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One of the country's biggest power companies is trying a new way to provide clean electricity. Duke Energy, known for its coal and nuclear plants, is enlisting customers in North Carolina for an experiment in solar energy. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Sean Durkin wants to do his part to beat climate change. He drives a Prius, and as he shows me around his new 4,000-square-foot house, he says he really wanted to install solar power.
Mr. SEAN DURKIN: We'd love to have the solar panels if we could afford it and be completely green.
SHOGREN: For most of the day, the sun bakes the back of his house, all three stories of it. But Durkin found out a solar system would cost about $40,000.
Mr. DURKIN: And then the return on it, given my utility bill of $200 a month, it's simply just not cost-effective, doesn't make any sense.
SHOGREN: Then a few months ago, when he clicked on Duke's Web site to check its stock price, he saw an intriguing press release. The company was proposing to install solar panels on 850 homes and businesses across North Carolina.
Mr. DURKIN: At the bottom was a phone number to call, and then I sent in all my information. So I hope it works out. I'd love to be a part of it.
SHOGREN: Here's how it would work. Duke would own and operate the solar panels and pay customers to use their roofs or vacant lots. The electricity would go straight onto the grid. And customers would still have to pay for their power. The proposal seems to be catching on. The company hasn't started advertising yet and already 450 customers have raised their hands. The appeal of the program is clear if you stand on the roof of the INX International ink factory in an industrial park near the Charlotte airport. Even on an autumn afternoon, the sun beats down on the white roof. Mike Davis, the plant superintendent, wants to put solar panels up here. But he says they would cost so much that he'd have to start small, unless Duke selects his roof.
Mr. MIKE DAVIS (Plant Superintendent, IMX International): They would purchase it. They would set it up. And they would maintain it. We're just giving them a location to put it. And that would be great.
SHOGREN: Davis says even though the solar power wouldn't technically belong to INX, the company still would be helping fight global warming.
Mr. DAVIS: We're doing our part to help reduce the pollution, the greenhouse gases. Right there is a noble cause.
SHOGREN: For Duke CEO Jim Rogers, installing solar power on hundreds of rooftops and on vacant lots around North Carolina isn't being a do-gooder, it's doing good business.
Mr. JIM ROGERS (CEO, Duke Energy): Another way to think about this is, as I look out to my customers, I view their rooftops as future power plant sites.
SHOGREN: Half of the states, including North Carolina, now require electric companies to produce a portion of their electricity from clean power. Many are buying electricity from customers who have solar panels or helping bankroll large-scale solar generation. But so far Duke seems to be the first to try to rent out its customers roofs. Roger says Duke will be able to drive down the cost of solar because of economies of scale and because Duke pays low interest rates to borrow the money.
Mr. ROGERS: My bet is at the end of the day we'll be able to do it at a lower cost than anyone else.
SHOGREN: But the state agency that helps regulate Duke isn't convinced.
Mr. JAMES MCLAWHORN (Director, North Carolina Public Staff Electric Division) The project that Duke proposed was very expensive, even for solar.
SHOGREN: James McLawhorn, heads the electricity division of North Carolina Public Staff. His agency recommended that Duke cut its program in half, and Duke agreed to scale back its proposal to $50 million. Even at the smaller size, scores of solar installers, even some from abroad, are vying for the job. Erik Lensch of Argand Energy Solutions is one of the people who wants to install solar panels for Duke. He says Duke's project shows that solar power's time has come. In fact, he's so convinced, his team is busy hooking up a system at its own office in Charlotte.
Mr. ERIK LENSCH (Co-Founder, Argand Energy Solutions): So we've got 20 panels the guys that put up on the roof yesterday. It's going to be enough to generate probably about half of the electricity that we use here in the building.
SHOGREN: As he shows me the panels on the roof, he explains that he'll recoup about 60 percent of his initial investment from state and federal tax credits.
Mr. LENSCH: And then basically I'm locking in the price of power for the next 30 years. It's going to pay for itself pretty quickly.
SHOGREN: And Lensch says there's an added benefit, knowing that he's using the cleanest power on the planet. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.