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Dimming the lights on renewable energy

If you believe that renewable energy is an expensive, oversubsidized and ultimately fruitless endeavor, you probably think N.C. Rep. Mike Hager is helping us to finally stop making bad bets about how our future will be powered.

Hager introduced a bill this month that would end North Carolina’s mandate that power companies use renewable energy and promote energy efficiency programs. The bill repeals standards set by a 2007 N.C. law that required investor-owned electric utilities to offset at least 12.5 percent of retail sales with renewables or conservation programs by 2021.

With that law, our state was the first in the Southeast to adopt such rigorous standards, and North Carolina was held up as a model for green energy development. Like any forward thinking approach, however, it comes with risks. No one is certain how quickly, or how much, renewables will grow as a viable energy source. It’s been a slow, bumpy evolution thus far across the U.S.

Hager, a former Duke Energy engineer, thinks it’s a costly risk. He told reporters that energy sources should be chosen on a least-cost basis rather than being propped up by government. The conservative John Locke Foundation agrees, saying the cost of forcing utilities to use expensive renewable energy is harmful to the economy. (Duke Energy, a supporter of the 2007 law, is not taking a position on the merits of H298. Spokesman Tim Pettit did tell the editorial board Monday that the utility has not been “involved in this House bill.”)

But H298 is just as much of a gamble with N.C.’s economy. It’s a bet that the U.S. will never overcome its dependence on foreign oil and other non-renewable energy sources. It’s a bet that the promise of green energy will never be more than a government-financed mirage.

That’s not a bet that will benefit North Carolina. The renewable energy standard already has helped to bring $1.7 billion here, with more than 21,000 temporary and permanent jobs created, according to the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association. The national advocacy group Environmental Engineers considers North Carolina a particularly bright spot, pointing to the 7,600 jobs announced in the fourth quarter of 2012. Charlotte has benefited, too, from a number of solar developers and parts providers opening their doors here.

All of which has helped North Carolina build a reputation as a renewable energy leader, already positioned well to accommodate the growing green sector. N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory seems to realize this, telling reporters last week that the state should send the right message to existing and future investors. In January, he threw his support behind the federal government leasing five wind energy sites off the N.C. coast to eager companies. It was, he said, good for state businesses that might provide equipment for such ventures.

Another good sign: House Speaker Thom Tillis has steered H298 toward committees and cautioned lawmakers to slow down.

We’re a long way away from realizing the promise of renewables in the U.S., but green energy will eventually join natural gas, coal and nuclear as viable energy sources. When that happens, North Carolina can be ready to reap the economic benefits of an industry that’s good for us all. Now is not the time to throw away the advantages we’ve already gained.

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