familiarity with solar. Once we show them examples of solar in the 21st century, the HOA typically becomes more comfortable with the look and feel and their fears of bright blue Carter-era roof monstrosities disappear. In some cases, though, we do have to modify our system design by moving the panels to side roofs which might result in less solar production.

Local Permitting and Inspections Departments

Last on our list of 3rd party stakeholders is your local permitting and inspections departments or Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJs). AHJs do not restrict you from going solar, but they can impact the timeline of your project. There are over 900 unique local jurisdictions in North Carolina, each with the ability to enforce different standards and requirements for solar, and each with a group of inspectors with differing familiarity with how solar works The result is a large degree of variability in what it takes to get a permit to install solar across North Carolina. Luckily we handle all the permitting and interconnection paperwork for our Shine customers, but to get a sense of what we’re up against here are a few examples:

To install a residential rooftop solar system in Wake County’s jurisdiction, only an electrical permit is needed and no engineered designs are required to be submitted with the permit application. There is no plan review, and the permit will normally be issued within one day of the application’s submittal.

For the same exact project in the Town of Cary’s jurisdiction, the permitting process would look very different. In this case, both a building and electrical permit would be required, the permit application would need to be supported by electrical and structural engineered designs, and the application would undergo a plan review normally spanning 2 weeks.

In an extreme example, Perquimans County Planning and Zoning department required us to send a letter to a multinational corporation headquartered in California, who happened to own the 2 tracts of wide-open farm land adjacent to one of our customer’s lots. We were tasked to ask them to attend a formal architectural review for a rooftop solar system to make sure the company would not be bothered by the [non-existent] glare from our system. Predictably, this mega-corp did not respond to our letter or attend the county’s review meeting to speak on behalf of their empty fields to protect them from the deadly “solar glare” from the homeowner’s system. The homeowner was able to go solar at the end of the day, so all’s well that ends well– even if it was ridiculous approval process.

Solar approval process in Perquiman County requires neighbor review

Again, at the end of the day, your local jurisdiction will only affect your project timeline and will not stop you from going solar, so it doesn’t need to be a consideration when you’re making the decision to power up with clean energy. After almost 2 decades of experience working in NC, we have developed familiarity with many of NC permitting jurisdictions and know exactly how to navigate their unique requirements and quirks on behalf of our customers.

What's Next?

Alright, so now you know that your solar journey is not just a personal journey of fulfillment and purpose, but one that you get bring along 2-3 of your best friends: your utility, HOA, and AHJ. Ultimately, if we can check off your utility as solar friendly, we’ll make sure the other 2 get on board as well. If you have more questions or are ready to take the next step your solar journey, reach out to our solar educators, Mike or Davis, and let them know how we can help you.

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