NC must continue its support for renewable energy

April 12, 2014 

Duke Energy’s troubles with coal ash illustrate the hazards of burning fossil fuels and disposing of the byproducts. But another hazard lies in efforts to snuff out a trend that’s decreasing North Carolina’s dependence on fossil fuels: the state’s rising production of renewable energy.

That trend has been fed by a state law requiring utilities – which now effectively means Duke Energy – to get a portion of their electric power from renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and livestock waste methane. The Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards law (commonly known as Senate Bill 3) requires that renewable energy sources account for 3 percent of a utility’s sales this year with the standards rising to 12.5 percent of total retail sales by 2021.

The requirement creates a market for renewable energy sources and has accounted for a boom in the solar energy industry in North Carolina. But building one market takes from another, and the fossil fuel industry is mounting an effort to reduce or repeal the standards.

In North Carolina, that effort has been led by state Rep. Mike Hager of Rutherford, a former Duke Energy employee and the Republican majority whip. His push is supported by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which is backing similar rollback legislation around the nation, and Americans For Prosperity, the super PAC funded by the Koch brothers, who operate oil refineries and own some 4,000 miles of oil pipelines.

Hager opposes the requirement that utilities purchase power from renewable sources on the grounds that it’s a subsidy. But as the renewable energy industry grows, it requires less support. And to keep it growing, investors must be assured that there will be a stable market.

Hager’s attempts to limit or repeal the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards were defeated last session. He won’t be taking aim at renewable standards when the next session opens in May. “There are other more pressing issues that are more important to the economy,” he says.

Many conservatives oppose renewable energy standards because they think they inflate the cost of energy. Hager says he’s open to including renewable energy in the state’s energy plans if the alternative sources can contribute to savings. “I’m not anti-renewable,” he says. “The vision is to reduce utility costs in North Carolina.”

R. Bruce Thompson, of the Raleigh law firm Parker Poe, is representing the American Wind Energy Association and monitoring threats to the renewable energy standards. “The thing that worries us is when you see groups like Americans For Prosperity continue to hammer (on the law),” he says.

In 2007 North Carolina became the first state in the the Southeast to adopt renewable energy standards. The law has produced positive results not only in cleaner, safer energy, but also in generating jobs and tax revenue. The Research Triangle Institute estimates that North Carolina’s clean energy and energy-efficiency programs spurred $1.4 billion in project investment statewide between 2007 and 2012.

The state’s solar energy industry is the most dramatic example of renewable energy’s growth. North Carolina was second in the nation behind California for solar-power capacity added in 2013. But wind energy may be the best example of how the law is diversifying energy production and stimulating North Carolina’s economy by tapping a limitless resource.

The wind power on the state’s coast is considered one of the best “wind resources” in the East. It is attracting investment to the economically depressed counties of northeastern North Carolina and some mountain counties. The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy says proposed wind farms represent more than $1 billion in investment in North Carolina. In some counties, wind farms are already the largest taxpayers.

As advances in technology drive down the cost of wind power, it could expand here rapidly as it has in other states. In nine states, wind power meets more than 12 percent of the energy needs. The further growth of renewable energy here requires that the legislature stay the course. Lawmakers should stand behind the renewable energy standards that are producing alternatives to the pollution caused by burning fossil fuels.

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