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Rows of solar panels roll across the hills at the South Winston solar farm on Clemmonsville Road across from Hobby Park in 2016.

North Carolina has much to celebrate when it comes to clean energy. According to the most recent clean-energy census, more than 43,000 North Carolinians are employed by the industry, which contributed more than $14 billion to North Carolina’s economy last year.

In Guilford County alone, more than 2,100 people have jobs related to the clean-energy industry. Data from Research Triangle Institute shows that clean energy also contributes to Guilford County’s economy via $76.9 million in local investment.

Property tax records show significant growth in payments to the county from large-scale solar installations. These are real dollars boosting real people. Property taxes fund core county services such as schools and public safety.

Amid the successes, big tasks remain to better secure our state’s clean-energy future.

Task One is to map a path forward on utility reform that motivates our power utilities to bring customers greater value. As it stands, North Carolina’s regulatory model lacks the rate structures necessary to compel utilities to do anything but the same thing they’ve always done. We’re stuck in a 100-year old model that hasn’t worked for customers for a very long time.

The current model is based on calculating costs, setting rates, and getting the N.C. Utilities Commission’s approval. A better, performance-based model would give the utilities a reason to provide the highest-quality service to customers by penalizing them if performance was poor. It’s not market competition, but it would certainly be an improvement.

Task Two would provide customers with greater choice of their energy sources. Today, ratepayers have almost no ability to engage in the management of their energy resources. Our big monopoly utilities offer energy-saving and renewable energy programs that go only so far. After all, the utilities only offer programs that allow them to make a profit, so we know North Carolinians could get a better deal if they had more individual control.

Task Three is to adopt policies that help make renewable energy and energy efficiency more accessible to all North Carolinians. Solar and wind have achieved and even exceeded parity with traditional energy generation sources such as coal and natural gas, so we need to focus on expanding investments in those technologies. With ongoing advancements in battery storage, solar and wind are more practical and reliable than ever before.

Many people have heard the news that North Carolina is second in the nation for installed solar capacity. That translates to solar energy powering more than 660,000 homes here.

With solar prices having fallen about 34% over the last five years, it’s no wonder that more homeowners and businesses are installing solar, or that the Tar Heel state ranks so high nationally. All the early adopters buying and installing solar panels now are helping to advance the market, which will make solar even more affordable in the future.

Wind energy is making a difference in North Carolina, too. An excellent example is Amazon’s wind project in Elizabeth City, which has done so much to benefit the local community. We should be working to attract new on-shore wind developments so that more North Carolina communities can enjoy the economic benefits of wind, and so that the utilities can diversify their energy mix to incorporate more clean, affordable wind energy into their portfolios. We also should pursue an offshore wind-supply energy chain for our state and its ports, further boosting our statewide and local economies.

The opportunity to further transform North Carolina’s energy future is within our reach, but to reap the benefits we have to get the rules right for the right people: consumers, homeowners and businesses.

By holding power utilities accountable for high performance and customer focus — and through greater investments in clean, affordable wind and solar energy — we can get there together.

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Laurie Barnhart ( is executive director of North Carolina Conservatives for Clean Energy.

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