The North Carolina State Legislative Building in Raleigh.
The North Carolina State Legislative Building in Raleigh. Credit: Elizabeth Ouzts / Energy News Network

North Carolina’s 2022 legislative session is underway, and unlike last year, wide-ranging legislation governing the future of Duke Energy won’t be up for debate. 

But advocates and select lawmakers still hope to see five clean energy-related bills enacted before the legislature’s “short session” is gaveled to a close. 

Compared to last year’s law, which requires Duke to reach near zero carbon pollution by midcentury, the measures are relatively narrow in scope, and most have no organized opposition.  

All are bipartisan and broadly popular in concept — designed to lower utility bills for consumers and state government, expand access to rooftop solar and energy efficiency, and encourage the use of electric vehicles. 

Still, it will take a concerted push to get them on the short list of legislative leaders, who’ve already signaled other priorities and are eager to wrap up business so they can campaign for the midterm elections. That’s especially true in the Senate, where most of the bills are currently lodged.

‘Much more’ would be saved

Perhaps none of the bills is more popular than H245, the Efficient Government Buildings and Savings Act, which would require hundreds of prisons, public universities, and other state-run buildings to make upgrades to cut their energy use by a tenth. 

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. 

H245 is aligned with a climate executive order adopted by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and endorsed by an advisory body led by Republican Lt. Governor Mark Robinson. It’s backed by advocates and an array of major employers in the state, many of whom are engaged in performance contracting. It is authored by some of the GOP-led House’s most powerful members and cleared that chamber last year with just one “no” vote

But the bill has been lodged in the Senate rules committee since last April. The sticking point is widely thought to be Sen. Paul Newton, a Republican from Cabarrus County, who has repeatedly told the Energy News Network that he believes the measure is unnecessary. “I’ve got a philosophical problem with that,” he said last year.  

Proponents of the measure beg to differ. They point out that state government agencies cut their use by 30% only after an old state law required them to do so, and that energy efficiency upgrades have plateaued since. An annual report from 2021 shows that only 16% of all state building square footage has benefited from guaranteed energy savings contracts. 

“Sen. Newton and others would serve North Carolina well by embracing the report,” and passing H245, said Tim Gasper, who specializes in state energy savings contracts for Siemens. “Much more energy, carbon dioxide, and dollars would be saved.” 

Rooftop solar panels: ‘anomaly’ no more? 

Another popular House-passed bill would confront what solar installers say is a key barrier to rooftop panels: homeowners associations.  

A 2007 law prevents HOAs from blocking solar panels altogether but allows them to bar any that face the street — effectively ruling out solar for any home that faces south, where the sun shines brightest.  

A case now before the state Supreme Court will determine whether the ban on street-facing panels must be explicit in an HOA covenant, and a decision is expected anytime.  

The passage of House Bill 842 could make the court’s opinion moot for HOAs formed in the future. The bill removes the exception on street-facing panels altogether and says covenants henceforth can cause no more than a 10% drop in panel efficiency. 

The statewide association of HOAs “has certain issues” with the legislation as drafted, which cleared the House last year with 29 “no” votes, all Republicans.  

But Rep. Harry Warren, a Salisbury Republican who is among the lead sponsors of the bill, believes it will pass easily if it is put on the agenda. The measure is a simple matter of property rights, he believes. Plus, the economic appeal of rooftop panels will only grow. 

“It’s not going to be an anomaly to see solar panels on house roofs,” he told the Energy News Network. “The oddity will be not seeing them in a gated community.” 

With about 60% of all new single-family homes in communities governed by HOAs, advocates say solar access for these homeowners is crucial if the state is to achieve net-zero carbon pollution by midcentury, a requirement of a Carbon Plan due to be finalized by the end of the year. 

“This is pretty important,” said Ward Lenz, executive director of the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, “especially if we’re going to be achieving the needs in the Carbon Plan.” 

‘We need to be planning now’ 

The HOA measure isn’t the only Warren-authored bill awaiting Senate action. 

House Bill 296 would prevent conventional vehicles from parking in spaces designed for charging electric vehicles, imposing a $100 fine on any perpetrators. It passed the House last March with just four opposing votes.  

While Warren acknowledges the bill is relatively small-bore, he says every little bit helps. “Strategically, about 35 car manufacturers are going EV, either in totality or partiality,” he said. “We need to be planning now for even those minor things that help support that market.” 

At least two other energy-related measures are eligible this year, even though they saw no movement in 2021. 

One is House Bill 611 to study electric utilities’ resiliency. Authored by Johnston County Republican Rep. Larry Strickland, it would examine the possibility of Duke joining a regional transmission organization to enable wholesale competition for electricity. Long a priority for large electricity users and many renewable energy companies, the measure mirrors a similar study already underway in South Carolina, where Duke also has customers. 

Duke doesn’t support the measure, spokesperson Bill Norton said via email. “Our full focus is on the legislation that had overwhelming bipartisan support and became law,” he said, “and delivering on its 70% carbon reduction target in a manner that provides clean, reliable and affordable energy for our customers.”

But advocates believe an RTO study is especially relevant as utility regulators study Duke’s proposed Carbon Plan along with alternatives due to them in July.   

“It’s going to drive more conversations on ‘what is the most affordable way to do this transition?’” said Julie Robinson, principal with Robinson Consulting Group, which represents several clean energy clients. “Legislators are going to see cost comparisons on solar, on wind, on storage.”

Finally, there’s Senate Bill 358 to enable commercial property-assessed clean energy, or CPACE. As a U.S. Department of Energy webpage explains, the financing scheme “allows borrowed capital to pay for the upfront costs associated with energy efficiency or renewable energy improvements. Unlike other project financing, the borrowed capital is repaid over time via a voluntary tax assessment.” 

The measure has no known opposition and is among the recommendations in the state’s Clean Energy Plan.  

Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat who is sponsoring the bill along with Republican Sens. Todd Johnson of Union County and Michael Lazzara of Onslow County, hopes it can move this year. 

“That’s just a good bill for a lot of reasons,” he said.

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.