The North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh. Credit: Riokausa / Wikimedia Commons

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More Democrats, and Republicans, who support clean energy will head to Raleigh next month. What will they accomplish?

Democrats’ gains in North Carolina give the party enough power to block fresh efforts to roll back the state’s clean energy policies, but few expect next year’s General Assembly to tackle thornier problems such as coal ash or climate change.

While the result of one of the state’s congressional races remains uncertain amid election fraud allegations, North Carolina election officials certified other election results last week, confirming Democrats’ 16-seat pickup in the General Assembly.

Though Republicans will operate with a supermajority until the end of the year, Democrats will hold enough seats come January to sustain vetoes and likely stop efforts to limit Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s authority over energy policy.

Observers see opportunities to approve incremental, bipartisan energy policies to modernize the electric grid or advance energy efficiency — without poisonous add-ons like the moratorium on wind energy expected to expire this year. The path is less clear for more ambitious proposals.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a seven-term Democrat from Greensboro, said she plans to file bills on coal ash and climate change to “make a point,” even though they’re unlikely to move. Otherwise, she said, “mostly, I anticipate there will be less aggressive attacks on our renewable energy efforts.”

Only ‘a fool’ opposes clean energy

Though climate change and cleaning up coal ash — the toxic byproduct of burning coal for electricity — remain lightning rods, renewable energy is increasingly non-controversial, uniting major corporations and lawmakers across partisan and urban-rural divides.

North Carolina is second in the country for solar capacity, most of it in the form of large-scale installations on leased farmland. The state’s northeastern coastal plain boasts the Southeast’s only major wind farm. Both projects have boosted farming income and tax revenue for poor counties.

Clean energy has gained a foothold here in part because of policies passed with broad bipartisan support. Renewable energy tax credits and favorable standards for small developers under the federal Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA), were adopted in the 1970s. In 2007, the state followed a national trend to a establish a 12.5 percent renewable energy mandate.

The rise of wind and solar has sparked some backlash among conservatives. But despite repeated repeal attempts, lawmakers retained the green energy mandate even after the GOP took control of the Legislature and the governor’s office in 2012. They weakened PURPA standards last year only as part of a sweeping renewable measure that promised to double solar energy.

At the same time, polls show clean energy enjoys broad support among North Carolina voters — even those who consider themselves “very conservative.” Lawmakers challenged in the May Republican primaries for supporting wind and solar prevailed. Some fell to Democrats in November; others, like three-term Rep. Bob Steinburg of Chowan County, cruised to an easy victory.

“You could only be a fool if you were out there running against [clean energy],” said Steinburg, who will serve as a state senator come January. “We had folks running against it, and they’re not coming back.”

Rep. John Szoka, a Republican from Fayetteville who co-authored last year’s solar law, estimates at least half of his caucus now favors clean energy. Szoka faced no challenger in the primary but campaigned in November in part touting his support for clean energy. He won handily.

Democrats, meanwhile, are increasingly aggressive on the issue. Eighteen local governments in the state — many controlled by Democrats — have passed resolutions supporting a transition to 100 percent renewable energy.

“I know some of my colleagues are interested in getting more aggressive about addressing climate change,” said Harrison, who plans to reintroduce a bill calling for the state to convert entirely to renewable energy.

Several incoming Democrats campaigned on renewable energy, perhaps none more forcefully than state Rep.-elect Ray Russell from rural western North Carolina. A college computer science professor and the founder of RaysWeather.com, he lists a number of environmental and energy priorities on his website.

But the most pervasive environment threat to our region, our country, and to the world is Climate Change,” Russell writes. “We are no longer left wondering what the effects might be; we are living in a warmer climate and the effects are here … now.”

At the same time, older conservative Democrats have become a rarity within the party. In the House, of the four who voted with the GOP in 2012 to usher fracking into North Carolina, two are no longer in office and a third, state Rep. Bill Brisson of Bladen County, became a Republican last year.

Because renewable energy provides tax income and employment in rural districts, legislators from those areas are less likely to believe they must choose between a clean environment and good jobs for their constituents. That means that politicians like former Sen. David Hoyle, a powerful Democrat from the state’s foothills region who frequently voted against pollution controls, are no longer on the scene.

“They’re gone. Those people, they’re relics of the past,” said state Sen. Floyd McKissick, a five-term Democrat from Durham. On clean energy, he said, “I would think [Democrats] would be more in sync.”

‘The numbers to get some things done’ on clean energy?

The elections may make the biggest difference in the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Brown faced little pushback from his own party when he sought to add an 18-month moratorium on wind energy to the 2017 bipartisan solar law.

Brown easily won re-election in his Onslow County district, but he’ll now face an outspoken advocate of wind energy in Steinburg. Other Republicans considered favorable to renewables were elected to both chambers, including Sen. Vickie Sawyer from Iredell County —  first appointed in August to fill a vacant seat — and Rep.-elect Wayne Sasser from Cabarrus County.

Both have firsthand knowledge of permitting solar projects, said Julie Robinson, who runs her own consulting firm and lobbies for the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association.

“I met more Republican candidates in 2018 who had served as county commissioners or on planning boards,” Robinson said,  “where they saw direct benefits of renewable energy projects at the local level.”

Sawyer and Sasser were among those who attended a recent luncheon sponsored by the nonprofit Conservatives for Clean Energy.

“I’m most encouraged by the mix of folks I see coming into the Senate and the House,” Steinburg told luncheon attendees. “I think there’s a lot more enthusiasm for renewable energy. I think we just might have the numbers to get some things done.”

Advocates say policies to improve energy efficiency and boost community solar are possibilities. Democratic gains in both houses combined with the increase in pro-clean energy senators should make stopping policies like the wind energy moratorium straightforward.

Looking forward to next year, said Mary Maclean Asbill of the Southern Environmental Law Center, “We are relieved not to [have to] fight restrictions on solar energy and other clean energy sources.”

With a 29-21 majority in the Senate and a 65-55 majority in the House, Republicans will have little choice but to work with Cooper on must-pass budget legislation. That could help prevent policy riders that limit Cooper’s authority on energy issues. One such provision in this year’s budget could threaten the state’s $92 million share of the Volkswagen settlement, intended for electric-vehicle charging stations and converting buses to cleaner fuels.

“I think our caucus is pretty united on this issue, and it will be very difficult to peel anybody off on this,” Harrison said of any anti-renewables policy. “And that gives me hope.”

‘Huge’ bipartisan cooperation to continue?

Duke Energy lost some of its political power after 2014, when a coal ash spill from one of its plants coated 70 miles of the Dan River in toxic sludge. But the nation’s second largest utility remains a formidable political force, pouring $1.2 million to state legislative campaigns this year.

“It’s hard to get anything passed at the Legislature that Duke isn’t OK with,” Harrison said.

The utility’s influence is likely to prevent any significant change to coal-ash management; recently adopted state laws allow Duke to cover six of its coal ash dumps in place rather than excavate them, as Harrison and environmental advocates have long advocated.

But successful bipartisan legislation could marry the self-interests of Duke and clean energy advocates as it has in years past. Rejected by regulators, the utility may seek legislative approval for a version of its multi-billion-dollar plan to improve the electric grid. A compromise could help resolve disputes over the implementation last year’s solar law, or require Duke to use the revenue for battery storage, microgrids, and providing customer access to usage data.

“What we’re really looking at right now is trying to narrow the focus to look at the next three to five years,” rather than the original $13-billion, 10-year plan, said Duke spokesperson Jeff Brooks.

As directed by regulators, the utility is crafting the plan in conjunction with clean energy advocates, customers and others, according to Brooks. Whether the plan ends up back before the Utilities Commission or at the legislature, he said, isn’t yet decided. “At this point all things are on the table.”

In any case, Dean Arp, a Republican from Union County who with Szoka authored the 2017 law, said consensus proposals on energy will continue to fair well at the General Assembly.

“I think on balance — what I tell my constituents — is there’s huge bipartisan [cooperation],” Arp said. “I have no reason to believe that won’t continue.”

But don’t expect lawmakers to help push forward Gov. Cooper’s recent executive order on climate change, in which he pledged to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.

“He’s trying to push the executive branch in a certain way, and that’s his right,” Szoka said. But, he added, “I don’t know that it’s going to make that much of a difference overall in the way the state treats energy overall.”

“When we’re talking about energy efficiency, I’m all for that. That’s one of the things in there that I really agree with,” he said. “Some of the other statements about global warming … I’m a little more skeptical on.”

Elizabeth Ouzts

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Elizabeth Ouzts has reported on the state’s clean energy transition for the Energy News Network since 2016. Her work on the state's hog industry and its pursuit of renewable natural gas has also appeared in Environmental Health News. A former director of communications for the nonprofit Environment America, Elizabeth brings nearly two decades of experience in environmental and energy policy to her reporting.