Mission impossible for North Carolina's energy industry

A committee of the North Carolina House has come up with the state's first renewable-energy bill at long last, one that would require electrical utilities to produce 12.5% of their product from renewable sources. Which is a good thing, if a bit on the weak side. In a bizarre twist, however, committee members added a provision that would also forbid the utilities from building any new nuclear or coal-fired plants unless they can prove that no alternative, climate-friendly technology would be cheaper. Now there's an interesting challenge.

I don't know if any other state has come up with such a requirement. According to the Raleigh News-Observer, no other state in the Southeast even has a renewable energy law, although there are a couple of dozen elsewhere in the country. But think about it for a second. The bill, which will be reviewed Wednesday by another committee, underwent

a last-minute change Monday that would require utilities to prove to the N.C. Utilities Commission that nuclear plants and coal-burning plants are more cost-effective than efficiency and renewable sources before they could build.

In politically realistic language, all a utility has to do to get the ball rolling on a nuke or coal generator is prepare some abstruse, obfuscatory, fuzzy math that concludes solar, wind and turkey-guts would be more expensive. At the moment, that's easy. Coal mining enjoys enormous protections from the federal government, solar power is still pricey and making sure biomass generators are clean-burning is never easy.

But that's only for the moment. For example, Clean Tech, a book for investors interested in environmentally friendly technologies, like photovoltaics lays out a rosy future for renewable. And it's authors aren't the only ones to predict that solar power will be cost-competitive with coal within 15 years. Wind power will almost certainly be less expensive by 2020, and some argue it already is. (What's with those liability caps, anyway?)

So given that the only thing certain about the future economic and legislative environment for the energy sector is change -- does anyone really believe we won't be seeing some form of carbon tax or cap-and-trade system by 2025? -- how can even the most adept economist prove that any particular technology will be the cheapest option over the multi-decade life of a power plant? I would think that even a mediocre policy analyst for an environmental watchdog group cpuld easily disprove any argument that nuclear or coal is likely to be less expensive that an integrated combination of decentralized renewable energy supplies and aggressive introduction of efficiencies at the distribution and consumption levels.

I doubt this is what the NC House has in mind, a veritable mission impossible. But whatever the bill's authors' motive, I say, bring it on. Within a few years, it should be almost impossible to win approval for a single nuclear or coal-fired plant in North Carolina.

That is, if the approval process is sincere, fair, and pays heed to the new law.... Oh, never mind.


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I think it a good start to get 'em thinking. The Lower Colorado River Authority has undertaken a big manure-to-methane pilot project hereabouts. Anaerobic digesters have gone industrial with even the microorganisms specified for the input. I think that S.E. states have large livestock production too.
It's renewable.