Powerful interests are facing off on the future of renewable energy in North Carolina.
A bill to freeze the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) — a mandate on how much clean energy utilities have to use — was shoved through committee last month, but despite a wide Republican majority (34-16), the bill hasn’t been brought to the Senate floor. Similar legislation has been introduced and shot down in past years.
Environmental and business groups fighting the bill say that reintroducing the same bill until it passes is a classic American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) tactic. The North Carolina bill was brought by a legislator affiliated with ALEC, the conservative group backed by the Koch brothers, whose billion-dollar enterprise is built largely on fossil fuels.
But despite the time and money ALEC is pouring into fighting the transition to renewable energy, it seems that wind and solar have some powerful supporters, as well. Big businesses, including data services and clean energy developers, have paired with environmental advocates to stymie many of ALEC’s challenges.
Last year, ALEC-affiliated legislators in Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, and Ohio proposed rolling back state RPSs. New Mexico and New Hampshire saw efforts, as well. Only the efforts in Ohio were successful, while Kansas reached a different agreement this year.
Across the country, supporters have relied on free market rhetoric to say RPSs make electricity more expensive. “The high cost of renewable energy is paid by all state citizens, including those who already struggle to pay the cost of electricity,” according to ALEC’s sample legislation for repealing an RPS.
In North Carolina, where a companion bill already passed in the House, Americans for Prosperity’s North Carolina state director Donald Bryson echoed ALEC’s position, saying that the customer fees were set to triple.
“This compromise measure provides relief to families who pay their utility bills and work hard to grow the economy without taxpayer support or government favors,” Bryson said.
The local utility company, though, disagreed with that analysis.
Duke Energy, North Carolina’s giant electricity company — which doesn’t have the cleanest record — doesn’t have a problem with the RPS, and says that ratepayers have not been put on the hook for clean power investment in the state.
“We did not ask for this legislation; we are actually neutral on this legislation,” Randy Wheeless, a spokesman for Duke Energy, told ThinkProgress. The utility has stayed “well under” the cost cap stipulated in the RPS, Wheeless said. “We don’t think the current REP is a cost burden to customers,” he said. In his home area, customers pay about 50 cents a month to support renewable energy development.
North Carolina has been something of a solar success story. Last year, the state was in the top five for solar job growth, adding 2,500 workers, , $652 million was invested in solar installations, and 13 times more solar was installed than in 2010. In fact, North Carolina recently extended an investment tax credit for solar, and the state has attracted some of the biggest names in technology. Data centers use a phenomenal amount of power, and for tech companies, renewable energy is a key component in plans to go green.
While the bill flounders awaiting Senate vote, Apple, Facebook, and Google co-signed a letter to state leadership last week, saying the RPS actually saves money for ratepayers. The companies cited the RPS as a reason they have located in North Carolina.
“The undersigned companies have chosen to locate in North Carolina in part because the state’s existing energy policies enable us to operate and grow our businesses in furtherance of the goals mentioned above,” the letter says.
Renewable energy might save money, but it also has widespread support. A recent University of Michigan poll found that the majority of Americans, “of every race, income and education level, and religious and political affiliation,” support state-level mandates on renewable energy.
The more popular renewable energy is, the more pressure companies have to get off fossil fuels. In one stark example, Amazon has been asked to account for its energy mix after announcing new cloud computing centers in coal-heavy Ohio (which did freeze its RPS last year). Yahoo, Hootsuite, and 17 other online companies have all asked the company to reveal its energy sources.
“Given the threat of climate change and the significant amount of electricity needed to power the cloud, we are increasingly concerned about our responsibility as companies who value sustainability and share concerns about climate change,” the companies wrote.
The fact is solar and wind are becoming better and better investments for companies and utilities, even without mandates. The price of solar, for example, has dropped in half since 2010, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), a DC-based trade group. Nearly all of the solar installed in North Carolina is utility-scale. (Apple and other large private electricity users have installed some of their own projects, but a limit on leasing for residential users has prevented the homeowner market from taking off.)
In other words, killing the RPS won’t kill renewable energy, in North Carolina or around the country. Duke’s Wheeless said they have four major solar projects expected to come on line this year and that solar development will continue “with or without this bill.”
ALEC’s one RPS win this year was somewhat of a hollow victory, industry insiders say. For five years, some legislators in Kansas had pushed to rollback that state’s RPS, which is fulfilled primarily with wind farms. Last month, the wind industry and conservative groups came to a compromise, scrapping the RPS in exchange for tax certainty.
But the wind industry is a juggernaut in Kansas. Last year, wind provided 21.7 percent of all the electricity generated in Kansas, more than the 20 percent mandated under the RPS. The 2,967 megawatts (MW) of wind capacity in the state — with another 827 MW under construction — has led to 12,000 jobs and $8 billion in investment, according to the Wind Coalition, an industry group involved in the negotiations.
“This bill is a paper victory that won’t change any of the underlying economic realities favoring the continued development of Kansas’ cheap, clean, inexhaustible wind resources for years to come,” said Dorothy Barnett, executive director, Climate + Energy Project. “The renewable energy momentum we are seeing signals to the world that Kansas is still open for business.”
Republican Governor Sam Brownbeck also knows how important wind is to his state. “I want to see the industry keep growing,” he said flat out when the repeal was announced.
But despite assurances and investment from states and utilities, renewable energy advocates say repealing RPSs send a bad message — and highlights a bigger issue.
“There’s no cost to the state. The utilities aren’t asking for it. So why do it? The only logical answer: politics,” said Ken Johnson, vice president for SEIA. “Some groups supported by fossil fuel interests are hell bent on killing clean energy, and the people of North Carolina shouldn’t be duped by their sleight-of-hand tactics.”