North Carolina Senate
Opening session of the North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh, N.C., Jan. 13, 2021. Credit: AP Photo/Gerry Broome

For two years in a row, the North Carolina Senate blocked a bipartisan energy efficiency bill that could save taxpayers a quarter of a billion dollars.

This year, key House Republicans and a coalition of 30 businesses hope the third time will be the charm.

“Sometimes bills have to be seen more than once to get legs under them,” said Fayetteville Rep. John Szoka, the lead author of the legislation. “This might be one of them.”

The House of Representatives in April overwhelmingly passed the Efficient Government Buildings and Savings Act, which would require hundreds of prisons, public universities, and other state-run buildings to cut their energy use by a tenth. 

Like prior iterations, H245 requires building managers to turn off the lights at night. But the bill’s main thrust would produce savings even if an errant superintendent forgets to flip a switch — spurring renovations such as installing high efficiency heating and cooling equipment, upgrading lighting, and adding and integrating new building controls and sensors. 

Dozens of major employers involved in such building renovations — including Siemens, Cree Lighting, and Trane technologies — urged senators to pass the bill quickly in a letter issued late last month.

“By investing in energy efficiency,” they wrote, “we can reduce total energy costs for all ratepayers, mitigate the impact of fuel and electricity price increases, and build a more affordable, reliable electricity system for the businesses and citizens of the state.”

According to the Department of Environmental Quality, such building improvements would cost $800 million but save $1.1 billion in energy bills. And since state law allows government agencies to participate in energy performance contracts — in which energy service companies guarantee annual savings to finance and pay for upgrades — taxpayers would see the net benefits in real time.

The resulting savings, said the businesses in their letter, “could be reinvested in government services, lower taxes, or additional energy projects.”

The savings are especially vital as the state recovers from the pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis, said Tim Gasper, an engineer with Siemens who specializes in performance contracting with North Carolina governments.

“We are now living in a post-COVID and increasingly green-energy focused world while dealing with… new indoor air standards and other priorities competing for scarce budget dollars,” Gasper said in an email. “My opinion is that we need H245 and budget-neutral performance contracting now, more than ever, to lower our carbon dioxide and energy costs while upgrading our infrastructure.”

H245 builds off a 2007 requirement that state buildings reduce energy consumption 30% by 2015. State agencies have met those targets, saving over $1.4 billion in gross utility costs.

But in recent years, they’ve issued just one request for proposals from energy service companies, Gasper said. H245 will spur more to follow suit. “Hundreds of millions of dollars are waiting to be invested in energy efficiency and renewable energy projects that generate enough savings to pay for themselves,” he said.

There’s no organized opposition to H245 in the Republican-controlled legislature. But the sticking point is widely believed to be GOP Sen. Paul Newton of Cabarrus County, a former president at Duke Energy who acts as the dean of energy policy in his chamber.

Newton didn’t respond to a request for a comment for this article. Two years ago, he told the Energy News Network he didn’t think the bill was necessary, and it remained lodged in committee all session. In the second year of the biennium — even when the pandemic presented new opportunities and new imperatives for improving government buildings, especially where ventilation is concerned — there was still no movement.

Re-introduced this year by Szoka and fellow Republican Reps. Dean Arp of Union County, Jason Saine of Lincoln County, and Jeff Zenger of Forsyth County, H245 cleared the House with just one dissenting vote. Since then, it’s been parked in the Senate Rules committee along with some 300 other House-passed measures.

Businesses and the nonprofit Conservatives for Clean Energy hope that support from Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a Republican elected separately from the Democratic governor, will give them a boost. Robinson has voiced doubts about climate science, but by law he also chairs the Energy Policy Council, an advisory body whose members are appointed mostly by the legislature. Last month the panel voted unanimously to endorse H245.

“Conservatives for Clean Energy applauds Lt. Governor Mark Robinson and the Energy Policy Council’s ongoing support of solutions that will make our buildings more energy efficient, cut energy waste, and save taxpayers’ money,” the group’s president and CEO, Mark Fleming, said in a news release.

The previous lieutenant governor, also a Republican, supported the 2019-2020 version of H245, as did a similar suite of businesses. 

But Szoka remains optimistic, in large part because the legislation would save money. 

“The easiest dollar you can make is the one that you don’t spend. It’s kind of a commonsense thing,” he said, adding, “I think it’s got a better chance of passing the Senate because there’s a greater interest over there this session — for whatever reason.”

While there’s no set end date for the 2021 session, lawmakers could adjourn as soon as July. Businesses and clean energy advocates say the clock is ticking.

“Legislators need to embrace this opportunity,” Gasper said, “get this legislation passed and lead North Carolina into a more energy-efficient future now.”

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Elizabeth has covered the state’s clean energy transition for the Energy News Network since 2016. She has also produced features for Environmental Health News and SEJournal, the news magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. A former communications director for the nonprofit Environment America, Elizabeth brings over two decades of environmental and energy policy experience to her reporting.