Senate committee OKs green-energy freeze

A worker walks among an array of solar panels at an O2 Energies solar farm near Biscoe in Montgomery County.
A worker walks among an array of solar panels at an O2 Energies solar farm near Biscoe in Montgomery County. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

An ambiguous voice vote Wednesday sent to the full Senate a measure that would freeze North Carolina’s green-energy standard, which has helped make the state a national leader in solar energy.

The measure pushed by House Majority Leader Mike Hager and others has cleared the state House. In the Senate, it was attached to an economic development bill on natural gas.

Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg County Republican who chairs the Finance Committee, would not allow debate or public comment Wednesday on the green-energy part of the bill.

Rucho declared a favorable report after a voice vote that dissenters said actually favored “no” votes. Rucho had refused Democrats’ request that votes be counted.

The renewable-energy standard was the first in the Southeast when North Carolina legislators adopted it in 2007. It requires utilities to get increasing amounts of energy from solar, wind or organic fuels, or through energy efficiency, reaching 12.5 percent of their sales by 2021.

Hager’s bill freezes that target at the current 6 percent.

It also keeps the cap on annual costs that utilities can charge residential customers at $12 a year instead of the scheduled increase to $34. Duke Energy customers actually pay far less –under $5 a year in Charlotte.

The bill’s sponsors argue that the standard unfairly rewards green-energy developers. The measure puts renewable and non-renewable energies on equal footing, they say, and lets ratepayers benefit from the cheapest generating sources.

The North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association says more than $2.6 billion has been invested in green-energy projects in the state since 2008. The bill before the Senate, it predicts, will send those investors fleeing.

“One of the misconceptions is that this is all about solar,” said government affairs director Betsy McCorkle. “Combined heat and power, wind, those technologies are starting to get off their feet. What’s going to happen is that those developers are going to go elsewhere.”

Duke Energy, which helped negotiate the standard eight years ago, says it is neutral on the legislation.

Duke has met the green-energy targets so far and expects to be able to reach the 2021 goal. It’s also become a major solar player, including a $500 million expansion of its solar fleet in the state last year.

Greenpeace demanded Wednesday that Duke take a public stand on the legislation.

“If Duke Energy is working toward clean and renewable energy sources, then why has your company remained silent as critical solar energy policies in North Carolina are at risk of being derailed?” campaigner Monica Embrey wrote CEO Lynn Good.

The bill before the Senate contains a provision Duke unsuccessfully sought from the state Utilities Commission last year. It scales back the size of green-energy projects that qualify for non-negotiated energy purchase contracts from 5 megawatts to a far smaller 100 kilowatts.

“We think customers would benefit by having to negotiate these contracts versus us having to take whatever was given to us,” said spokesman Randy Wheeless. The industry trend has shifted toward projects far larger than 5 megawatts, he said.

Duke says it favors a collaborative approach to work out green-energy issues such as payments to solar-rooftop owners, tax credits and developers’ direct sales to customers.

The green-energy standard was negotiated in that way. South Carolina worked out rules on solar energy with a similar approach last year.

“Once you have that framework set, you bring certainty to the process so everyone in the solar business at least has a road map of where you’re going,” Wheeless said.

The legislation before the Senate also calls for a study of the green-energy standard. But McCorkle said there’s a crucial difference from 2007.

“It was a long process, but we weren’t gutting existing policies and calling for a collaborative process at the same time,” she said. “To do that while you’re under attack makes it hard to feel like you’re in a collaborative process.”

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Twitter: @bhender