Raleigh, N.C. — The state House voted Wednesday to freeze the state's renewable energy standard and remove price supports for future solar farms.
The changes were part of House Bill 760, a sweeping regulatory reform bill that also addresses protective buffers for rivers, limits the investigatory powers of wildlife officers and expands the menu of foods pushcarts can serve.
The bill had its first vote on the night before crossover, when an amendment to the bill froze the state's renewable energy portfolio standard, or REPS, which is the amount of energy electric utilities are required to buy from renewable sources, and also repealed the 80 percent property tax exemption for solar farms.
After further amendment Wednesday, the property tax break was restored, but utilities will no longer have to buy renewable energy unless they need it, and beginning in 2017, they will no longer have to offer profitable contracts to solar farms over 100 kilowatts. The current requirement for a standard qualifying contract is 5 megawatts, the size of most of the small solar farms that have cropped up around the state since the REPS law was passed in 2007.
Rep. Chris Millis, R-Pender, said the amendment would "protect consumers" from higher electricity rates.
"There is a shadow grid that’s being built by ratepayers to back up the intermittency of this religion of renewable energy," Millis said.
The amendment's sponsor, Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, said the compromise was agreed to by the solar industry. But Democrats called it a "forced trade-off" that will ultimately hurt the state's booming solar sector and cost the state jobs.
"When you say [the solar industry] signed off on it, it’s more like take it or leave it," argued Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham. "It's like a 'We can hit you really, really hard, or we can hit you a bunch, but not really, really hard.'"
Democrats tried but failed to amend the bill to unfreeze REPS. Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, argued that the solar industry has invested billions of dollars and created 25,000 jobs statewide. She said similar legislation in Ohio has decreased jobs in the solar industry there.
"It’s responsible for homegrown jobs that don’t get outsourced," Harrison said. "This makes no sense to me, for a leadership that’s interested in job creation to freeze our renewable energy standard."
But Republicans argued the state's solar industry is well-established and no longer needs special tax treatment after receiving $281 million in credits between 2010 and 2012.
Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, said the industry's growth is encroaching on farmland needed for food production.
"When you folks were passing this stuff in '07, '08, '09, if the word "marginal land" was used, it was used a million times," Dixon said. "I invite you to come down to Duplin County, and let me break your heart by seeing the quality – acres and acres and acres of land – that has been diverted from very productive use."
"The winners in this issue are the consumers of North Carolina," said Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, a longtime foe of solar subsidies. "What folks need to do in this state is learn to compete."
The measure moves next to the Senate.