For all the chatter about clean energy, the amount of electricity generated by renewable resources in North Carolina boils down to just about 5 percent, and most of that is hydro. Senate Bill 3, proposed energy legislation that won overwhelming support in the state Senate last week and was under review by the House at press time, would require an additional 12.5 percent of the electricity sold by Progress Energy and Duke Energy to come from efficiency programs or renewable energy sources by 2021.
The mandate would make North Carolina the first state in the Southeast to establish a renewable-portfolio standard, a step Michael Shore of national nonprofit Environmental Defense says is important for developing statewide clean-energy infrastructure. “It is so significant for North Carolina to adopt a policy like this,” says Shore. “This bill would be extremely valuable for developing solar and wind power.”
But the bill faces opposition from many other environmentalists, who say the original intention behind the legislation became distorted after utility companies lobbied for amendments in their favor. Much of the criticism hinges on a provision that would shift the financial risk of new coal and nuclear plants to ratepayers.
“The transfer of risk for big coal and nuclear plants also serves as a promotion for these plants,” says Jim Warren, executive director of the Durham-based nonprofit North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network. If the bill passes, Warren says, ratepayers could have to pay for the research and development of new coal and nuclear facilities—even if those plants are never completed.
Avram Friedman, executive director of the Sylva-based Canary Coalition, opposes the legislation in part because he says switching to 12.5 percent renewable energy by 2021 isn’t enough of a response to climate change. “If that’s the rate of progress we make, we may as well give up now,” he says. “We have to think in much bigger terms than that. This bill doesn’t convey any urgency at all.”
Nor does Friedman consider all the renewable-energy technology included in the bill to be truly clean. “Combustion of chicken carcasses, hog waste and wood waste aren’t really clean at all,” he says, referring to plants that would incinerate various forms of biomass to generate electricity. One provision that is drawing fire from clean-water activists is a mandate to use existing hog-waste lagoons as sources of methane, while allowing the hog industry to walk away from the responsibility of cleaning up those lagoons.
But the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, a Raleigh-based organization, highlights the bill as an important, if not entirely perfect, leap forward. “Advocates for sustainable energy cannot afford to sit on the sidelines waiting for the ideal Senate or House bill that will eliminate all of our greenhouse-gas emissions in one fell swoop and forever ban new coal and nuclear power plants,” a statement by the association reads, going on to say it’s a matter of getting started today to develop clean energy.
Still, Friedman and Warren remain concerned that the bill is being railroaded through without careful deliberation. “This is a wide-ranging bill,” Warren says to stress the point. “It would shift North Carolina policy for years to come.”