In our ongoing efforts to build an advanced energy economy, we go through moments of drama. But some of the most important work we do takes place during periods of relative quiet – building relationships, documenting economic value, and demonstrating public support. I started thinking about that after a long phone call with Ivan Urlaub, executive director of the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association (NCSEA), AEE’s state partner in the Tar Heel State.
Founded in 1978, NCSEA has been at this longer than any other group I know, and Ivan has led NCSEA for nearly 10 years. In that time, North Carolina has become an advanced energy leader in the Southeast. It was the first state in the region to institute a renewable energy and energy efficiency mandate, in 2007. As a result of that mandate and a state investment tax credit for renewable energy, North Carolina has a booming solar industry and a fast-growing smart-grid sector emerging out of the tech-focused Research Triangle.
NCSEA had its share of high drama last year. Bills filed in both the state House and Senate threatened to dismantle the state’s Renewable and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard (REPS). This was part of last year’s coordinated effort by legislators affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to undo state renewable energy policies, with states like North Carolina, where legislative majorities had flipped from Democratic to Republican, among their top targets.
Bill proponents in the North Carolina legislature used some aggressive tactics, but ultimately failed. The House sponsor jumped the line of committees scheduled to hear the bill, only to see it voted down by his own committee. In the Senate, the anti-REPs bill was reported out of committee on a controversial voice vote, only to go no further.
Hints as to why these bills went nowhere can be found in the statements and actions of North Carolina’s political leadership. Early on, House Speaker Thom Tillis expressed caution about disrupting the state’s energy policies, which he saw as encouraging both traditional and advanced energy investment. “You have that hub developing here, and one thing that will bring more companies in is certainty — certainty about what the rules are and that they won’t change,” he said. “We need to be very thoughtful before we make any changes in our energy legislation here.”
Then, in June of last year, just weeks after the anti-REPS bills died, Gov. Pat McCrory declared Solar Energy Month in North Carolina.
“North Carolina is home to one of the fastest growing solar industries in our nation,” said Gov. McCrory. “It is important that we recognize the impact the solar industry is making in our state, not only in terms of being another valuable piece to an ‘all-of-the-above’ energy plan, but also the high-quality jobs the industry creates for hardworking North Carolinians.”
In September, McCrory told an audience at the annual Appalachian Energy Summit that he had stepped in to stop the legislative effort to repeal the state’s renewable energy policies.
As we’ve seen in places like Kansas and Ohio, last year’s victory is no guarantee against having to fight all over again, and no assurance that the results will be the same. But with a “short session” nearing its end in North Carolina, no legislative action is expected on the REPS this year.
There is also no guarantee of continued political consensus behind advanced energy. That’s why Ivan and his team are also redoubling their outreach efforts – “relationship work and education,” as Ivan calls it. Focus of these efforts is on local chambers of commerce, agricultural interests (which were instrumental in turning back anti-REPS legislation last year), economic development agencies, and municipal governments. In this way, NCSEA continues to build bipartisan support for advanced energy as a job creator in North Carolina.
Key to all these educational efforts is the outstanding content NCSEA produces on a regular basis to document the progress, impact, and public appreciation of advanced energy. NCSEA’s annual industry census documents the growth and robust presence of clean energy companies in the state. The 2013 edition, published last January, showed 20 percent year-over-year employment growth, to a total of 18,400 fulltime jobs, and $3.6 billion in gross revenue. (NCSEA has also collaborated with another AEE State Partner, the South Carolina Clean Energy Business Alliance, and organizations in Georgia and Virginia on a new industry census website for all four of those Southeast states.)
An economic impact study commissioned by NCSEA from RTI International and LaCapra Associates in early 2013 showed that the state’s renewable energy and energy efficiency programs saved 8.2 million megawatt-hours of energy between 2007 and 2012, plus $427 million in savings from government energy efficiency projects, with no appreciable impact on electricity rates. These programs also spurred $1.4 billion in project investment, contributing $1.7 billion to Gross State Product and creating or retaining over 21,000 jobs over the period. These were key metrics used in the defense of REPS last year. An update published in April of this year provided further proof of economic benefits from the state’s key energy policies since 2007, including more than $50 million in renewable energy development in each of 10 rural counties and a $1.93 return to state and local government coffers for every $1.00 of renewable energy tax credit claimed by taxpayers.
NCSEA also tracks public attitudes toward advanced energy. In its fourth annual North Carolina Statewide Survey, released in May, 86 percent of Democrats, 84 percent of Independents and 77 percent of Republicans said state leaders should seek more alternative or renewable energy sources. That’s bipartisan support for a future of secure, clean, affordable energy in North Carolina.
“When I started this work, our analytical models indicated our policies would create a small net benefit over many years to ratepayers and the economy,” Ivan told me. “It still shocks me to see we have beat our own estimates by 70 percent. All ratepayers are paying less because of our policies than they would have without, and our rates of innovation and cluster growth have skyrocketed. We are just scraping the surface of our state’s potential as a rising global clean energy hub.”
But Ivan says there’s nothing like direct contact with our growing industry to drive the point home.
“Our legislators have appreciated meeting developers, manufacturers, and investors putting people to work in their districts,” he said. “There’s nothing like a tour of clean energy assets and an opportunity to meet clean energy workers in their districts to show them that the benefits are here, now and growing.”
NCSEA is a valued member of AEE’s State Coalition, which now includes 15 partner organizations working in 23 states. At AEE, we also share NCSEA’s approach to making the case for advanced energy. Our Advanced Energy Now 2014 Market Report documents the market size and growth rate of our industry here and around the world. Our latest report, Advanced Energy Technologies for Greenhouse Gas Reduction, details the technologies and services that can help states meet EPA’s pending carbon emissions rule while making their electric power systems more efficient, reliable, and consumer-focused. A national survey we commissioned in May shows high levels of public support for modernizing the electricity system with the advanced energy solutions EPA’s draft rule will encourage states to adopt. That support cut across party and ideological lines.
AEE is also adding technology to the advocacy toolbox for advanced energy. We recently announced PowerSuite, an online platform for tracking and engaging on advanced energy legislation and utility commission dockets in all 50 states. Developed by AEE’s in-house software team, PowerSuite’s initial tools – BillBoard for legislation, DocketDash for regulatory proceedings – are comprehensive, easy to use, and they facilitate collaboration on policy priorities.
AEE developed PowerSuite to help member companies save time and money as they navigate the complex policy arena in states across the country. But PowerSuite is available to non-members, too. Subscribers in academia, law firms, and nonprofit organizations will find it a powerful new way to keep up with legislative and regulatory actions across the country. I think it’s a game changer. Take a look at the demo video, and sign up for a free trial today.
We have a lot of work to do in building an advanced energy economy in this country. Some of it will be quiet, and some of it will be loud. Working together, we can do it.