By John Downey
Plans for a nonprofit green bank in North Carolina are accelerating as Democrats take control of the White House and Congress, improving chances for federal investment in clean energy programs that could help fund it.
Jennifer Weiss, chairman of the recently incorporated North Carolina Clean Energy Fund, and her three fellow directors will meet next week for the first time since the U.S. Senate runoff election in Georgia on Jan. 5 flipped that chamber to the Democratic Party.
The directors have applied for 501(c)(3) status as a not-for-profit for the organization as they work on funding for what is hoped to be $100 million to $150 million in capitalization to underwrite or help establish small clean energy and energy efficiency programs that ordinarily fail to attract support of traditional financial organizations.
They are also looking for initial funding to pay for a director and staff for the nascent energy fund. Weiss says they are looking to possible foundation funding for a year to get the green bank off the ground.
“Once it is operating — making loans and collecting payments — we expect it to be self-sustaining,” she says.
Jennifer Weiss, a senior policy associate at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy, is board chairman for the North Carolina Green Energy Fund.Enlarge
Jennifer Weiss, a senior policy associate at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy, is board chairman for the North Carolina Green Energy Fund.
The group is beginning to build a pipeline of potential projects it could support in the state, Weiss says. That could direct financing of clean energy initiatives in some cases. In others, the fund could provide loan loss reserves for banks and other traditional lenders to encourage them to offer financing for residential solar, high-efficiency heating and cooling equipment, insulation or other home energy upgrades. That is a tactic used in a number of the 15 green banks already operating around the nation.
By March, she says, the fund hopes to have clearer plans for the size and scope. It hopes to be operating within a year.
Weiss, a senior policy associate at Duke University’s Nichols Institute for the Environment, co-authored a report by the institute and the Washington-based Coalition for Green Capital in October, calling for the clean energy fund. Shortly after, Weiss and one of her coauthors — the program director for the coalition, Hannah Beinecke — filed incorporation papers for the fund.
But all involved acknowledged that the size — and possibly the success — of the proposed fund relied to a large extent on the outcome of the 2020 elections. Then-presidential candidate Joe Biden was calling for a $20 billion National Climate Bank to seed state green banks and promote private investment in them as part of his multitrillion-dollar infrastructure and growth plan.
Jeffrey Schub, executive director of the CGC, says the outlook for the climate bank — also called a “clean energy and sustainability accelerator” — appears bright as President Biden takes the reins of government. With the victories in Georgia, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer becomes the majority leader in a 50-50 Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris providing the tie-breaking vote.
Schub says it is not clear that all 50 Democrats in the Senate will support the climate bank and the broader infrastructure spending that Biden will propose. But he noted with satisfaction that, this week, West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin, probably the most conservative red-state Democrat, talked of an infrastructure bill that could be in the range of $2 trillion to $4 trillion.
That is in addition to the $1.9 trillion emergency economic package that Biden is promoting. And it could indicate strong support for the broader infrastructure effort.
More important, Schub says, is the likelihood that some Republicans will back the climate bank measure, making it bipartisan and perhaps giving Schumer some breathing room in his own caucus.
The coalition is in the process of meeting with a number of number of Republican senators who have supported clean energy initiatives in the past. Schub says North Carolina’s Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis are high on the coalition’s list.
Both have been consistent supporters of solar and other renewable energy efforts in North Carolina. Schub noted a December speech by Tillis in which the senator praised “leaders who refuse to believe climate-smart policies that support clean energy workers had to be a partisan issue.” Further, Tillis said, “to rebuild our post-pandemic economy, we can grow clean energy jobs, promote American innovation, and continue to lead on driving down our carbon emissions.”
Schub says it may be difficult to assemble the 60-vote majority needed for most matters to advance over an attempted filibuster. But he says the climate bank provisions in the infrastructure plan involve the kind of revenue and spending programs that can be decided under budget reconciliation rules. That would mean that a 51-vote majority would be sufficient to pass it, whether it came from a solid Democratic caucus plus Harris or strong Democratic support with help from willing Republicans.
He says North Carolina moved in advance of the Democratic victories, and so it is a leader among states that do not yet have green banks. Other states have more recently begun to move in the same direction — including Maine, which could help win support, for instance, from Sen. Susan Collins. South Carolina’s state energy office also has now recommended a green bank, making another two potential targets.
“The more states involved, the more opportunities we have to try to persuade senators to get on board,” Schub says.
In North Carolina, Weiss says, the energy fund would support Gov. Roy Cooper’s carbon reduction goals now being fleshed out as policy by the Department of Environmental Quality.
The energy fund board of directors had its first organizational meeting Dec. 16. Along with Weiss, directors are: Ajulo Othow, founder and CEO of EnerWealth Solutions; Melissa Malkin-Weber, sustainability director for the Self-Help Credit Union; and Tyler Norris, director of development for Cypress Creek Renewables.
“We are still in our infant stage,” she says of the fund. “But within the next six months, we will have a good idea on our first projects and what the money involved will be.”