N.C. taking positive steps on solar energy

From Daniel R. Neuspiel of Levine Children’s Hospital and University of North Carolina School of Medicine, and Arthur Spell of the Charlotte Pediatric Clinic:

North Carolina leads the South in solar installations, according to a recent report from Duke University on the solar economy. This is good news for our economy and for our health, and it could get even better if the General Assembly approves proposals to make solar more accessible.

While solar energy and other renewables are promoted as environmentally safer than fossil fuels, we often don’t realize the potential that investment in solar power has on our state’s financial competitiveness and overall population health.

Nearly half of the industrial air pollution in North Carolina comes from fossil fuel-based electricity generation, whose emissions cause ills from asthma to cancer. Renewable technologies, such as wind and solar, bring an immediate public health benefit because they generate electricity without generating neurotoxins or carcinogens or increasing ground-level ozone.

If we took these health factors into consideration when calculating the price of fossil fuels, we would pay two to three times as much as we now do for electricity, according to the New York Academy of Sciences.

Were the total on our electric bill to reflect such “full-cost accounting,” solar and other forms of renewable energy would be financially attractive options. Until we change our market models, however, we have to find other ways to level the financial playing field for renewables.

This is where our policy makers come in. Recently, legislators in Raleigh have taken positive steps that can enhance the already strong market for solar.

The impressive return on investment for renewable energy tax credits has inspired a number of bills, currently under review, to extend the renewable energy tax credit beyond 2015. It’s important to note that the majority of this investment went to rural counties that are the most economically distressed and also tend to experience much poorer health outcomes than the rest of the state.

More significantly, the legislature is considering joining the trend across the country for authorizing third-party sales, a shift in the energy revenue model that makes renewable energy significantly more affordable for small businesses, churches, non-profits, local governments, the military and individuals. In this model, a solar company pays for a solar system installed on a rooftop, then is free to sell the electricity it generates to the property owner – for example, a school, business owner or individual – at a fixed rate that is advantageous to the property owner.

Technological advances and environmental necessity have initiated a period of transition in how we produce, distribute and finance energy not only in North Carolina, but across the U.S., where 24 states already allow third-party sales.

The faster we speed up the transition by using policy tools like renewable energy tax credits and third-party sales, the sooner we can all benefit from a stronger, healthier and more secure energy mix.

The writers are members of Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, an initiative of Clean Air Carolina.