By: Stew Miller
North Carolina has quickly become a leader in the Southeast and nation in new solar projects installed, which has been a tremendous economic success story thanks to policies passed by the NC General Assembly. However, this success story has primarily focused on large-scale solar projects that cover large tracts of land with the clean power generated sold to utilities – not smaller projects that generate power for home and business owners with solar panels on their roofs or property.
As a conservatively-minded business owner, I believe competition in a free market is a driving force behind a strong economy. As co-founder of Yes Solar Solutions, which has installed over 600 residential and commercial-scale solar projects, I am concerned about recent changes in energy policies that directly impact – and limit – customer choice and prevent market competition.
In North Carolina, we don’t have a free electricity market. Instead, we have a highly-regulated monopoly. Monopolies are not necessarily always bad, but they rarely lead the charge for innovation, new technologies or increased customer choice.
Pragmatic conservatives like myself, need to look for other policies besides deregulation to drive the near-term innovation and customer choice that we value. Thankfully, we don’t need to look very far for such policies. A decade ago, our state legislators put in place a number of policies that were especially important in the small-scale, rooftop solar energy sector.
One key policy is the state Renewable Energy Investment Tax Credit (REITC), which has been an important tool that helped home and business owners affordably install solar panels or other renewable technologies. Unfortunately, legislators allowed the REITC to expire at the end of 2015 – despite the fact that 78% of NC voters supported the state’s tax credit in a 2015 poll conducted by Conservatives for Clean Energy.
Another important policy is net energy metering, which enables consumers who install solar panels on their properties to receive retail credit for the surplus energy they provide to the electric grid. Utilities then sell this clean electricity at the retail rate to customers nearby. Using net metering, solar customers typically reduce a portion of the conventional electricity they buy from the utility, but not all of it.
In recent years, clean energy has become a much-needed economic boost for our state’s economy. In 2015, clean energy grew to a $7 billion industry. In fact, more than 4,300 jobs have been created in the solar industry alone. Many are in rural and economically-depressed counties that other sectors of our economy have left behind.
While the clean energy economy is a huge success story for our state, it is a nuanced success story that could change for the worse if we are not deliberate in our policymaking.
After the tax credit expiration, many small-scale solar companies like Yes Solar Solutions have heard the feedback from our potential customers – they want to install solar, but they need financing options, such as our state’s previous tax credit. Over the past four months since the tax credit expired, our company has lost almost one-third of its workforce as employees grapple with the uncertainty of whether our company can sustain itself.
This isn’t just about my company, though. The expiration of the state REITC is having a swift negative impact on customer choice. Without the necessary workforce in companies like ours, customers will lose the ability to choose rooftop solar.
Restoring our state’s renewable energy tax credit may be conceptually unpalatable to some conservative legislators; however, if the REITC is not restored, the reality we face should be viewed as more unpalatable: an even stronger monopoly-controlled electricity market. North Carolinians will lose access to small-scale solar – an industry sector that currently serves as an important alternative to the regulated monopolies.
This will occur as other states like South Carolina create thousands of solar jobs and develop a thriving solar industry after approving a renewable energy tax credit and net metering for their citizens. Yes Solar Solutions is opening a new office in South Carolina given their recent legislative actions which have created new business opportunities. North Carolina’s monopoly-controlled electricity market is making it more difficult to call the Triangle home.
Unless we achieve a truly “level playing field” with full deregulation of our electricity market, which is very unlikely in the foreseeable future, our policymakers should support the next best thing: restoring North Carolina’s renewable energy tax credit and maintaining net-metering for customer-implemented technologies like rooftop solar, geothermal heat pumps, animal waste-to-energy projects on farms, etc. By maintaining key public policies, such as the renewable energy investment tax credit and net metering, we will help ensure a bright future for the Tar Heel State and all our citizens.
Stew Miller is Co-Founder and President of Yes Solar Solutions, based in Cary, N.C. He also serves as a Board Member for Conservatives for Clean Energy.