The event was sponsored by the American Energy Alliance, the political lobbying arm of the Institute for Energy Policy, a conservative think tank funded by Charles and David Koch. The event moderator was Tom Pyle, president of the AEA and the IEP, and a former Koch Industries lobbyist.
Much of the money the Koch family has made has been through petrochemical fuels. According to a Pro-Publica investigation in 2014, the Kochs have used a trade group known as Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce to funnel money to a long list of conservative nonprofit groups, many of which defend the fossil fuel industry against public policy initiatives favoring renewables.
The forum was organized by Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, a longtime outspoken opponent of the state's renewable energy portfolio standard, also known as REPS, as well as state tax credits and subsidies that foster solar development.
Hager authored a bill that would freeze the REPS requirements in the state. It passed the House but is stalled in the Senate.
"If you've been subsidized for eight years, and you think you have a business, you probably have a charity," Hager said of the solar industry. "Are these employees really state employees because that's what they've come down to? And that hurts our budget."
Another panelist, Sampson County farm equipment dealer Ronnie Jackson, said two of his best customers had lost leases for 500 acres of farmland to solar farms. He said tax subsidies to developers allow them to make above-market bids that farmers can't match.
"Solar farms are able to pay the landowner close to 10 times what the normal yearly rent would be. You can’t blame the owner for selling the land when he’s offered such an outlandish price," Jackson said. "It’s heartbreaking to see this land taken by an industry that lives on government handouts."
"Let the market work," Pyle agreed. "The evidence shows that that produces the best result for the consumers."
"The folks that get hurt the most are the folks that are very least able to afford it," Yonk said.
"It basically blames all of the losses that we saw during the Great Recession solely on the REPS," Chicurel-Bayard said. "That's not true."
Chicurel-Bayard cited another study by think tank RTI International that found ratepayers in North Carolina have already saved more than $160 million due to the state's renewable standards.
"You're looking at not having to dispose of harmful materials. You're looking at not having to run scrubbers, not having to assume all of these costs related to dirty forms of energy," he said.
Panelist Herbert Eckerlin, founder of the Solar Center at North Carolina State University, said he still supports solar and other renewable energy, but he said the current push for subsidized large-scale solar farm development is essentially a money-making racket for investors.
"Sustainability is a ruse. It’s a marketing tool and nothing more," Eckerlin said.
He warned that other states with renewable energy mandates have seen increases in their energy costs, and that's a disincentive to manufacturing and other industries.
"I’m not here supporting any industry or any interest," Eckerlin said, "and I’m not against anybody. But I think we have to think about the folks, and when industry leaves, the folks are hurt and hurt badly."
The North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association countered that renewable energy is creating jobs and investment in the state.
"In just the past 7 years, over $2.6 billion has been directly invested in renewable energy projects here, leading to an economic impact of over $4.7 billion. Of this over $2.6 billion of direct investment, 75 percent – over $1.9 billion – has been invested in [rural] Tier 1 and Tier 2 counties," said NCSEA spokeswoman Allison Eckley.
"These projects have revitalized communities across the state, and the impact is personal. Because of the jobs provided by these projects, project workers' families have food on the table. Landowners have a sense of pride that their property is once again giving back to the community. And entire communities benefit from the expanded tax base and increased revenue," Eckley said in a statement, adding that solar provides a financial hedge against variable fossil fuel costs.
"In our state's highly regulated monopoly market, policies like the Renewable Energy Investment Tax Credit have been extremely effective in providing a limited market for clean and renewable technologies to compete by increasing customer access and affordability to technologies like solar," she said. "These investments have paid off: In North Carolina, every $1 of tax credit incentive taken by taxpayers who developed renewable energy projects between 2007 and 2014 returned $1.54 to state or local government revenue."
Earlier Wednesday, Duke Energy's Renewables division announced the utility has more than doubled its North Carolina solar capacity and will have 160 megawatts of solar power online by 2016, including an 80-megawatt site in Conetoe that Duke says is "the largest solar power project under construction east of the Mississippi."
Duke says it's invested more than $500 million in 22 solar energy projects since 2010.
WRAL News parent Capitol Broadcasting Co. owns a solar farm.
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