Raleigh, N.C. — A proposal to rewrite the state's renewable energy laws breezed through the House Wednesday with strong support and little debate – an unusual development in a chamber more often known for attempts to limit the solar industry.
In another unusual turn of events, House Speaker Tim Moore left the dais to speak from the floor in favor of the measure.
House Bill 589 would, for the first time, allow third-party leasing of solar arrays for rooftops and community projects. It would reinstate the "green source rider" that allows large energy customers to tell utilities how much of their power they want to get from renewable sources. It would open competitive bidding for solar and other capacity to bring prices down. And it would not change the state's renewable energy portfolio standard, or REPS, which dictates that state utilities should be getting 12.5 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2021.
"North Carolina is a national leader in renewable energy. Energy customers are looking for options to save them money," said sponsor Rep. John Szoka, R-Cumberland. "Today’s solar energy is cost competitive, and costs continue to fall."
Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, a longtime renewables proponent who helped write the REPS law in 2007, said the measure is "more modest in scope than I think it could be." But she added, "On balance, I think it's a good bill."
Eleven Republicans voted against the measure, including longtime solar skeptic Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, who has in the past said solar arrays are taking up too much valuable farmland and has sponsored bills requiring studies of what he says is the potential for site contamination due to heavy metals in solar cells – a claim solar cell makers say is not factually correct.
Dixon was mostly quiet during Wednesday's debate, saying only, "I think that at least someone should say that we’re still facing a situation, when the sun doesn’t shine, we have to have a source of energy."
Rep. John Blust, R- Guilford, also voted against the measure because, he said, it was 20 pages of "fairly arcane language about something that’s been controversial over the years" and he didn't feel confident that he fully understood all its potential effects on utility customers in the future.
Moore, R-Cleveland, responded that it would protect customers and help lower their bills by putting solar into the competitive market.
"The energy bill and the energy policy of this state has been an issue that has been a problem for our House and our Senate to get our hands around because it’s complicated," Moore told the House, adding that debate on the issue "far too often pits renewables versus energy producers, which shouldn’t happen.
"This bill is the example of how legislation should be done: It’s taken a lot of time, it’s had a lot of input, it’s got the buy-in of stakeholders," Moore said. "It’s good for North Carolina. It's good for ratepayers. It’s good for the economy."
The final vote was 108-11, with all Democrats and most Republicans in support. It now moves to the Senate.