If North Carolina generated just 10 percent of its power from renewable energy sources and used energy more efficiently, it could reduce greenhouse gases, create jobs and generate additional property tax revenuewith no significant rate hikes to customers. But the promising results of a renewable energy feasibility study aren’t swaying the major utilities’ plans to build coal-fired or nuclear power plants.

The Renewable Portfolio Standard study, conducted by LaCapra Associates at the behest of the N.C. Utilities Commissions and the Environmental Review Commission, a study group, was released to state lawmakers and the public last week. (See www.indyweek.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A41148.)

Wind power and waste from hogs, poultry and timber could generate 1,800 megawatts of renewable energy, the study concluded, more than the capacity of Duke Energy’s proposed Cliffside plants and equivalent to two Shearon Harris nuclear facilities.

However, utilities project the state’s energy demand over the next decade to be 9,000 megawatts, leaving the balance to be covered by coal-fired or nuclear plants. To environmental groups’ chagrin, LaCapra’s lead consultant, Jonathan Winer, said even if the legislature passes a renewable portfolio standard next session, it wouldn’t preclude the need for new coal-fired or nuclear plants within the next five years.

Winer told the Independent that ramping up a Renewable Portfolio Standard could take too long to offset demandeven considering the years required to build and permit a coal-fired or nuclear facility. Siting, equipment and permitting must be resolved before plants can generate renewable power. “Can we avoid new baseload generation in three to five years? No,” Winer says. “But in five to 10 years, yes.”

Greener days ahead?

The LaCapra Associates study of the potential for generating renewable energy in North Carolina found that:

  • By 2017, with a modest 5 percent increase in energy produced using renewable sources, the state could double the current level, create 1,100 jobs, displace the need for 1,000 megawatts of coal generation and avoid 7 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.
  • If the state generates 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources and aggressively adds efficiency measures, it could reduce electricity use by 14 percent over the next 10 years. As many as 2,200 jobs could be created annually; typical residential customers who use 1,000 kilowatt hours per month would pay an additional 40 to 50 cents on their monthly bill.
  • Depending on the mix of renewables and energy efficiency, green power could generate 6 percent to 54 percent higher property tax revenues than the utilities’ projects. An added benefit is that renewable energy projects can be dispersed throughout the state, so more communities can benefit from the windfall.

The utilities capitalized on Winer’s comment. “With growth in the state we’ll have to address new baseload, and for reliability issues we need traditional sources of energy,” says Progress Energy spokesperson Dana Yeganian.

Duke Energy, whose application for two coal-fired power plants is up for approval by the N.C. Utilities Commission, echoed Progress. “We’re looking at it as part of a broader energy policy discussion,” says Paige Sheehan, a spokesperson for Duke Energy. “We remain committed to Cliffside. The demand is growing too quickly.”

However, John Blackburn, Duke University professor emeritus of economics, disputes the study’s usage projections. Based on State Energy Office figures, Blackburn said a combination of 10 percent renewables and 10 percent energy efficiency would push usage below current levels, equating to a “no new plant situation.”

The study could be the core of legislation next session, which starts Jan. 24. Despite the utilities’ contention they’re open to green power, they use very little; Progress Energy Carolina purchases 1 megawatt of energy from a landfill methane plant in Asheville; Duke buys 19 megawatts from several sources. Moreover, the utilities successfully defeated previous attempts to set minimum renewable energy requirements.

Pending renewable energy legislation could align the hog, poultry and timber industries with unlikely alliesenvironmental groupsagainst any opposition presented by utilities. Leonard Bull, a professor of animal science and assistant director of animal and poultry waste management at N.C. State, says using waste as fuel would financially benefit farmers while mitigating pollution from waste lagoons.

In addition to more public support, state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, a member of the Environmental Review and Energy Policy commissions, says there may be enough legislators to pass a Renewable Portfolio Standard over the wishes of utilities and their lobbyists.

“This is essentially political,” Kinnaird says. “Are we going to convince the utilities to do what’s right or give in to the utilities? What we have to realize is it’s a political battle.”

Public comment is being accepted on the study through Jan. 19. Go to www.ncuc.commerce.state.nc.us/rps/rps.htm to read the report and get information about submitting comments.