Under the Dome

NC Democratic legislators lobby for solar power bills

A 250-kilowatt solar farm covers about one-quarter of the roof of OFM, a furniture importer in Holly Springs.
A 250-kilowatt solar farm covers about one-quarter of the roof of OFM, a furniture importer in Holly Springs. TED RICHARDSON - trichard@newsob

N.C. Democratic legislators are pushing for three solar energy bills that would extend tax credits, change electric rate structures to encourage conservation, and create a loan fund for solar projects.

Sen. Mike Woodard of Durham and Rep. Verla Insko of Chapel Hill held a news conference Tuesday with environmental groups to highlight the legislation, some of which is facing a Thursday deadline to clear either the House or Senate.

One bill would extend the tax credit for solar installations through 2021. It’s currently set to expire at the end of the year, and Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration has said the credit is no longer needed because the solar industry has “matured.”

“We don’t really believe that,” said Harvard Ayers of the group Climate Voices U.S., pointing to studies indicate that the credits generate a high return for the state. “We could lose as much as $2 billion in the next few years from nixing this whole thing.”

Rep. John Ager, a Buncombe County Democrat, said the credits are particularly beneficial to rural counties. “Many of the large industrial solar installations are going on farms in rural areas,” he said. “That’s another aspect that’s very positive.”

A second bill would change the state’s electric rate structure so that heavier power users would pay a higher rate – an approach already used by some water and sewer utilities. House Bill 377/Senate Bill 483 would also create a loan fund to help businesses and homeowners pay for efficiency and solar projects. That loan program would be funded by a new sales tax on appliances that don’t meet Energy Star standards for efficiency.

With rate tiers, “you begin to control usage,” Woodard said. “People who use the utility begin to think more about their usage.”

Large businesses would see rate tiers based on an energy audit to determine if they’re using more power than they need. “That’s an effort not to penalize anyone” in an electricity-intensive business, Insko said.

The third bill (House Bill 245) promoted Tuesday would allow third party sales of electricity in the state. None of the three have received a committee hearing yet.

While no Republicans were at Tuesday’s news conference, Woodard said support for solar is growing in the GOP.

“We may not see it by crossover, we may not see it this session, but these issues and the opportunities they bring to our state are not going anywhere,” he said.

Meanwhile, conservative groups like Americans For Prosperity are lobbying to repeal the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, which requires electric companies to use solar and wind power.

“More than 9 million North Carolina residents pay higher energy bills under RPS,” said AFP North Carolina director Donald Bryson in a news release Tuesday. “This massive wealth transfer burdens businesses and families without a shred of evidence that it produces an environmental or net-jobs benefit to our state.”