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Critics say N.C. State’s clean energy tech center an advocacy arm of renewable industry

Critics say N.C. State University’s Clean Energy Technology Center is little more than a promotional ally of the solar industry, and the state should pull the plug on its funding.

They compare the energy center at N.C. State to controversial academic centers at the UNC School of Law – the Center for Civil Rights and the now-closed Center for Poverty, Work, and Opportunity – saying those centers, even though they received no state funding, engaged in one-sided political advocacy while using the university’s brand to lend their work justification.

“They’re doing advocacy instead of research and education, and the General Assembly should strip their direct funding,” said Jenna Robinson, president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, of energy centers at three UNC campuses. “Let them exist, but the taxpayers of North Carolina should not fund them.”

Isaac Panzarella, clean power and efficiency project coordinator for the Clean Energy Technology Center, said the General Assembly directly allocated about $400,000 to energy centers at N.C. State, N.C. A&T State University, and Appalachian State University this fiscal year. Each university receives a $133,000 split.

The N.C. State center’s annual budget typically is between $1.5 million and $2 million, Panzarella said. The balance of its funding comes mainly from state and federal grants, with some private funding.

As a member and former chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture and Natural and Economic Resources, state Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said she is “a strong supporter of continued, sustained funding for all of the UNC Energy Centers, especially at [N.C. State].”

She said the centers perform a broad scope of work covering a wide range of traditional fossil fuel and clean energy resources, including research, educational classes, and energy workforce trainings and certifications.

The renewable energy industry has been an important part of the state’s economy, Harrison said, and the N.C. State center uses its state dollars to leverage federal grants.

N.C. State’s Clean Energy Technology Center was thrust under scrutiny earlier this year after it and solar industry operatives complained about two university professors launching a series of public forums to discuss the pros and cons of commercial-scale solar installations springing up statewide.

The university directed professors Ron Heiniger and Herb Eckerlin to cease the town halls, and ordered Cooperative Extension county agents to no longer host their presentations. State Reps. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, and Billy Richardson, D-Cumberland, raised concerns with N.C. State, wondering if the university was trying to stifle views and information countering solar industry claims.

Jim Robison, a former Chowan County Planning Board member, said the Clean Energy Technology Center is “joined at the hip with the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association,” which is a professional advocacy organization for renewable energy developers.

When the planning board was considering a wind ordinance in response to an application to build 600-foot turbines for the Timbermill wind project, Robison said, Stephen Kalland, Clean Energy Technology Center executive director, and another center official endorsed the project and dismissed residents’ concerns. They handed out fliers about wind energy with contact information for wind developers.

Robison likened the Clean Energy Technology Center’s political activity to the work of UNC’s poverty and civil rights centers.

“The university’s supposed to be neutral in these things,” Robison said. A land grant university’s mission “is to educate people, and that doesn’t mean just giving one side of the argument.”

Kalland says the center is a vehicle for economic and energy development rather than political advocacy. “The vast majority of questions the center answers, and programs we administer are focused on supporting businesses across the state to identify and adopt clean energy technologies,” Kalland said.

But Jenna Robinson raised red flags about the center’s close relationship with solar developers. Most of its board members are involved in the renewable sector. Most of its staff members previously worked in the renewable sector.

Kalland is on the board of directors of the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, which has five registered lobbyists who support legislative policy on things such as tax credits for renewable energy projects and government mandates to buy renewable energy, while opposing regulations forcing solar developers to cover cleanup costs after a facility shuts down.

“I think it absolutely is a conflict of interest. I don’t think it’s illegal, but I do think it’s unethical” for Kalland to hold dual executive roles in a public university and a lobbying organization, Robinson said.

Harrison said Kalland has always been a valuable resource, and she doesn’t believe his dual roles are a conflict.