December 21, 2015

Energy Law Change Sours Facebook on NC

Changing attitudes toward renewable energy in state government are apparently prompting Facebook to unfriend North Carolina.

An official with the California-based social media company told a reporter at the COP21 climate summit in a Paris suburb recently that Facebook would probably not expand further in the state because of ebbing support in state government for clean energy.

"We are only considering states with strong policies and a determination to produce renewable energy," said Bill Weihl, head of sustainability at the company. He was quoted by Justin Catanoso in a story that appeared in slightly different forms in Triad Business Journal and The News and Observer of Raleigh.

Facebook has a large data center, known to non-technical types as a whole bunch of computers in buildings, on U.S. 74 in Forest City that has grown significantly since work first began in 2010. It broke ground on its second major expansion there this fall, timing that suggests its displeasure with changes in state law was not so strong as to cause it to stop a project already in the works.

The state General Assembly allowed a tax credit for construction of renewable energy facilities like solar panels or wind farms to expire at the end of this year and there was a strong push, unsuccessful so far, in the 2015 legislative session to end the state's requirement that utilities increase the amount of power they get from renewable sources.

Tech giants Apple, Facebook and Google wrote legislative leaders in May expressing concern about those discussions, saying they "have chosen to locate in North Carolina in part because the state's existing energy policies enable us to operate and grow our businesses" using renewable energy. They said they would welcome the opportunity to participate in a comprehensive review of policies but that North Carolina should not back away from existing law in the meantime.

The legislature saw things differently. Supporters of the tax credits and renewable requirement say they reduce the state's carbon footprint and have given the state a leg up in growing a new industry that will be increasingly in demand as the rest of the world moves to cleaner energy. Opponents say they result in added expenses for utility customers and are unwarranted intrusions into business decisions.

Ironically, Facebook's Forest City site is in the district of Rep. Mike Hager, a Rutherford County Republican and former Duke Energy employee who has been a leader of efforts to repeal state laws favoring renewables.

Weihl said Facebook built a data center in Iowa powered by electricity generated by wind and just broke ground on another in Texas that will also be wind powered.

He was a panelist in a Dec. 4 discussion of industry and climate change at the United States Pavilion that also included Letitia Webster, the top sustainability official for Greensboro-based VF Corp., whose stable of brands includes Lee, Wrangler, North Face, Nautica and Timberland.

Panelists described their efforts to fight global warming and make their operations more sustainable as good business moves, not just public relations efforts to please their customers.

"We believe it will protect our financial stability," Webster said. In addition to people who buy VF products, "Our investors are actually asking us what we're doing around climate change and policy."

But, she said, it can be difficult to get some companies and state legislators to go along.

"There are some challenges, a little bit from our state in North Carolina," she said.

In general, "I think we're in the Renaissance and some people are in the Dark Ages and change is hard," Webster said. "I think there are a lot of businesses out there that are very scared about how they're going to win in this new economy and they have ... a loud voice."

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