Tag Archives: Utilities

Renewable Energy Repeal Fails Committee Vote

April 25, 2013

House Bill 298, the bill to repeal the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard (REPS), failed to win approval in the House Public Utilities and Energy Committee yesterday. (See an earlier post for  background on North Carolina’s  renewable energy standard and House Bill 298.)

Although the bill had the backing of conservative political organizations,   the Republican-controlled House of Representatives never seemed particularly enthusiastic.  The bill won approval of the House Commerce and Job Creation Committee two weeks ago by only a one vote margin even after the bill sponsor  revised the bill  to  wind  the REPS program down more slowly.

When the bill reached the Public Utilities and Energy Committee, it  had been modified again to push complete repeal of the renewable energy standard out three more years –from 2018  to 2021. A friendly amendment in committee made two additional changes to soften the  impact of repeal on renewable energy companies that  invested in North Carolina in reliance on the REPS requirement.  The amendment  removed language allowing electric utilities to use power generated by large hydroelectric projects  to meet the REPS standard (returning to language in 2007 legislation creating the  REPS requirement). The change was made to prevent large existing hydropower plants operated by Duke Energy and Progress Energy  from crowding out new renewable energy sources even before the REPS repeal date. The amendment also  extended the time allowed for  electric utilities to recover costs associated with  renewable energy contracts. Americans for Prosperity again spoke in support of the bill and  submitted a letter of support signed by  a number of other conservative political organizations.

In spite of those efforts, the motion to approve the bill failed by a vote of 13-18 in a committee dominated by Republican legislators.  Republicans voting against the bill included members of the House  leadership —  Republican Conference Chair Ruth Samuelson and  Rules Committee Chair Tim Moore.

The bill failed for a very practical reason — the REPS requirement has brought private investment and jobs to North Carolina at a minimal cost to consumers.  “Riders” on electric bills allow the utilities to recover any additional cost of using renewable energy; the riders have never approached  caps included  in the 2007 REPS legislation. The cost of solar energy in particular has fallen by nearly half as solar companies expanded operations in North Carolina in response to REPS incentives and those costs continue to fall.  (Duke Energy’s residential  customers now pay 21 cents per month to cover the additional cost of  solar energy.  In a rate case filed with the N.C. Utilities Commission  earlier this year, Duke proposes to take the residential  REPS rider to -1 cent. Although Duke Energy has proposed rate increases, those increases are  associated with the cost of conventional energy generation.)

At the same time, private  investment in response to the renewable energy standard brought jobs to the state. See  a 2013 report  by Research Triangle Institute/ LaCapra Associates,   The Economic, Utility Portfolio, and Rate Impact of Clean Energy Development in North Carolina,  for more on the economic impact of the  N.C.  REPS requirement and state renewable energy tax incentives. A  September 2012 clean energy jobs census by the N.C. Sustainable Energy Coalition  identified  over  15,000 jobs associated with clean energy companies.

Conservative political organizations like Americans for Prosperity have made  renewable energy standards a  target for repeal nationwide.  Given extremely low consumer cost and increased private  investment and job creation,  there was little in  the N.C.  REPS experience that could be used  as an argument for repeal.  Supporters of House Bill 298  increasingly had to rely on an ideological argument against energy subsidies in general.  That position has a significant weakness — conventional energy sources  (such as coal, natural gas, and nuclear power) also benefit from subsidies, but conservative  opposition  seems to focus only on subsidies for renewable energy.   Bill supporters  also cited  stories of high cost and renewable energy business failures in other states and countries.

Approving House Bill 298 would have required legislators to ignore  real economic benefits to the state  in favor of an ideological argument against renewable energy subsidies. A majority of committee members chose  reality.

N.C. Renewable Energy Update

April 10, 2013:  A little more detail on the new version of House Bill 298. (For some reason, it took a week for the version  approved  in committee last Wednesday to be posted on the General Assembly website).

Instead of  immediately repealing   the entire   2007 renewable energy portfolio standard (REPS)  requirement, the bill would cap the amount of electric generation  to be met by renewable energy sources at 6%  of 2014  retail sales and sunset the REPS requirement  in 2018. The 2007 legislation (Senate Bill 3) required the electric utilities to generate 6% of 2014 retail sales  using renewable energy sources by 2015 and then increased the REPS goal to 10% of retail sales by 2018 and 12.5% of retail sales from  2021 on. SB 298 cuts the renewable energy goal in half and the 2018 sunset means that  the electric utilities could abandon even the 6% renewable energy target after 2018.

Other changes:

●   The amount of the REPS requirement that could be met with energy efficiency measures would immediately increase from 25% to 50%

●   Existing hydropower facilities could be used to meet the REPS goal. Since both Duke Energy and Progress Energy generate a significant amount of electricity from hydropower facilities, the change may allow existing hydropower to crowd out new renewable energy sources.

● Removes the set-aside for solar energy. (HB 298 repeals a Senate Bill 3 provision requiring the electric utiltiies to supply  at least two-tenths of one percent of the electric power sold to retail customers from 2018 on through a combination of new solar electric facilities and new metered solar thermal energy facilities.) The bill keeps the Senate Bill 3 set-asides for energy generated by swine and poultry waste – although those  set-asides  would sunset in 2018 with the REPS requirement.

● Requires any contract between an electric utility and a renewable energy company to end by December 31, 2018 for purposes of cost-recovery.

Although the bill looks less like immediate repeal of the REPS requirement, the effect would be the same.  New renewable energy sources could be crowded out by existing hydropower and energy efficiency even before the REPS requirement ended in 2018.  Swine and poultry waste would continue to have a set-aside through 2018 — but uncertainty beyond 2018 would make construction of waste-to-energy facilities a very risky business. In the end, the bill would completely undermine the Senate Bill 3 goal of encouraging development of new renewable sources of energy in the state as a source of energy security and job creation.

The N.C. General Assembly, Water System Operator

The N.C. General Assembly seems to be increasingly tempted to intervene in the operation of local — and particularly municipal — water and sewer systems. Is  this a good idea?

Last year,   Senate Bill 382  tried to  require the City of Durham to extend water service to a  development project outside the city limits.    Senate Bill 382  started  legislative life as  a tax bill, but in  the last few days of the 2012  legislative session  it became the  vehicle for  a House proposal to  legislatively approve a water line extension for a specific development project. (Durham had  refused the developer’s  request for water service in part because of   the high cost of extending a water line to the project.) Senate Bill 382 ultimately failed, but local conflicts over water service  continue to tempt legislators to intervene.

This year, three western legislators have introduced  a bill that would force the City of Asheville to turn its  water system over to the Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County (MSD).  You will not find any mention of the City of Asheville or the  Metropolitan Sewerage District  by name –the bill avoids naming the parties by using a generic description that happens to only apply to them — but  House Bill 488 is the latest in a series of skirmishes over control of  the Asheville water system.  The history behind the Asheville water system conflict is  long and complicated, but — as in Durham — some amount of the friction has to do with the relationship between water service and development.

One long-standing issue  has to do with  water rates  for Asheville water system customers who live outside the city limits.  Asheville is the only city in the state prohibited by law from charging water customers outside the city a higher rate — a common practice of other municipalities.  (Higher rates may be used to recover higher costs of providing the service or to offset some of the additional taxes paid  by in-town customers.) Just as friction over a development decision  led to the Durham controversy, the history of the Asheville water system  includes a  thread of  concern about the city’s  ability to use water system decisions to influence  development outside the city. Until last year, extension of water and sewer service gave cities a strong basis for forced  annexation and fear of annexation seems to have created some of the tension  between Asheville and surrounding areas.  Although the annexation process has changed,  cities like Durham and Asheville can still find themselves in conflict with developers and county officials over  development conditions tied to extension of city services or (as in the Durham case)  denial of  service  to a new development outside the city limits.  In short, decisions about extension of water and sewer service  touch two hot buttons —   money  and regulation of new development.

These conflicts have a  very direct connection to environmental protection. Water and sewer  systems are creatures of environmental and public health regulation;  environmental protection programs fund water and sewer infrastructure in many North Carolina communities.   Like many other cities,  Asheville and Durham have the challenge of  expanding water service to accommodate new development  while also maintaining or replacing the aging  infrastructure  that serves existing residents.   The land use regulations sometimes attached to extension of water and sewer service can  provide a number of environmental protection benefits, but maintaining the  fiscal health of a water system has its own environmental  value. Decisions about when and how to extend water or sewer service can have significant  financial  implications; a financially strained system will have much more difficulty providing the maintenance needed to meet public health standards and avoid environmental damage.

To run  a water or sewer system responsibly, local officials   sometimes  have to make controversial decisions about service, rates and financing.  It becomes even harder to make  a tough decision knowing the General Assembly may step in and reverse it.    Forcing the transfer of infrastructure from a city without providing for compensation — as in the case of Asheville — particularly sends the wrong message to cities  that need to invest in water or wastewater infrastructure.  Legislation affecting the  capital assets of a water or sewer system also carries the additional risk of  undermining planning and financing for system improvements.

These bills  raise another question — is it in the General Assembly’s power to force an extension of water and sewer service or to divest a city of its water system.? The answer isn’t clear to me. Local governments are  subdivisions of the state — the General Assembly can change municipal boundaries and expand or contract the authority of cities. It is less clear that the General Assembly can directly intervene in decision-making about a water and sewer system without circumscribing local government authority. In 2012, Senate Bill 382 attempted to compel an expansion of the Durham water system without actually changing the law governing the City of Durham’s authority to operate a water system. House Bill 488 directs the City of Asheville  to transfer ownership of its  water infrastructure also without  changing state laws  authorizing cities to own and operate water and sewer utilities. (The sections of House Bill 488 that require the transfer of property from Asheville to the MSD  do not amend existing statutes governing local government water and sewer systems.   The sections of the bill that enact new  statutes to cover the operation of metropolitan water and sewer districts allow, but do not require,  transfers of property between cities or counties and a district.)

Article II, Section 24 of the  N.C. Constitution prohibits the General Assembly from adopting a piece of legislation relating to “health, sanitation or the abatement of nuisances”  that applies  to  only one local jurisdiction. Since water systems fall into  all three categories, the Constitution seems on its face  to prohibit  the  General Assembly from reaching down to make decisions related to an individual water system. Legislators frequently try to draft around the Constitutional restrictions on local acts by using language that appears to be generic, but in fact only describes a single city or county. At some point, the fiction simply becomes too strained.

For  constitutional law junkies: Since state law treats cities as “persons” for many purposes, can city property be taken (even by the State) without compensation? Would the U.S. Supreme Court consider a city to be a “person” under the Fifth Amendment’s just compensation clause? A research project for another day.

Renewable Energy: Predictions (and Politics) Meet Reality

April 4, 2013

Yesterday in the North Carolina  General Assembly, the House Committee on Commerce and Job Development took up  House Bill 298. (For background on the bill, see an earlier  post  about the proposed repeal of North Carolina’s renewable energy portfolio standard.)   Rep. Mike Hager presented a slightly revised bill, but repeal of the 2007 renewable energy portfolio standard (REPS)  remains at the center of the legislation. The committee approved the bill on a very close vote (11-10);  two Republican committee members voted  with Democratic committee members to oppose the bill.

Discussion in committee set up an interesting conflict between the reality of North Carolina’s REPS experience and the politics of renewable energy.  Those supporting repeal of the REPS requirement   cite both  ideological reasons  (opposition to  energy subsidies in general and subsidies for renewable energy in particular) and fear that the higher costs of renewable energy will hurt consumers and damage  the   economy.  The problem for bill supporters is that the state has had five years of experience with the REPS requirement and none of the predicted economic  horrors have materialized.  Instead, bill opponents can point to  real economic benefits  in jobs created and  private investment attracted to the state –- at minimal cost to consumers.

Of the fifteen (by my count)  members of the public who  commented on the bill in committee, only three supported repeal of the renewable energy portfolio standard. All three represented conservative political organizations — two  speakers from Americans for Prosperity and  another   from the Civitas Institute.  One argument for repeal laid the responsibility for increased electricity rates at the feet of the renewable energy standard.  In reality, REPS costs have been  low and and continue to decline.  For a residential Duke Energy customer, the  fee (or “rider”)  to cover the additional cost of  meeting the REPS requirement  is now 21 cents per month and  falling.   Although Duke Energy has filed a proposed rate increase  with the N.C. Utilities Commission, the justification for the increase has been recovery of capital costs associated with conventional power generation facilities and improvements to transmission infrastructure  — not  the cost of renewable energy.

Dallas Woodhouse, state director of Americans for Prosperity,  and Brian Balfour from the Civitas Institute also argued that the  higher  cost of renewable energy hurts the state’s economy and leads to job loss.   Their  argument  seems to be rooted in a 2009  report on the  projected  economic impact of  North Carolina’s renewable energy portfolio standard  that was put out by  the John Locke Foundation and the Beacon Hill Institute (BHI)  at Suffolk University. The  Locke/BHI Report looked at two different scenarios and even under the more favorable of the two predicted  that:

“… North Carolina will lose 3,592 jobs, investment will decrease by $43.20 million and real disposable income will fall by $56.80 million by 2021. As a result, the state economic output measured in real state Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will be $140.35 million lower than without the mandate.”

That prediction was made  early in implementation of the state  REPS requirement and the 2013 reality looks very different.    The actual impact of North Carolina’s support for green energy:  $1.4 billion in new green energy investment, more than 15,000 jobs in green energy as of September 2012  and an increase of $1.7 billion in the state’s overall economic output.  (My  earlier post has  links to both a 2013  Research Triangle Institute/La Capra report on the economic impact of the state’s green energy policies and a green energy jobs census conducted by the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association.)

Why were the predictions in the  Locke/BHI Report so wrong?  The costs of meeting the REPS requirement have turned out to be much lower than  the report projected.  The Locke/BHI Report assumed that the electric utilities would need to go  to the maximum cost recovery  rider  allowed under the 2007 REPS legislation (Senate Bill 3).  The report also evaluated a second, even more pessimistic, scenario that assumed actual renewable energy costs would exceed the fee caps.  As it turns out, the  REPS  riders are nowhere near the  statutory caps and  the riders continue to drop from year to year.  Senate Bill 3 capped the  REPS cost recovery rider for residential customers at $1 per month for 2012; the  current  Duke  Energy  rider for residential customers is  21 cents per month. In March, Duke filed an  application with the N.C.  Utilities Commission to set the residential REPS rider for 2013-2014 at  -1 cent, which would result in a  rebate to residential customers.  Costs to  non-residential customers have also come in   below the Senate Bill 3 caps and will continue to fall under the riders proposed by Duke Energy for 2013-2014.

The twelve members of the public who spoke against House Bill 298 in committee represented renewable energy companies  with significant investments in North Carolina; large swine producers  investing in waste-to-energy projects as an innovative  way to dispose  of swine waste;   the Warren County economic development director who pointed to the benefits that solar energy development  has brought to an economically struggling  rural county; and a wind energy developer interested in the North Carolina coast.

Based on the committee discussion yesterday, House Bill 298 has the potential to cause serious heartburn for conservative legislators who are being forced to choose  between a real bright spot in the state’s economy and policy positions advocated by conservative political organizations. The bill still has three more committees to get through in the House; the next stop will be the Environment Committee.

The Governor’s Budget: A Low Priority for Water and Wastewater Infrastructure?

The  infrastructure  needed to provide wastewater disposal and safe drinking water (treatment plants, pipelines, pump stations and intakes) may not be glamorous, but it is critical to public health, environmental protection and economic development. Since 2008-2009,  state grants  to help local governments  pay for  environmental infrastructure  have fallen  off a cliff.  In Governor McCrory’s proposed budget, infrastructure grant funding  hits  bottom.

In 2008, the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund (CWMTF)  issued a total of approximately $160 million in grants to rural and economically distressed communities for water and sewer infrastructure.  In the 2011-2012 fiscal year  (July 1-2011-June 30 2012),  state budget cuts had reduced the amount granted by the two programs to just over $20 million. (Note: Most CWMTF grant awards go to stream/wetland restoration, stormwater management and riparian buffer protection.  The state law creating the CWMTF only allows  grants for wastewater infrastructure needed to address a specific water quality problem.)

It isn’t clear  that  the two programs will have any  water and wastewater infrastructure grants to give in FY 2013-2014.   Governor Pat McCrory’s proposed budget  makes significant cuts to both agencies — reducing total appropriations for the CWMTF to $6.75 million in the first year of the biennium ($0 in the second year) and cutting the total Rural Center Budget from $16.6 million to $6 million. Given the other demands on those agencies, the budgeted amounts  do not allow for much — if any — future infrastructure funding.

The state has not issued bonds for water and sewer infrastructure since an $800 million bond issue in 1999; all of those funds had been committed by 2004.  Once the bond funds had been exhausted, direct appropriations to CWMTF and the Rural Center became the  only  source of state grant funding for water and  wastewater system improvements. The other major sources of  infrastructure funding  have been the Drinking Water and  Clean Water  revolving loan funds  managed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).  A much  smaller  amount of federal funding for infrastructure  comes through community development programs in the  Department of Commerce.

Grants provided through the Rural Center and CWMTF have filled needs that cannot  be met by the  DENR  revolving loan funds alone. Congress created the  state revolving funds (SRFs)  to help local governments meet the cost of complying  with Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act requirements — not to meet  all local infrastructure  needs. Both  the Drinking Water SRF and the Clean Water SRF (which funds wastewater projects)  are largely  capitalized by federal grants to the state. ( Each  federal  grant  requires a 20% state match.)    There are at least two major gaps in SRF funding:

1.  Under federal rules, the  SRFs  must be used to meet drinking water and water quality standards; generally,  SRF loans cannot be used for projects (such as water and sewer line extensions)   to serve new development projects.

2. All of the SRF awards are made in the form of loans and some low income communities  have a very limited ability to  take on more debt. In the last few years (starting with federal stimulus funding for water and sewer projects in 2009), many  SRF loans have included some amount of principal forgiveness — but the local government still has to qualify for the loan.

Grant funds provided through the CWMTF and the Rural Center  fill those gaps. Rural and economically distressed communities  can  reduce their  debt burden by using a grant as  part of a larger  project  funding package that also includes loan funds.  There has been  debate in recent years about how much state infrastructure funding should be made available as grants versus loans,  but  the mix  needs to include some amount of grant funding  for economically distressed communities and emergency projects.

The CWMTF and Rural Center grant programs also make funds available for  infrastructure projects that  are not eligible for SRF loans.  The  Rural Center’s Economic Infrastructure Program funds infrastructure needed to serve  new economic development projects —  such as extension of  water and sewer lines  to an industrial park. Many of those projects would not qualify for an SRF loan. The Rural Center has also provided grants for extension of water lines to  homes with contaminated drinking water wells. Making those projects happen can be very difficult since a water line extension to serve a small number of homes far from an existing line can be  prohibitively  expensive to the local government. In several cases,  grant funds from the Rural Center helped make those projects possible.

The state’s population continues to grow.  Existing water and sewer infrastructure continues to age.  Water and sewer service continues to be a necessary condition for much economic development.   A 2004  report issued as part of the Rural Center’s  Water 2030 Initiative  estimated that North Carolina communities would need  $15 billion  to cover  water and wastewater infrastructure needs between 2005 and  2030.  The most recent  needs survey of North Carolina  water and wastewater systems (used by Congress to predict demand on the state revolving loan funds) reached a similar estimate  —  $16 billion over the next 20 years.  Although  70% of the water and sewer projects in the state are funded by private borrowing,  a significant number of communities  rely  on  a combination of low interest loans and state grants to upgrade aging infrastructure and plan for growth.

The Governor’s  budget provides state match money needed for the next  round of federal  SRF awards, but eliminating funding for  state water and sewer infrastructure grants should not be an unintended casualty  of the budget process.



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.