House bill threatens NC solar boom

March 30, 2013 

Last year Republicans in the General Assembly, as part of a bill on coastal management, tried to decree how high global warming may make the seas rise.

Now several GOP lawmakers are trying to stop the sun.

It’s not as dramatic as freezing ol’ Sol in his daily passage, but it could end the state’s impressively successful efforts to harness the sun as a source of energy.

Solar power is booming in North Carolina. As The News & Observer’s John Murawski reported last Sunday, the state ranks fifth in the nation for solar energy production and is projected by the Solar Energy Industries Association to move up to fourth place this year. In 2012, North Carolina had more utility scale solar projects (21) than any state in the nation.

What’s driving the growth is a 2007 state energy law requiring power companies to replace 12.5 percent of their retail electric sales by 2021 with a combination of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures. The North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association says the law so far has created more than 21,000 jobs and generated $1.7 billion in economic benefit.

Reversing course

Over this shining success now falls the shadow of House Bill 298 offered by state Rep. Mike Hager, a Rutherfordton Republican who chairs the House Public Utilities Committee.

The bill’s title describes itself with Orwellian inversion as: “An act to reduce the burden of high energy costs on the citizens of North Carolina by eliminating renewable energy portfolio standards.”

In other words, forget about the dream of powering your home with clean and endless solar power that is getting increasingly cheaper. Instead, sign up for a another century of paying power companies to bring you energy by burning coal and running nuclear plants that are producing radioactive waste that has no place to go.

Solar power’s future is further clouded by a drive to overhaul the state’s tax code. The overhaul could eliminate a state tax credit that lowers costs for a range of alternative energy investments and has made North Carolina solar projects attractive.

Duke Energy and the state’s businesses don’t seem enthused by the effort to gut the energy law’s requirements for use of renewable energy sources. Duke Energy has invested in solar energy with good results and solar energy’s advantages are becoming clear to businesses as the cost of solar power falls.

House Speaker Thom Tillis has urged lawmakers to go slow on changing the energy bill. Gov. Pat McCrory, despite his advocacy of fracking and offshore drilling, supports expanding the state’s sources of renewable energy by developing offshore wind power.

Anti-subsidy

Instead, the push to move North Carolina off the track to more solar power appears based on ideological opposition to subsidies that support the use of renewable energy sources. The energy law allows power companies to pay a premium to meet the state targets and to pass on expenses to customers. But that extra charge is currently limited to $12 a year and hasn’t come close to that as the cost of solar has gone down.

Still, Hager, a 17-year employee of Duke Energy, said he is opposed on principle. “My goal is not to subsidize industry in North Carolina,” he said.

Of course, many industries are subsidized because there is a clear public good. It’s especially clear in the case of renewable energy. Early help in getting solar energy into the mix has brought it to the verge of becoming self-supporting.

The anti-renewable energy push is being backed by Americans For Prosperity, a group started by archconservative David Koch, an oil billionaire.

The opposition is misplaced. Rather than an intrusion on free enterprise, the state’s requirements are creating viable alternatives to fossil fuel- and nuclear-based power. That trend may ultimately make the cost of running a business cheaper while cleaning the air and reducing future stocks of nuclear waste.

And the rise of solar power is having benefits in unexpected ways. For instance, Wake Tech has put a 1,300-solar panel array on the roof of one of its buildings and plans to sell the power. The revenue is expected to provide $300,000 in student scholarships over the next two decades.

HB 298 will be considered by a House subcommittee this week. It’s consideration should end there.

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