According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, North Carolina ranks second in the United States for solar energy capacity – more than relentlessly sunny states like Texas and Arizona. The smart policies that allowed us to take advantage of our solar resources have resulted in a boom in clean-energy jobs and an economic windfall for rural counties. It’s also great news for clean air – solar panels do not emit toxins or climate change drivers like particulate matter, mercury, carbon dioxide or methane.
The Amazon wind farm in the northeastern counties of Perquimans and Pasquotank generated $18 million for the local economy during construction, and will continue to generate more than $1 million per year during its operation. In Mt. Olive, First Baptist Church leased land to a solar farm and saw an 833 percent increase in revenue from that land during 2011. Sun Raised Farms, a network of family farmers across North Carolina who place and manage sheep on utility-scale solar farms, earned those farmers more than $250,000 in extra income in 2015.
Despite the good news about renewable energy, over the last few years, our state legislators and the Utilities Commission have allowed these smart policies to erode, and in some cases, have worked to slow the growth of renewable energy. For example, North Carolina state law prohibits consumers from purchasing electricity from anyplace other than the utility company.
The solar panels you see on rooftops, fields and hillsides are sending their excess electricity to their utility company, most often Duke Energy. Since the property owner must own and maintain the solar panels, there are significant upfront costs. For a typical home, installing a solar panel system can cost $15,000 to $20,000. This policy makes it effectively impossible for moderate- and low-income homeowners, small business owners, nonprofits and local governments to participate in the renewables transition.
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Our leaders can choose from a host of smart policies that will speed the transition to clean renewable energy. One option that is attractive to both conservatives and liberals is to free the market so consumers can purchase energy from renewable suppliers. For example, a local government could contract with a solar company to cover a community center or a shuttered landfill with solar panels, and buy the electricity generated from those panels at a much lower cost than what it now pays the utility. The energy cost savings could translate into lower taxes for local citizens.
In addition to lowering energy costs, increasing renewable energy jobs and boosting rural economies, smart energy policies are also good for our health. According to a Harvard University study, every $1 invested in reducing toxic emissions from power plants can result in $7 of health and economic benefits by preventing emergency room visits, hospitalizations and premature deaths from diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Additionally, transitioning to renewable energy eliminates the emissions of greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change. This would help reduce climate change health impacts like heat-related illness, cardiovascular events, exacerbated asthma and allergies, and the uncertainty and distress caused by extreme weather.
Policymakers, environmental researchers, economists and health experts will be discussing air pollution and potential solutions at the 2017 NC BREATHE conference, hosted by Clean Air Carolina on March 28. Conference participants will identify research and policy updates that will ensure a healthy, wealthy future for everyone in our state. Presentations and outcomes from the conference will be posted on ncbreatheconference.org. We urge our policymakers to heed the recommendations coming from the conference and safeguard North Carolina’s position as one of the top states maximizing the use of clean renewable energy resources – a triple win for the economy, public health and the environment.
June Blotnick is executive director of Clean Air Carolina. Dr. H.Kim Lyerly is director of the Environmental Health Scholars Program and professor in the Duke University School of Medicine, and member of Medical Advocates for Healthy Air.