David Wallace has often appeared in the pages of Xpress promoting his vision of a sustainable future for WNC as a leader in clean technology, which would also bring jobs to the region. But with the fate of the State Energy Office now in question, Wallace—who just stepped down as its western regional director—says the opportunity to realize that vision is disappearing fast.
Created in the wake of the oil crisis of the 1970s, the State Energy Office has been funded by the Petroleum Violation Escrow Account—fines collected from major petroleum producers that violated the federal oil price caps in place from 1973 to 1981. This year, those funds finally ran out—leaving it up to the General Assembly to bankroll the State Energy Office. And as legislators in Raleigh continue to hammer out a new state budget, the agency’s future hangs in the balance. That uncertainty also extends to such programs as the Energy Center at Appalachian State University and the N.C. Solar Center in Raleigh, which are partly funded by grants from the State Energy Office.
Wallace, who hails from Scotland, served his last day as director on June 29, lured away by a job offer that he says was too good to pass up. He now serves as vice president of strategic development for Appalachian Energy, a solar-panel manufacturer in Fletcher. Wallace sat down with Xpress recently to talk about his tenure at the State Energy Office and the broader energy picture for North Carolina.
Mountain Xpress: What were some of the highlights for you while you served as western regional director? Any projects in particular that you felt made a significant impact?
David Wallace: When Hurricane Katrina hit and we were within 24 hours of the government taking over the gasoline supply in the state … [there] was a much greater focus on energy dependence. That wasn’t something I could have imagined would have happened a couple of months after I arrived. And at that point, the attention being given to energy jumped up to where had been for a long time in Europe, where I come from, which was kind of interesting. And our projects—well, there’s … a program to give free energy audits to nonprofit agencies: child-care facilities, halfway houses, women’s shelters and so on. The idea was that the very high energy prices after Katrina were causing them terrible problems, and we were pretty sure that we could save money off their energy use.
MX: Is this an example of something that would be threatened if State Energy Office funding were cut?
DW: Yes, it is. It’s also something that could expand statewide. We’re still in a trial phase.
MX: What’s the latest on budget discussions about the State Energy Office?
DW: I was just speaking to Larry Shirley, the director, and he said it’s all still in play; we don’t know what’s happening with it. At this point, they’ve decided it’s a good idea to keep the actual office, so that’s a start. … There are a lot of people, a lot of legislators, and I think a lot of lobbyists who are kind of on autopilot—not really that aware or up-to-date with what we’re doing. … As they’re getting down to the wire, they’re starting to realize that the UNC energy centers are all running through us. And … we fund a lot of the general transport-related energy programs, which are so relevant to our air-quality and health issues. If that program’s not funded, all that institutional infrastructure of those programs goes away. Then there is the HealthyBuilt Homes Program, and programs with kids in schools to help with raising awareness about energy issues. … Those programs are focused on low-income communities and have been winning national awards.
MX: Would you characterize a cut in State Energy Office funding as a lost opportunity? If so, what would that opportunity have looked like?
DW: Yes. A lost opportunity to set our entire energy policy on a new course, and one that would provide more stable energy, cleaner energy sources and cheaper energy for our citizens. We’d also be missing a huge opportunity to be a leading player in clean energy. A lot of states are way ahead of us in terms of attracting clean-energy investors. … We’re not doing that yet. But if [legislators] were to cut those activities, that opportunity would disappear. It’s moving so fast, we’d be shut out.
MX: Is there anything you would have liked to tell policy-makers when you were the agency’s western director but weren’t able to?
DW: Yes: We really do use way too much energy. The opportunities to save money, cut emissions, improve health and create jobs just through saving energy are huge. There’s a huge potential for creating a substantial industry that could sustain jobs for a long time … and it’s disappearing fast.
MX: In general, how would state energy policy need to shift in order to effectively address the challenge of climate change?
DW: Energy efficiency is the first big thing to do, and you can do so much of it. You’d have to reorganize the regulatory structure for the utilities. A lot of countries have our standard of living but use half as much energy. Given long enough, we could be there—half as much energy and still just as wealthy. And by picking up the cheapest sources of renewables, you could take a big chunk out of the half that’s left. If you have long enough to do it, you can do it without incurring major costs. But time is the key. We’ve been messing around for 15 years, and in the meantime, we’ve been building all this stuff … based on the idea that energy is so cheap, you can waste it.
For information on the State Energy Office, visit www.energync.net . To learn more about Appalachian Energy, go to www.appalachianenergy.com