Governor aims to advance solar without alienating wind

Source: Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Saturday, July 29, 2017

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper was at the center of a renewable energy dilemma this month, faced with alienating either the solar or wind industry in his state.

The Republican-dominated state Legislature sent Cooper, a Democrat, a painfully negotiated compromise bill aimed at promoting solar in a manner more to the liking of the state’s largest utility, Duke Energy (Climatewire July 6).

If the story had ended there, Cooper would likely have simply signed the bill. But Senate negotiators inserted an 18-month moratorium on wind development into the bill at the last minute. North Carolina needed to study the impact of turbines on military installations, they claimed. Wind developers promptly threatened to leave the state.

Yesterday, Cooper offered his solution: He signed the solar bill and then issued an executive order directing state agencies to continue processing all applications for new developments during the 18-month moratorium.

“This bill is critical for the future of significant increases in our already booming solar industry,” Cooper said. “I strongly oppose the ugly, last-minute, politically motivated wind moratorium. However, this fragile and hard-fought solar deal will be lost if I veto this legislation and that veto is sustained. As I signed the bill into law today, I also signed Executive Order No. 11 that will mitigate the effects of the moratorium.”

The stakes for both industries are considerable.

Only California has installed more solar capacity than the Tar Heel State. Solar advocates cheered the decision, which effectively ensures North Carolina will double its solar capacity within the next 3 ½ years. In exchange for 2.6 gigawatts of new installation, the bill overhauls the unusually generous terms offered by North Carolina under the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, a federal law from 1978 requiring utilities to accept small-scale renewable projects.

The bill reduces the size of projects eligible for a guaranteed offer from 5 megawatts to 1 megawatt and establishes a competitive bidding process that will allow Duke Energy to select projects that best meet its needs. The utility had argued that North Carolina’s solar boom had produced a glut of panels in the eastern part of the state and was driving up consumers’ bills.

NC Sustainable Energy Association Executive Director Ivan Urlaub called the wind provisions “totally unnecessary” and a blow to rural economies where the projects were proposed.

“Despite its anti-wind provisions, on the whole, NCSEA is confident the new law will help move North Carolina clean energy forward, which includes maintaining our leadership in solar energy,” Urlaub said. “Furthermore, we applaud Governor Cooper’s efforts to minimize the potential negative impacts of the 18-month wind moratorium.”

Said Randy Wheeless, a Duke spokesman, “We are pleased to see this important legislation signed into law — paving the way for a smarter energy future and benefiting all North Carolina customers. The solar aspects of this legislation will benefit residential, commercial and industrial customers alike — saving them money and allowing for more ways to secure renewable energy, while also protecting the reliability of the energy grid.”

It remained unclear whether the executive order would be enough to prevent wind developers from leaving the state. Apex Clean Energy has proposed a $300 million, 48-turbine project in the state, while Renewable Energy Systems has proposed a $200 million, 29-turbine project. Neither could immediately be reached for comment yesterday.