Effort to Stop Renewable Energy in North Carolina Hits a Utility Wall

There’s a rule in politics. Things that are hard to get are harder to get rid of.

One reason is that industry accommodates itself to the change, finds it’s not as bad as first thought, and sees an effort to go back as more uncertainty it doesn’t need.

That’s probably why the effort to repeal SB 3, a landmark 2007 North Carolina law aimed at making utilities buy renewable energy, is going nowhere despite all the money poured into gutting it by climate change denialist Art Pope’s John Locke Foundation.

Pope and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity spent millions of dollars during last year’s elections, winning the General Assembly for Republicans, and they want payback. But the state’s biggest utilities – Progress Energy and Duke Power – are now standing in the way of repealing something they fought hard to stop four years ago.

Here’s why.

The North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association recently put out a 2010 “green energy census” identifying 12,500 green energy jobs in the state. Renewables are now a $3.5 billion industry in North Carolina, the report says.

Last year Progress Energy issued a report expressing satisfaction with the law, but concern over changing federal standards in the area of clean energy. A 2008 effort by liberal challenger Jim Neal to tar now-Sen. Kay Hagen for pushing SB3, allegedly on behalf of Duke Power, went nowhere.

What’s left for supporters of repeal is an ideological argument, or a climate change denial argument, against a business argument. Utilities are making money from renewable energy in North Carolina, and they like it.

I’m not saying that SB3 is a great law. It classifies burning wood as “renewable.” Environmentalists say the targets are too low. It’s called a giveaway to the utility companies.

But the fight illustrates an important principle. Get business on your side, get big business on your side, and today’s “expensive mandate” becomes tomorrow’s “job-building industry.”

Small solar projects may in fact be a lot more efficient than big ones, especially when the loss from hauling the power across country is taken into account. A small group of community-based wind turbines may be more efficient and cost effective than a corporate wind farm. But big projects get big business behind you, and with big business on your side it’s the other fellow who becomes a crazy ideologue.

And the winning side of the political fence is the one to be sitting on, when all is said and done.

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Dana Blankenhorn has covered business and technology since 1978. He covered the Houston oil boom of the 1970s, began making his living online in 1985, and launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of e-commerce, in 1994. He has written for a host of off-line and online publications including The Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age, and ZDNet. He has covered PCs, networks, telecommunications, cable technology, Internet commerce, the Internet of Things, Open Source and Health IT, He began covering alternative energy at his personal blog, Danablankenhorn.com, in 2007.

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