How We Made Clean Energy Bipartisan in North Carolina

North Carolina's clean energy policies have faced heavy debate and attacks. But in 2015, supporters of clean energy won legislators over with hard facts on the economy, jobs and electricity prices.
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North Carolina's clean energy policies have faced heavy debate and attacks. But in 2015, supporters of clean energy won legislators over with hard facts on the economy, jobs and electricity prices.

In the early years, solar energy policy was viewed through either a conservative or liberal lens. It was assumed that conservatives didn't support policies to grow clean energy, and that liberals were tree-huggers that supported spending on anything to save the planet. In 2015 we saw, for the first time in North Carolina, a real shift in support for pro-solar policies from the conservative side of the aisle.

2015 was a particularly active year for solar in the North Carolina legislature. Policies that impacted the fast-growing solar energy industry were included in several bills. And a number of attempts were made to roll back the state's Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard (REPS), which requires utilities to include an increasing amount of renewable energy and energy efficiency in their generation mix and has resulted in significant growth of solar installations in NC.

It also allows clean energy companies to compete with the utilities in a state where the utilities have a monopoly. It should be noted that the REPS law was passed in 2007 with support from the utilities, clean energy industry and strong bi-partisan support of legislators, but the changing political climate in our state threatened to undo the progress made only a decade earlier.

As someone who took an active role in helping to share the facts about clean energy and the many benefits to our state, I had a firsthand look at what it took to garner the support of conservative legislators. The bottom line is that legislators are willing to support clean energy policies when they understand how these policies create jobs, improve local economies and provide electricity solutions that are good for the environment and public health.

How did we do this? We showed legislators the facts, as provided by independent organizations like RTI International and regulators like the North Carolina Utilities Commission. Those that oppose solar energy policies typically do so based on ideology. They do a very good job of "selling" their position with slogans, catch phrases and misleading facts taken out of context. And their sources of "research" are often special interest groups with vested interests in the fossil fuel industry, hardly objective.

What really troubles me is that the facts often get left out of the equation, or get misused, by certain individuals that are in positions to craft legislation that support their ideological views at the expense of small businesses, individual ratepayers, rural communities and the health of our environment and citizens.

So how has solar benefited the state of North Carolina? There are plenty of ways, which is what helped convince many legislators to keep NC policies in place for renewable energy. Looking to the future, for the 20-year period since the beginning of clean energy policies in North Carolina, rates are expected to be lower than they would have been had the state continued to only use conventional generation sources. By 2029, clean energy will yield $651 million in cost savings for North Carolina ratepayers.

We're seeing results already, with renewables employing thousands of NC citizens and generating billions in economic growth. In 2015, over 26,154 full-time equivalent (FTE) clean energy employees in North Carolina generated almost $7 billion in gross revenues for our state's economy.

With homegrown renewable energy, we're working towards not just American energy independence, but increasing self-sufficiency for North Carolina and keeping energy profits in-state. Currently 1.67 gigawatts of solar photovoltaic generation in North Carolina (enough to power roughly 180,000 homes) is reducing the amount of money sent out of the state to purchase coal, uranium and natural gas or to build costly new power plants.

For many counties in the state, these projects are the largest increase to their tax base in more than a decade.

I am hearing that 2016 is likely to bring about another round of attempts to repeal clean energy laws in North Carolina, in addition to the ongoing state efforts to stop implementation of the Clean Power Plan. I can only hope that by continuing to present objective, factual data that we come together, both sides of the aisle, set ideology aside, and make decisions that are in the best interests for the future of NC residents.

Erik Lensch is Managing Director at Entropy Solar Integrators, a renewable energy investment company based in Charlotte, NC. He has played an active role in the solar energy industry in North Carolina as an entrepreneur and advocate for renewable energy since founding his first solar energy company in 2006.

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