How renewable energy won in North Carolina
A bill that would have ended North Carolina's renewable energy program was voted down this week by a state House committee in a bipartisan vote by a surprisingly wide margin.
House Bill 298 was backed by more than a dozen conservative advocacy groups including the American Legislative Exchange Council, Americans for Prosperity, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the John Locke Foundation -- organizations that have considerable influence in North Carolina's Republican supermajority-controlled legislature.
So how did the measure lose?
In a word: jobs.
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From the moment talk of repealing the state's renewable energy standard began intensifying following last year's election among conservative groups that have long denied the reality of global warming, the state's sustainable energy industry and environmental advocates pushed back by focusing on the law's track record of creating jobs and other economic benefits.
The N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, an industry lobby group, commissioned an economic analysis of the law, which passed in 2007 by a wide bipartisan margin and was the first of its kind in the Southeast. Released in February, the study conducted by RTI International and La Capra Associates found that North Carolina's law has been a driver of clean energy development, which in turn as been an important job creator for the state.
The researchers found that while the state's economy lost more than 100,000 jobs from 2007 to 2012, clean energy development led to a net gain in employment of 21,162 "job years" (one job that lasts one year) over the same period. It also found that tax credits used by renewable energy projects were important revenue generators for state and local governments, and that the bill would save ratepayers millions of dollars over the long term by avoiding construction of costly new power plants.
In all, the study found that North Carolina has reaped $1.7 billion in total economic benefits from the law over the past six years.
When the repeal bill came up for its first public hearing earlier this month in a House Commerce subcommittee, the only people who spoke in favor of it were from Americans for Prosperity and the Civitas Institute, another conservative advocacy group. The overwhelming majority of speakers praised the renewable energy law's positive economic impact. Besides owners of clean energy companies, they included farmers who have begun investing in systems to generate power from livestock waste methane, which counts as a renewable under North Carolina's law. They were also joined by rural economic development advocates who spoke about how clean energy generation has created jobs and expanded the tax base in struggling rural communities.
It proved a convincing message in a state with the nation's fifth-highest unemployment rate and entrenched poverty in rural areas, where many of the state's renewable energy projects are located.
Though the repeal bill squeaked by in its first subcommittee vote by 11-10, two key Republicans voted against it. State Rep. Mike Hager (R-Rutherford), a former Duke Energy engineer and House majority whip who was one of the bill's four primary sponsors and its most outspoken proponent, saw that his proposal was in trouble. He has made several revisions to the measure in an effort to win support.
This week the proposal was scheduled to be heard in the House Environment Committee
chaired vice-chaired by Rep. Ruth Samuelson of Charlotte -- one of the Republicans who voted against the measure in the Commerce subcommittee. But on Monday, the measure was re-referred to the House Public Utilities Committee, which is chaired by Hager himself, for an April 24 hearing.
It was there that the repeal bill appears to have been defeated with the help of a half-dozen of Hager's fellow Republicans, including three GOP leaders. After a relatively brief half-hour debate in which lawmakers noted that the policy has brought investments and jobs to their districts, the committee voted 18-13 to kill the bill. The wide margin surprised many observers, who thought it would likely go either way by a single vote.
"This vote to defeat the REPS repeal bill was not just a good outcome, it was the right outcome," said Ivan Urlaub, executive director of the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association. "North Carolina businesses, ratepayers, workers, and state and local economies all had a stake in this outcome, and they all won a victory today."
While the bill appears dead for now, the possibility remains that it could come back in a revised form. Hager told the Associated Press after the vote that the sponsors are "going to try and patch it up."
In the meantime, Dallas Woodhouse, director of the North Carolina chapter of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), told The News & Observer of Raleigh that Republicans who voted against the repeal "need to be held accountable." AFP and allied opponents of North Carolina's renewable energy law portrayed it as a burdensome tax on consumers. Duke Energy's residential customers pay 22 cents a month and Progress Energy's 42 cents to subsidize renewables under the law.
AFP had joined with the John Locke Foundation, a North Carolina think tank that has been a leading voice of climate science denial and an opponent of renewable energy initiatives, to launch a StopGreenEnergyTax.com website to promote the repeal bill. Following the bill's defeat, the Locke Foundation posted a statement saying the committee voted to continue a "raw deal for tax payers and rate payers."
The effort to repeal North Carolina's renewable energy law is part of a broader conservative attack against such laws in a number of states including Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. Many of the groups involved in the repeal effort, including AFP, have financial ties to fossil-fuel interests.
Sue is the editorial director of Facing South and the Institute for Southern Studies.