Guest post by David Brown

Solar PanelsWhat’s the right mix of petroleum, natural gas, coal, and other fuels to use for electrical generation today? What are our options for meeting the energy demands of tomorrow? And is it possible to consume less while continuing to raise our standard of living? These are important questions without easy answers. In a democracy, the task of grappling with such questions falls largely to our elected representatives. Indeed, in North Carolina, members of the General Assembly wrestle with tough questions about energy in every legislative session, in the form of committee hearings, proposed bills, floor debates, and eventual legislation. These are smart people with access to expert staff, to be sure. Still, most of them have not worked in the energy industry, and on a given legislative day there are many other issues competing for their attention. Further, they may wonder how issues decided in Raleigh are likely to affect the bottom lines of residents and businesses back home.

To see how another state supports its legislators on energy issues, I recently spent a day in Little Rock at a workshop co-hosted by the University of Arkansas’s Applied Sustainability Center and the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association. This was one in a series of “Energy, Jobs, and the Economy” workshops for incumbent legislators and candidates held throughout the summer that explore the economic impact and job creation potential of the advanced energy sector, which in Arkansas includes energy efficiency, renewable energy, and alternative fuels. The workshops are coordinated by Michele Halsell, Director of the Applied Sustainability Center at UARK’s Walton College of Business. She has created a model for legislative education that works on a local scale and makes the business case for efficiency and sustainability. Presenters and panelists frame the discussion in terms of energy initiatives’ positive effect on job growth and tax revenue, rather than on their environmental or “green” merits. Perhaps most importantly, Ms. Halsell recruits business owners and executives to participate as advocates for energy solutions. For example, these panelists talk about reducing energy budgets for businesses and partnering with the state to lower its energy costs, thus reducing the burden on taxpayers and putting money back into the private economy.

Workshops are held around the state to serve Arkansas’ several regions. As noted above, Ms. Halsell’s invitation list includes not just incumbent lawmakers but also candidates who are campaigning to join them in the legislature. The workshop I attended included both groups, in an atmosphere of collegiality and mutual desire to understand a set of complex issues.

Before getting to specific topics and panelists, presenters walked through an “Energy 101” primer to set the stage for the ensuing discussion. Among the data and definitions were a few eye-openers:

  • Worldwide energy use grew five-fold from 1950 to 2000, and the U.S. spends $1.2 trillion on it annually.
  • Among 50 states and the District of Columbia, Arkansas is ranked 17th in total energy consumed per capita. (North Carolina is 38th.)
  • Arkansans use 24 percent more residential electricity than the national average. (North Carolinians use 19 percent more.)
  • Compared to 2005, carbon dioxide emissions from Arkansas power plants were up 39 percent in 2013. (In North Carolina, they were down 20 percent.)

Energy WorkshopAfter absorbing key facts and figures, legislators next heard real-world stories from a series of panelists representing companies with a stake in a more sustainable energy economy. For example, Alan Hope of Powers of Arkansas explained how his business retrofits commercial buildings by installing more efficient chillers to lower their energy costs. Pam Speraw of Sun City Solar Energy described the ever-expanding demand for commercial and residential solar systems. And Jared Tomlinson, representing the Arkansas CNG Conversion Center, briefed legislators on his work converting commercial vehicle fleets to natural gas, thus alleviating the financial pain of rising fuel costs. They each talked about how their businesses had grown, how many people they now employed, and how this success related in no small part to energy policies put in place by state lawmakers.

The legislators and candidates asked good questions throughout the day. It would be fair to say that they varied in their embrace of specific initiatives—for example, there was a range of opinions about the merits of tax incentives and the appropriateness of renewable energy portfolio standards. But the discussion never took on a partisan tone, and even though I had been told that both Republicans and Democrats were represented among the participants, I left the workshop not being able to say with certainty who belonged to what party (which I saw as an indication of the workshop’s success). While the degree of government intervention in the energy sector is a legitimate policy question, the idea that legislators should consider local business impacts and the wise use of natural resources in their policymaking didn’t seem controversial to anyone in attendance, and all had an interest in policies that enhance the state’s competitiveness and attract new investment.

Ms. Halsell, who has offered this program since 2012, has followed the activities of workshop “graduates” in subsequent legislative sessions and has been encouraged by the way they have advanced and debated energy initiatives. Certainly, the legislators and candidates I met seemed to think the workshop had been time well spent. Encouragingly, the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance also sent a representative to see how the workshop was run, in the hope of bringing a similar program to our region. In addition to connecting SEEA to resources within the UNC system, I hope to work with them to offer this opportunity to North Carolina’s legislators in the future.

David Brown is Director of the Applied Public Policy Initiative at the UNC School of Government.