Raleigh, N.C. — As budget negotiators continue to wrangle over extending the state's renewable energy tax credit, advocates for solar and other renewable energy development made their case Thursday.
Environment North Carolina, a group that supports renewable energy, presented a new report that shows North Carolina was fourth in the nation for solar capacity in 2014.
Data from the state Department of Revenue show more than $2.6 billion was invested in renewable-energy projects in North Carolina from 2007 to 2014. The state paid out $227 million in tax credits during that time – less than one-tenth of that value.
According to a study by think tank RTI commissioned by the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, an industry-funded group, those projects have generated $1.54 in state and local tax revenue for every $1 returned in tax credits. Most of that local tax revenue has gone to rural areas that are struggling to maintain their tax bases.
"Clean energy is an economic success story in our state. The data and the facts prove it," said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, a sponsor of the 2007 legislation that created the state's Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, or REPS. "It's not a political football to be spiked in the Legislative Building."
The press conference came one day after renewables opponents held their own event to highlight the cost of the credit to state coffers. But advocates argued the credit is a strategic investment in a booming industry. They say the tax credit and the state's REPS requirement, which critics are also trying to freeze or eliminate, have set the stage for that economic growth.
"Unfortunately, these policies are under attack," said Rachel Morales with Environment NC. "Instead of undoing these policies that are working, we want to see our leaders charge ahead and strengthen these policies and make it even easier for every North Carolinian to put solar panels on their home, business and farm."
Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, the only Republican in attendance at the event, referred to the RTI report that the industry is directly responsible for nearly 20,000 full-time jobs.
"Those are real jobs that are happening for long-term, that are putting people to work, that are helping our middle-class and our communities grow," Jeter said.
Asked about the $227 million price tag for the credit over the past seven years, Jeter responded, "I'm not suggesting there's not a cost. I'm suggesting the benefit is greater than the cost."
Opponents of solar farms said Wednesday that the projects were taking too much farmland out of production. But Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland, said that's not the case in his district, one of the state's poorest areas.
"A lot of farmland was sitting idle," Pierce said. "It's really helping the local economy, helping the farmers."
Rep.Michael Wray, D-Halifax, said solar projects have brought $135 million into his rural district, shoring up local tax bases.
"These are new tax revenues our local communities and governments desperately need to pay for services like schools and roads," Wray said.
While renewables opponents say the REPS mandate will drive up the cost of power for North Carolinians, backers say the RTI study shows it's already saving consumers money and will save more in years to come as power companies need to build fewer high-priced gas and nuclear generating stations. Jeter said it will also help stabilize energy prices and buffer against oil and gas price swings driven by instability in the Middle East and elsewhere.
"Let's look at the global picture here and not just think local," Jeter said. "We need to look at energy policy in this state and this country at its total level, and renewable energy is part of that equation."
WRAL News parent Capitol Broadcasting Co. owns a solar farm.