Wind takes a blow as legislators OK deal on solar reform bill

The Senate had insisted on a moratorium to allow time for a mandated report on the potential impact new wind development might have on military bases in eastern North Carolina.

Editor's note: This story has been updated from its original version with new developments since the time it was initially published.

In a 2 a.m vote, the N.C. House and Senate agreed Friday to restore the solar compromise provisions of a reform bill on renewable energy regulation and cut a proposed wind moratorium from four years to 18 months. Duke Energy, a principal in the more than nine months of negotiations that led to the original House version of the "Competitive Energy Solutions for NC" act, welcomed the final result.

Supporters of the original "Competitive Energy Solutions for NC" act are divided over standing firm or compromising as the bill heads to a conference committee

"The passage of HB 589 provides North Carolina with a more cost-effective means of expanding solar energy," says Duke spokesman Randy Wheeless. "Customers will benefit from the market-driven aspects of the bill and the increased options they’ll have with their energy decisions."

But others involved in the process were not happy.

"We're very disappointed that, after a long process where everyone worked very hard to expand renewable energy opportunities in the state, this is the final result," says Allison Eckley, spokeswoman for the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association.

Bitter pill

The bill establishes a bidding procedure initiated by Duke for new solar construction and commits the company to seeking 2,660 megawatts worth of new solar projects over the next 45 months. After that, the annual bidding process will continue with new construction goals set by the N.C. Utilities Commission.

That was the heart of the long-negotiated compromise that was central to the House bill, approved June 7.

Eckley acknowledges the bill did restore some important provisions won in the original House version for the solar industry. But she said that the moratorium insisted on by the Senate — which is likely to impact significant wind projects now in development in eastern North Carolina — is a bitter pill.

And it is not one that NCSEA and many of its allies in the fight over the bill are certain they will swallow.

Wind study

Eckley says that the coalition of renewable energy advocates and other stakeholders in the bill negotiations are working to determine their options in the wake of passage. She would not rule out seeking a veto of the bill from Gov. Roy Cooper.

The Senate had insisted on a moratorium to allow time for a mandated report on the potential impact new wind development might have on military bases in eastern North Carolina. That's despite the fact that the military has expressed support for wind development and had approved the plans for the Amazon Wind project that is already operating in that part of the state as well as plans for one of the two projects now under development.

Chances for any compromise that would get the bill through the legislature had looked bleak through much of Thursday. The legislature was moving swiftly toward an adjournment in the wee hours of Friday morning and had two radically different versions of the bill in a conference committee led by chairmen with widely divergent views on renewable energy.

But the six conferees worked out the deal and reported a bill out of conference about 1 a.m. Both chambers had approved approved it by 2 a.m. and sent it on to Cooper.

The three-member Senate conference delegation was led by Sen. Harry Brown (R-Onslow). It was Brown who, with a handful of like-minded senators, crafted the amendments that blew a hole in the delicately balanced compromise struck by the original House version. The big blow came from the addition of the four-year moratorium on new wind-power projects. Brown had introduced it earlier this year in a separate bill.

Strong supporters
The amendments also added onerous decommissioning conditions on solar projects, cut back the commitment to new solar construction and made what was proposed as a permanent bidding process for future development into a 45-month patch that would end in 2021.

The House appointed Rep. John Szoka (R-Cumberland) as the chair of its conferees. He was a co-sponsor of the original House bill with Rep. Dean Arp (R-Union), who is also on the conference committee.

Szoka and Arp are strong supporters of the original bill. They both had to become personally involved in the tail end of the 30 meetings held over more than nine months to reach the compromise contained in the bill.

Outside groups

Outside the committee, some of the original legislation's supporters saw little room for compromise, but others appeared to look for some wiggle room.

NCSEA, the N.C. Clean Energy Business Association and others called for a return to the original, House-passed legislation.

Chris Carmody, executive director of NCCEBA, said if the original House language cannot be restored, his group will not support final passage of the bill. Should it pass over NCCEBA’s objections, he said, the group will work to get Cooper to veto it.

Carmody also said that his group was not willing to sacrifice wind development for solar. In the end, the bill softened the wind moratorium and restored the key provisions of the House bill. But that may not be enough for many of the groups that had helped to shape the original legislation and supported it.

Government moratoriums

Misgivings about the bill cross philosophical lines. The conservative group Americans for Progress “begrudgingly supported” the House bill because of the market reforms involved, says AFP's N.C. Director Donald Bryson. But it did not support the Senate changes.

And he says as an organization, AFP does not have much sympathy for government imposed moratoriums. But he says his organization cannot evaluate the Senate’s claim that construction of wind projects could threaten the future of eastern N.C. military bases that could find training and other missions hampered by 300-foot wind turbines.

“So we are no longer supporting or opposing any version of the bill,” he says.

Cooper has 30 days to decide whether to veto the legislation.

Solar focus

The House bill was designed largely as a compromise between Charlotte-based Duke Energy Corp. and the solar industry. While addressing some other renewable energy issues as well, the heart of that bill was establishing a competitive-bidding system for new solar construction paired with the commitment to 2,660 megawatts worth of new solar projects in the Carolinas by 2021.

Wind was not addressed at all in the House bill. Early in the stakeholder negotiations — which started last fall — all sides agreed to focus on the solar issues, with some small agreements made for other renewables, such as swine waste.

The wind issue was too troublesome and was being dealt with separately, so the stakeholders agreed to focus on solar.

On the utility side was Duke's demands for a competitive-bidding system and significant cutbacks to the impact of solar construction under state regulations enforcing the federal Public Utilities Recovery Act. The solar industry was willing to go that route, but only with protections to ensure that Duke would not have a stranglehold on solar development in the state.

Wind only became part of the discussion when the Senate effectively made it the central issue this week.


JUN 30 2017
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