North Carolina House Republican lawmakers and Duke Energy’s representatives spent months in closed-door meetings hammering out an energy bill that somehow emerged, politically speaking, without any energy.
Despite efforts to build up suspense about House Bill 951, the measure landed with a thud last week. Its proposals for more natural gas-fueled power plants, rate increases and limitations on the state Utilities Commission’s oversight of rates have drawn opposition from environmental groups and industrial power customers alike.
Most significantly, the bill was immediately rejected by the Democratic governor who also could veto it.
Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement that the House bill “would cost ratepayers too much, fall short of clean energy goals, hamper job recruitment and weaken the Utilities Commission, which exists to provide accountability for utility companies.”
The obvious lesson here is about basic politics. If you want legislation that will affect a broad constituency to win support, involve a broad group of interests in shaping it. Instead, what was offered appears tailored to serve a constituency of one: Duke Energy.
Jim Warren, executive director of NC WARN, a watchdog group that wants Duke Energy to speed its conversion to renewable energy, said the bill would commit North Carolina to long-term dependence on fossil fuels. “Nobody thought it could be this bad. This is ten times worse,” he told the Editorial Board. “This is just a horror story for North Carolina.”
The House bill’s primary sponsors, John Szoka of Fayetteville and Dean Arp of Union County, emphasize that the measure would retire most of the state’s coal-fired power plants, diversify the state’s power sources and reduce utility carbon emissions.
“The whole concept of what we’re doing here is accelerating retirement of heavy carbon-producing facilities to reduce the carbon footprint of North Carolina,” Arp said.
That’s hardly the whole concept. The bill proposes reducing utility carbon emissions to a rate less than the goal of governor’s Clean Energy Plan, which calls for reducing electric power sector greenhouse gas emissions by 70% below 2005 levels by 2030. And the bill’s proposed carbon emission reductions don’t account for the increased leakage of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – that would result from fracking, piping and burning more natural gas.
The bill would also limit the state Utility Commission’s control over utility rates by allowing rates to be set on a multi-year rather than an annual basis.
The real issue behind this secret bill isn’t the specifics of the proposals. It’s Duke Energy’s lack of a full commitment to the kind of energy transformation the state will need to reduce the burning of fossil fuels and its effects on climate change. The utility has made progress in using more renewable energy, but its effort needs to be be much more robust.
In its 2020 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) – a proposal for future energy generation now before the Utilities Commission – Duke Energy remains skeptical about a fuller conversion to renewable energy without a transition period of increased usage of natural gas.
The renewable energy sources of wind power and solar power have rapidly become more affordable and giant steps in battery storage are reducing concerns about renewables as intermittent power sources. This is where Duke Energy – and Republican lawmakers – should be pressing for more investment and technological development instead of committing North Carolina to burning natural gas well into the future.
Before approving Duke Energy’s IRP, the Utilities Commission has the option of holding hearings in which experts can assess the assumptions the utility is making about the future of electric power in North Carolina. The commission should hold the hearings. The public needs to know more in an open setting about how energy policy is being shaped.