Providence, RI —
Everybody loves a state legislature committee hearing, right?
Welcome back to The Planet You Save May Be Your Own, where this week we're considering how states get from promising emissions reductions to actually doing it. The devil may be in the details, but it's also in the utility commission's docket. I'm Taylor Kate Brown, and this week I heard a state senator suggesting someone somewhere was whipping up the next revolutionary climate tech of the future in their garage. (That's almost certainly not happening, but if you are, please tell me.)
This week we're in North Carolina, where a major energy bill has passed a key committee and the state Senate. There's a number of things going on with this particular piece of legislation, but here's the headlines: North Carolina will target a 70% cut in planet-heating emissions from the state's electricity by 2030, a first in the southeast; Duke Energy, the state's primary power provider, will be able to change in how they request rate increases, over the objection of consumer advocates.
By the time it arrived in committee on Tuesday, however, the bill's success had been assured. Several days before, Gov. Roy Cooper's office and legislative leadership of both parties announced a compromise — negotiated behind mostly-closed doors. North Carolina's legislature is Republican-controlled, but they do not have veto-override numbers, and Cooper had opposed the original bill.
The new version stripped many of the items that had frustrated all kinds of interest groups. Gone were the mandates for new natural gas and nuclear sources to replace closing coal plants, gone was the block on the governor's attempt to join the East Coast states' cap-and-trade program. New solar projects would not be 100% owned by the monopoly utility. The state's utilities commission regained its power over the process.
Ultimately, the governor's office got the 70% reduction into law. It's not a economy-wide target, but electricity was the North Carolina's number one driver of fossil fuel emissions in its last report.
But will the bill actually lead to lower emissions? How legislators, supporters and opponents were discussing the bill in the committee on Tuesday is instructive on where tensions remain and where the power to cut emissions now actually lies.
"Decarbonization of our electric grid is coming, it's happening," said Sen Paul Newton as he introduced the bill in the committee. Newton, who retired from Duke Energy as a senior executive before running for state office, wanted to be clear about what he saw as the greatest benefit of the new bill — limiting the costs of such a transition.
Newton stressed the bill would require the "least-cost" option to hit the 70% target. Never mind the commission is already required to do so, but it was a notable change from the previous version that had mandated specific replacements for retiring coal plants. Newton was also responding to criticism about the bill's overall potential impact on residents' energy bills.
"Renewables must compete on a level playing field, head-to-head with other sources," Newton said, specifically emphasizing "clean-burning" natural gas and nuclear power. (A reminder: gas-powered electricity and heating in homes is still a fossil fuel, still creates the greenhouse gases that drive climate change. Nuclear is zero-emissions, but has a far more contested position because of the risks associated with radiation.)
Is a level playing field possible when it comes to an electric monopoly? The first line of the bill directs the North Carolina Utilities Commission to take "all reasonable steps" to hit that 70% target. The buck is fully stopped at their door, but Duke Energy is by far the largest energy provider under the commission's regulation.
The utility's own emissions goal across multiple states aims for a 50% decrease by 2030, and includes new gas plants and smaller nuclear reactors. Duke also remains involved in trade groups actively pushing to keep fossil fuels as part of the energy mix across the U.S. and build new infrastructure for it. A number of North Carolinian groups that otherwise would have been on board with slashing electricity emissions have rejected the bill for being far too easy on Duke. During testimony, La’Meshia Whittington of Advance Carolina argued the bill neither mandated help for low-income Carolinians or the 70% reduction. "It has to be required, or we will beyond our 2030 date," she said.
Ultimately, how much this bill reduces the carbon output of North Carolina's electricity will depend on what exactly Duke brings to the regulators and how the commission reacts.
North Carolinian cities, as well as companies with significant operations in the state, have already started to weigh in with the commission, reports Elizabeth Ouzts of Energy News Network, because what Duke does has a huge impact on their own climate change goals.
A record number of stakeholders — from tech company Apple to the City of Charlotte — are formally intervening in the process by which regulators review and approve the document, in an effort to gain more leverage in the proceedings...
The various critiques of Duke’s plan vary on the edges, but the theme is consistent: The company plans too little wind, solar, and energy conservation and too many new gas plants at ratepayers’ expense.
“The stakes are very high right now,” said Gudrun Thompson, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, “and that’s why you see this intense interest."
This isn't just North Carolina, by the way. Utility commissions can be limited by what the legislators tell them to do and not to do. As more carbon reduction goals are formalized into law, it might be worth understanding where your state utility regulator stands and which companies it's in charge of regulating.
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