North Carolina's Clean Energy Success Threatened

Recent reports highlight some excellent North Carolina job news: The Tar Heel State's fastest-growing industry is clean energy. (Here we're talking about energy efficiency, solar and wind power, alternative-fuel vehicles, energy storage, smart grid technology and the like.) Think about that: North Carolina's fastest-growing industry is clean energy, for the second year in a row. Not only that but the solar industry is growing particularly fast, accounting for nearly 6,000 jobs in 2015, with more than 1,100 of those jobs in solar manufacturing. Over the last year alone, the clean energy industry added more than 3,000 jobs to the state's economy and our households, grew by 14 percent, and earned almost $7 billion in revenue from the mountains to the sea. So says the annual North Carolina Clean Energy Industry Census, published on January 27th by our friends at the NC Sustainable Energy Association, and the State Solar Job Census, published February 10th by our friends at The Solar Foundation.

Clean energy jobs are good jobs, often paying much more than jobs with similar educational requirements. Nationwide, for instance, in all solar job categories--installers, designers, assembly workers-- the median wage is higher than the median wage for occupations as a whole. So here's a question for you: Why are so many of North Carolina's elected and appointed officials doing everything they can destroy the public policies that keep clean energy growth and clean energy progress going? Why are they attempting to institute unwarranted regulations that would hamper job growth and restrict rural development?

Solar is an excellent example, both of just how good that growth can be and of how perplexing the motives are of the people hoping to stop it. In recent years, North Carolina has become a solar skyrocket, jumping from 19th in installed solar capacity in 2006 to mind-blowing fourth in 2015. The solar industry is growing so fast here that in the third quarter of last year, more solar was installed in the Old North State than anywhere else in the country, except super-sunny California. (Check this out: in Q3 2015, California installed 612 megawatts of solar, while North Carolina came in second in the state rankings, at 158 megawatts. California's population is about four times that of North Carolina's, though. So on a per capita basis, North Carolina beat out the solar king.)

In 2007, 0.4 megawatts of solar were installed in our state, requiring very few workers. Now, according to yesterday's State Solar Jobs Census, North Carolina's solar industry accounts for about 5,950 jobs. The North Carolina Clean Energy Industry Census says about 20 percent of clean energy jobs in our state are in solar. And both censuses agree that solar is growing fast. It employs veterans and out-of-work construction workers and brings income to farmers and other rural landowners, along with new tax revenue to the towns and counties where they live.

Yet the state's Secretary of Environmental Quality, Donald van der Vaart, proposed that before any new solar farm can go forward, the state should have to issue a permit. Developers would also be required to post a bond to guarantee they'll eventually remove solar equipment from the properties they lease or own. Aren't these the kind of unnecessary, "job-killing regulations" that the state's Republican leadership consistently inveighs against in other contexts? In fact, North Carolina already has model solar land-leasing templates for local use, designed with NCSEA's help. "We feel these issues that are coming up at the state level have been dealt with well already at the local level," says NCSEA spokesperson Allison Eckley. Why add pointless burdens to an industry that's proving to be a bright spot in our economy?

The state government didn't even consult with the solar industry about the proposal before proposing it, says solar industry representatives. "There is a forum for looking at best practices around permitting, but I think that forum should include all the stakeholders," said Brian O'Hara, of Strata Solar, in Chapel Hill, one of the largest solar employers in the state, in a recent article.

Energy efficiency is another North Carolina employment bright spot. According to the Clean Energy Census, it's responsible for more than 40 percent of clean energy firms in the state and about half of clean energy jobs. Thanks in part to the state's Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Standard (REPS), which requires investor-owned utilities to get 12.5 percent of their electricity from sources like wind, solar and efficiency by 2021, that industry has grown to employ more than 13,000 North Carolinians full-time. Efficiency programs in the state that contribute to the REPS already save us about a half a cent per kilowatt hour on our electric bills, with those savings expected to rise over time. Yet, some legislators are hoping to essentially torpedo the REPS by allowing existing and new nuclear capacity to count toward the standard.

As both these jobs censuses show, the clean energy industry is growing fast here in the Tar Heel State, and bringing a host of benefits with it. To keep that progress going, North Carolina's elected and appointed officials don't need to do much, just step out of the way and let solar and other clean energy industries do what they've done best for years in a row: grow.