Bid to repeal N.C. renewable energy standard comes under fire, then fails 

Source: Kristi E. Swartz, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, April 24, 2015

It took dozens of people from utility, environmental, business and consumer groups to help North Carolina become the first state in the Southeast to have a renewable energy mandate in 2007.

And it will take more than a small group of people to get rid of the standard, even if lower utility bills are dangled in front of legislators, based on comments during a committee debate yesterday afternoon.

A bill called the “N.C. Ratepayers Protection Act” failed to pass a House committee yesterday, stopping the latest attempt to scrap the state’s renewable energy requirement. The measure (H.B. 681) was filed last week, but sponsor Rep. Chris Millis introduced a new, wide-ranging energy policy bill to the House Public Utilities Committee yesterday afternoon.

The meeting’s audio also was broadcast online.

“This is a balanced and measured approach to right the wrongs of the citizens we are happy to represent,” said Millis, referring to what he considered unintended consequences from the 2007 law that requires the state’s utilities to get a certain percentage of their retail sales from renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Broadly, H.B. 681 would cap that percentage at the end of 2015. It also would reduce the size of renewable energy projects that would fall under a standard contract between the state’s regulated utilities and the small, independent solar companies that provide the electricity.

The bill also required a separate energy council to study the state’s electrical generation system. This includes baseload generation, renewable energy, and the cost and benefits of solar. The study also would examine whether utilities should charge so-called standby charges, or backup tariffs, to solar customers who still need to use the power grid at night or on cloudy and rainy days.

“This study should be praised,” said Millis, a Republican. “This is another way in this bill that we actually keep renewables at the table.”

The bill sounded like a road map to helping the state’s regulated utilities, Duke Energy Corp. and Dominion North Carolina Power. A Duke Energy spokesman told EnergyWire earlier this week that the utility preferred to take up energy policy issues collectively.

“If it takes us time to build a coalition of stakeholders and move these issues forward, that’s going to be more productive than just fighting over individual bills,” spokesman Randy Wheeless said Monday.

Some committee members also raised the collaboration issue, saying the 2007 renewable energy law was the result of a compromise from utilities, clean energy advocates, consumer groups and others.

“It was truly hammered out with all of the stakeholders at the table and all of the stakeholders participating,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Republican. “When we finally got the bill on the floor of the House, I’ll never forget this, everyone was holding hands and saying, ‘Yes.'”

They also asked Millis if Duke or Dominion approached him to write the bill. He said they did not.

“This is an effort by me and the other legislators to protect ratepayers,” he said.

Rep. Kelly Hastings pressed Millis on how electric utility bills would fall if the state’s renewable energy mandate went away. Millis referred to ratepayer protections in the bill and then said he could ask someone from Duke to testify, if a company representative was in the hearing room.

Hastings wasn’t satisfied.

“I’m not being rude. You are a friend. Do you currently have anything in writing, any promise from Duke … saying that my rates are going to go down?” he asked Millis, who eventually said he did not.

Other committee members asked for someone from one of the state’s utilities or the state Utilities Commission to explain future rate impacts.

Dan Conrad, a staff attorney for the Utilities Commission, testified that he could not predict future electric rates. When asked about whether the state’s renewable energy mandate had caused rates to go up for customers, he said those amounts show up in separate line items, known as rate riders.

“Rate cases most recently have been on large capital investments going to the utilities to support growing population and demand for electricity,” he said.

Large capital investments typically mean centralized power plants or transmission and distribution work.

Supporters say bill is ‘pro-consumer,’ not ‘anti-solar’

Donald Bryson, director of Americans for Prosperity’s North Carolina chapter, urged the House panel to pass the bill, arguing that it was time to study the effects of renewable energy on the grid.

The Koch brothers-funded AFP also posted a letter and petition to North Carolina lawmakers on the state chapter’s website last week.

“This is not an anti-solar bill, this is not an anti-wind bill. This is a pro-consumer bill,” Bryson said at the committee meeting.

The measure failed on a 14-16 vote.

Bryson issued a statement — and a warning — on the AFP state chapter’s website afterward.

“We’re disappointed that ratepayers could still be burdened with higher fees and bills to benefit well-connected industries under the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS),” he wrote. “Energy is too important to our economy for political diversion of consumer revenue and tax funds to mandate a government preferred product.

“Members of the House Public Utilities Committee that voted in favor of special interests, instead of voting to help their constituents, will be held accountable. AFP will launch immediate grassroots and paid media efforts to educate citizens in those legislative districts about the vote that their House member made today.”