Raleigh, N.C. — A major rewrite of the state's renewable energy policy is on its way to the House floor later this week, but skeptics say it's moving too quickly and with too little public consideration.
House Bill 589, which was announced by a news release from Speaker Tim Moore's office Monday afternoon, cleared the House Energy Committee in a little over 30 minutes Tuesday morning.
Sponsors Reps. John Szoka, R-Cumberland, and Dean Arp, R-Union, say the highly technical 20-page proposal is the end result of nine months of negotiation between utilities, the solar industry, the state's business community and other stakeholders. Moore's office was also involved in the negotiation process, and the measure is expected to move quickly through the House this week with the backing of chamber leadership.
Among other things, the measure would lift the state's ban on third-party leasing, allowing customers to rent the equipment for rooftop and community solar arrays, substantially reducing the upfront cost. It would also promote net metering, which gives the owner of a residential or commercial property with solar panels a bill credit for the retail cost of energy he or she puts back onto the grid, and it would include a solar rebate program for residential customers. And it would mandate a study on energy storage technology for intermittent sources like solar and wind.
However, the measure would also mean lower prices and shorter contracts for solar plants, which could make new development less profitable, and it would cap the amount of third-party renewable energy that the utilities would be required to purchase. It also would require a competitive bidding process for new solar development, managed by a third-party administrator.
Introducing the bill, Arp said the changes are expected to save North Carolina utility customers $1 billion over the next decade.
"We believe the mechanism in the bill is a continuing downwards pressure on cost, and it makes solar competitive," he said.
At the bill's first public airing, representatives of Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, ElectriCities, the North Carolina Chamber, the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association and renewable energy supporters all spoke briefly in favor of the measure, although some expressed reservations about parts of it.
"While we see areas where this bill could be further improved, we recognize that it represents compromise and consensus among many groups," said Betsy McCorkle with the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association.
Donald Bryson with Americans for Prosperity said such a sweeping overhaul of the state's energy policy should have more than 72 hours in the public eye, though he said he believes "it does much more good than harm."
"Why do we still have a mandate in place under REPS [the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard]?" asked Bryson "I appreciate that we have a cost cap, but we should end up getting rid of the mandate."
The bill would not affect the REPS mandate, though it would slightly lower the REPS cost that energy customers can be charged.
Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, also expressed concerns about the time for public consideration, given the complexity of the legislation, and she questioned the capping of third-party power purchases.
Arp said all those concerns had been discussed at length over the past nine months, and he reminded the committee that it's a "consensus bill" produced through extensive negotiations among all stakeholders.
"I believe it does move energy policy forward for the future," Arp said. "We can’t see the future, but we think this is the best way forward for the next few years."
The measure passed House Finance Tuesday afternoon, shortly before Governor Roy Cooper issued a statement supporting it.
"This legislation will help North Carolina stay ahead with lower cost renewable energy that protects our environment and grows our economy. I urge the Legislature to pass it and I commend everyone who worked so hard to get this agreement," Cooper wrote.
The bill marks a substantial policy shift for the House Republican caucus, whose past leaders sought to rein in the growth of "Big Solar." Rep. Szoka was initially skeptical about renewable energy, but has since become a strong proponent after, as he put it, "educating myself." He believes it will benefit the state's economy, though he admits not all of his colleagues agree.
"In today’s world, with the advance of technology in energy, in everything we look at – we’re going to need more and more energy in the future, not less, so it makes sense that we would come up with a bill that would take advantage of all the resources we do have," Szoka told WRAL News.
The measure is scheduled for debate on the House floor Wednesday afternoon.