Energy leaders seeking clarity on alternatives
Chris Bagley, Staff Writer, Triangle Business Journal
Friday, October 12, 2012
CHARLOTTE – Alternative-energy companies say they're holding back on hiring and investing as large question marks loom over policy directions at the state and national levels.
The industry is still expanding a bit more strongly than most others in the sluggish economy, but its growth slowed dramatically this year. Democratic and Republican candidates are putting forth starkly different policies on alternative energy in the presidential, gubernatorial and legislative elections that loom in November.
The elections are a much more pressing factor than they were in 2011, industry researcher Rich Crowley says. There are also growing questions about state tax credits and minimum quotas for utilities' use of alternative energy, Crowley says in a report that the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association released at its annual meeting on Oct. 11 in Charlotte.
“All types of business owners … need to know what the rules are, so they can plan for a considerable period of time,” says Crowley, lead author of the group's annual Clean Energy Industries Census.
The census determined that the equivalent of 15,300 full-time employees work at those companies in North Carolina, ranging from solar-panel installers to developers of software for electricity management and builders that focus on weatherizing homes for energy efficiency. The employment number was up 3 percent from 2011, following 10 percent growth that the group reported last year.
The Triangle has the state's largest concentration of such companies; nearly half of the 1,100 alternative-energy companies in the state have at least one location here, according to the census.
Crowley says dozens of the companies reported political and regulatory uncertainty as a prime reason for holding off on some hiring and investment decisions. Current incentives include a tax credit for solar panels.
In North Carolina, utilities must meet an escalating series of minimum quotas for deriving electricity from solar energy and other renewable fuels. Those include relatively small quotas for solar energy and swine and poultry waste.
State Rep. Mike Hager, who chairs the House Committee on Public Utilities, says it might be better to eliminate those quotas so that utilities can choose from a broader range of alternative energies. A Republican running for reelection in heavily Republican Rutherford County, Hager says he aims to assemble a group of Republicans and Democrats to study the issue and possibly introduce legislation in the first few weeks of the 2013 legislative session.
Hager says surcharges associated with the quotas add $5 to $6 to his monthly electricity bill. Similar charges on other customers' bills add up to millions of dollars that could be invested, Hager says.
Some companies are also jittery following the July 2012 merger of Duke Energy Corp. with Progress Energy Inc. and the subsequent departure of CEO Bill Johnson, Crowley says, because the two utilities have taken different approaches to procuring alternative energy.
Markus Wilhelm<http://www.bizjournals.com/triangle/search/results?q=Markus%20Wilhelm>, CEO of Strata Solar in Chapel Hill, says uncertainty hasn't kept his company from growing. It employs between 300 and 400 people, depending on the mix of projects that are going on in any given week. But Wilhelm notes that he's planning around a solar panel tax credit lasting until 2016. While a phase-out after that wouldn't be a huge shock, a sudden elimination would be, he says.
“The worst thing would be a surprise,” Wilhelm says.
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