Should N.C. Abandon the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard?

Some members of the  N.C.  House of Representatives have proposed to do just that.   House Bill 298  (the Affordable and Reliable Energy Act)  would repeal  2007  legislation developed  — with support from the state’s major electric utilities — to increase  use of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures to meet demand.  Abandoning the renewable energy portfolio standard (REPS) would also mean walking away from the state’s  commitment to renewable energy and energy efficiency as a source of investment and  job creation.

In 2007, North Carolina became the first state in the southeast to adopt a renewable energy portfolio standard.  Session Law 2007-397   (or “Senate Bill 3”) set a two-tiered goal for use of clean energy to meet electric power demand. By the end of calendar year 2018, municipal utilities and electric membership corporations must use a combination of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures  to meet 10% of retail sales.  The  two major investor-owned electric utilities, Duke Energy and Progress Energy,  have a slightly higher REPS  goal of 12.5%  by 2021.  Greater use of  clean  energy sources reduces air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, but Senate Bill 3 also identified renewable energy development as a way to improve the state’s energy security and generate private investment.

According to the most recent N.C. Utilities Commission report on implementation of Senate Bill 3, the electric utilities  have met the first  REPS milestone  ( 3% of 2011 retail sales). Aside from the environmental benefits, the REPS requirement  also appears to have met the goal of encouraging clean energy investment in the state.   A recently released  RTI International/La Capra  Associates study,   The Economic, Utility Portfolio, and Rate Impact of Clean Energy Development in North Carolina, found that North Carolina’s clean energy incentives (including tax credits, investment in energy efficiency and the REPS requirement) spurred $1.4 billion in project investment statewide between 2007 and 2012.   Investments in clean energy took a sharp upward turn in 2011-2012 as the first Senate Bill 3  milestone approached. Even after accounting for the  “cost” of state renewable energy tax credits,  the report found a net economic benefit to the state. A census conducted by the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association identified 15,200 full-time equivalent employees in clean energy jobs as of September, 2012.

The primary sponsor of House Bill 298, Rep. Mike Hager (R- Burke,Rutherford), has said that the renewable energy/energy efficiency standard should be repealed in the interest of lowering electricity rates for customers. There is a small add-on fee (a “rider”) that the electric utilities can use to recover the costs of meeting the REPS goal. Senate Bill 3  put caps on the riders, but also required the N.C. Utilities Commission to approve the actual amount as reasonable and necessary to cover the electric utility’s cost.   Senate Bill 3 capped the REPS  rider for residential customers at $1 per month;   the approved riders are now 42 cents per month for Progress Energy’s residential customers and 21 cents per month for Duke Energy’s residential customers. The riders have never reached the maximum of $1 per month and the actual  amounts  have come down from year to year.

The RTI/ La Capra study concluded that North Carolina’s clean energy incentives (including the REPS requirement) will  have little impact on rate-payers — and may be a net benefit in the long term. The benefit largely comes from reduced costs as a result of energy efficiency measures; energy efficiency gains  translate into new energy generation costs that can be avoided or delayed.

This will be an interesting bill to watch. Skepticism about renewable energy and energy efficiency seems to have become an article of faith  among some conservatives — which may account for the fact that the bill has 27 sponsors in the House. But the bill also has been given four House  committee referrals; the long path through the House likely reflects some counter-pressure on the jobs  and investment side.

One other note about House Bill 298 — it is difficult to know exactly what to make of this, but the bill changes the  definition of “renewable energy resource” to exclude wind energy and include peat and fossil fuels.