One of the fastest-growing states in the nation has the potential to save its residents billions of dollars over the next decade and a half and create thousands of new jobs to boot.

How? By adopting several common-sense policies to save energy and investing more in clean-energy research.

So concludes a new report focused on North Carolina by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. “North Carolina’s Energy Future: Electricity, Water, and Transportation Efficiency” offers a set of policies that could meet nearly a quarter of the state’s energy demand while boosting its economy with 38,000 new jobs by 2025.

“Adoption of the energy efficiency policies suggested in this report would put the state on the path to greater economic, energy, and environmental sustainability,” says Maggie Eldridge, ACEEE’s lead researcher for the report.

As the report notes, North Carolina — with a population that’s expected to grow from 9.4 million to 12 million by 2025 — stands at a turning point in its energy future. Currently ranking 26th out of the 50 states in ACEEE’s “The 2009 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard,” North Carolina also remains heavily dependent on dirty energy sources, with coal-fired plants providing 62 percent and nuclear plants 31 percent of the state’s electricity. It ranks ninth among states in terms of electricity produced from burning coal.

Meanwhile, the state’s two big utilities are pursuing construction of new polluting power plants: Charlotte-based Duke Energy is currently building a new $1.8 billion coal-fired unit at its Cliffside facility in western North Carolina, while Progress Energy has plans for two new nuclear reactors at its Shearon Harris plant near the company’s Raleigh headquarters. The estimated cost of those reactors has soared from $4.4 billion to more than $9.3 billion.

North Carolina has taken some steps in recent years to encourage the development of less polluting energy sources. In 2007, for example, it became the first state in the Southeast to adopt a renewable portfolio standard requiring the state’s investor-owned utilities to supply a modest 12.5 percent of retail electricity sales from renewable sources by 2020.

However, ACEEE’s latest analysis finds that significant potential for energy efficiency would remain untapped were the state to continue with business as usual. Among the policies ACEEE’s report recommends:

* Energy Efficiency Resource Standard: Set a statewide goal for long-term energy savings to spur the creation of programs and incentives for residents and businesses to make energy-saving improvements to homes, offices and industrial facilities. Efficiency is quick and relatively inexpensive to deploy and cuts energy bills, saving money that can be reinvested in the state’s economy.

* Livable communities to reduce vehicle miles traveled: Invest transportation dollars in a robust multi-modal transit system to encourage the growth of compact communities and reduce statewide vehicle miles traveled.

* Clean energy innovation hub: Enhance the state’s position as a global leader in technological innovation by encouraging collaboration among North Carolina’s clean energy industry leaders, universities, research facilities, and policymakers to boost clean energy innovation, business development, and leadership in the state.

“This is not revolutionary stuff we’re talking about here, it’s just plain common sense,” says Maria Kingery, co-founder of Southern Energy Management, a sustainable energy company based in Morrisville, N.C.

The ACEEE report is the latest piece of research showing that North Carolina has great potential to reduce its reliance on dirty energy.

Last week, the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network released an analysis finding that taking some relatively modest steps toward greater energy efficiency and expanded use of renewable generation sources would make it possible for North Carolina to phase out all coal-fired power plants while avoiding the need for expensive new nuclear reactors.

That came on the heels of another report that found North Carolina’s need for backup power generation would be modest if it were to switch to an energy system based largely on solar and wind power combined with efficiency, hydroelectric power, and other renewable resources such as landfill gas.

“Widespread deployment of energy efficiency and renewable power is far preferable to the utilities’ plan to gamble $40 billion on giant coal and nuclear power plants, which would double power bills,” says N.C. WARN Executive Director Jim Warren.

(This story was originally posted at Facing South.)