“Given your background on Republican political campaigns, why would you take a job working for green energy?” I endured this question for several months after accepting a position as the Director of Government Affairs for the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association. My answer always went something like “By green, you must mean the billions of investment dollars being attracted to North Carolina by entrepreneurs who are developing clean energy projects.”
North Carolina’s policymakers, both Republican and Democrat have a lot to be proud regarding clean energy, especially solar. North Carolina is ranked second in the nation for solar built in 2013 and has become the southeastern hub for exporting solar products and services to surrounding states, keeping jobs in North Carolina and growing our economy. According to a study by Triangle-based RTI International released in April, over $2 billion has been invested directly in North Carolina for renewable energy projects, over $1.6 billion in solar projects alone. The even better news is much of this investment is happening in the state’s most economically depressed areas.
Policies like the Renewable Energy Investment Tax Credit have proven successful in attracting these projects to North Carolina, growing a trained workforce, and giving North Carolina a leadership position in this rapidly growing field. This leads to the next question that I am often asked by my conservative peers when I talk about my job, “Solar cannot survive without help from the government, right?” Most people are intrigued to learn that a free market does not exist for electricity in North Carolina. The traditional free market forces that we often depend upon to pick winners and losers are absent here. North Carolina has a highly regulated electricity market where only utilities can sell power directly to consumers. Consumers are prohibited to choose who to buy their electricity from. The current business model of regulated utilities like Duke Energy encourages them to make large investments in new nuclear or natural gas plants that they can earn a return on as opposed to smaller, modular renewable energy projects where the returns are much smaller or non-existent. The utilities are not to blame; this is how they have been regulated for many decades.
In recognizing that a true free market for electricity may be many years away, North Carolina’s policymakers have used policies such as the Renewable Energy Investment Tax Credit to help level the playing field for smaller power producers, such as solar farm developers.
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Georgia more than tripled its solar capacity last year. While the Peach State still trails North Carolina by a significant margin, policymakers there are seeing the benefits of solar in North Carolina and have put new programs in place to attract these investments and projects. Continuation of the Renewable Energy Investment Tax Credit and other clean energy policies will ensure that North Carolina maintains its leadership position. If this credit is allowed to expire, we leave a hole that South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia will work quickly to fill.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, over half of the new installed electrical generating capacity in 2014 came from renewable energy. This represents tens of billions of dollars in new investments.
Clean energy is a train barreling down the tracks; nothing can slow it down. North Carolina’s policymakers just have to decide if they want this train to keep running through North Carolina, bringing jobs and investments along the way, or if we’d like to send it on its way to bring economic prosperity to our neighbors.