Environmental issues have taken a back seat in a legislative session ruled by budgets and redistricting, but renewable energy enthusiasts now have reason to hope due to a new solar-energy bill chiefly sponsored by Republicans.
House Bill 495, The Solar Jobs Bill, would require North Carolina utility companies to double their use of solar-energy offsets by the year 2018 — from the current rate of 0.2 percent of all retail electricity sold to 0.4 percent.
In a move designed to generate more jobs for North Carolina, the law also caps the amount of solar offsets that utilities may purchase from out-of-state sources at 12.5 percent. At the same time, it leaves intact a 25-percent ceiling on out-of-state purchases for all other renewable energy sources.
That means utility companies could buy up to 37.5 percent of their renewable requirements from outside North Carolina.
If passed into law, the measure would tighten regulations originally approved by the General Assembly in 2007 through Senate Bill 3. That legislation enacted sweeping changes to North Carolina’s energy landscape, including the solar-energy requirements.
“This is not my preferred method of how government should deal with energy, but the free market doesn’t exist in the energy marketplace,” said Rep. Tom Murry, R-Wake, a chief sponsor of the bill.
Murry said that since S.B. 3 was passed four years ago, the cost of solar power has gone down 50 percent in North Carolina, so doubling the set-aside would have no net cost implications.
Plus, the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association estimates that boosting the solar-energy mandate will result in a net gain of 6,000 jobs for the state, Murry said.
But utility giants warn that tinkering with S.B. 3 by upping the solar-energy mandates would be premature. “It’s pretty inefficient to plan for and execute contracts to meet one goal and then after you’ve done that all of a sudden have the goals increased,” said Scott Sutton, a spokesperson for the Raleigh-based Progress Energy.
Solar energy is coming down in cost, Sutton added, but it started at such a high price-point that it’s still significantly more expensive than other options.
In the meantime, Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, has filed a measure that would scrap S.B. 3 altogether.
Murry said he respects that effort and is willing to give it a chance. He said the bills are important to stake out Republicans’ involvement in energy issues.
“Traditionally, Republicans have ceded education, health care, and energy to the other party and have focused on taxes, spending, and social issues,” Murry said. “We’re going to focus on taxes, spending, and social issues, but you’re seeing our caucus broaden our expertise to talk about education, health care, and energy policy.”
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.