NC passes 'transformative' energy bill

Concerns over costs and fine print remain for some, but there's massive bipartisan support for a bill tackling climate change and the electric rate-making process.

Posted Updated

Travis Fain
, WRAL statehouse reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — The state legislature finalized sweeping energy legislation Thursday with a bipartisan vote on a bill meant to roll back carbon dioxide emissions in North Carolina.
House Bill 951 calls for a 70 percent reduction in carbon outputs from the state's major power plants, as well as an overhaul in the state regulations that control rate increases. Between the two changes, Duke Energy's electricity rates will increase in the state, and critics said the bill doesn't do enough for low- income families who can't afford higher electricity bills.

Some in the state's manufacturing sector have complained about the increases as well, predicting a loss of industry, though a number of business groups enthusiastically backed the bill, calling it a modernization in state energy policy.

Environmental groups hardly united for the bill – the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters urged lawmakers to vote against, and others were unenthusiastic – but some lauded the effort to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.

"This bill will clean up our power sector and deliver carbon reductions at a time that we can’t afford more delays,” Andrew Hutson, Audubon North Carolina's executive director, said in a statement after Thursday's vote.

The House approved the bill 90-20. The Senate had passed the bill 42-7 a day before, fast-tracking legislation that went public late last week when Republican legislative leaders announced a compromise measure with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Cooper will sign the bill soon, likely with some ceremony as he touts the new carbon requirement, which is unusual among U.S. states. In a public conference call Wednesday with other governors and U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, the governor called the bill "transformative."

In addition to the 70 percent carbon cut by 2030, when compared to 2005 levels, the bill calls for carbon neutrality in Duke's power generating facilities by 2050. It doesn't guarantee these targets or lay out how to get there, but it orders the North Carolina Utilities Commission, which regulates Duke and other utilities in the state, to find the least expensive path without sacrificing reliability.

A number of Republicans, including Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, focused on this mandate for reliability and low-cost solutions in the bill, as opposed to the legislation's climate change implications. In fact, the bill's focus on carbon was a negative for some.

Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, said the push to reduce carbon emissions was "all I need to know to oppose" the bill.

“Simply a useless endeavor to solve an imaginary problem contrived by would-be socialist totalitarians," Pittman said on the House floor.

But the bulk of the legislature's Republican majority voted for the bill, which some saw as a remarkable feat, given the politics of climate change. Many Democrats concerned with costs or concerned the bill doesn't go far enough on climate change backed it as well, calling it a significant move on greenhouse gases.

Reps. Dean Arp, R-Union, and John Szoka, R-Cumberland, who worked on the bill for months, said the measure strikes a good balance. Arp said the language was as strong as it could be, "when you balance carbon reductions in light of costs and reliability."

"They’re not mutually exclusive," he said. "So, the key is to try to achieve that.”

Arp and Szoka also said the bill includes protections to keep the rate-making overhaul from allowing Duke, which sought changes along these lines for years, from overcharging customers.

"The right guardrails and controls are in there," Szoka said after the vote.

Implementation will be key, and that will fall to Duke and the Utilities Commission, which is appointed by the governor.

Solar industry lobbyists complained earlier this week about ambiguities in the bill's language that some fear gives Duke an equal say in the carbon reduction plan. The company's lobbying team sent the Cooper administration a letter Wednesday saying that's not the case.
"H951 does not, in any way, give Duke Energy equal footing with the commission or veto power over commission decisions with respect to the carbon plan," Duke Vice President of Governmental Affairs Kevin McLaughlin said in that letter. "The legislation does not suggest, nor would Duke Energy ever assert, that Duke Energy is a co-equal of the commission with respect to decision-making authority under the legislation."

Even so, concerns remained, and the letter does not carry the weight of law. Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, an attorney and a retired judge, said she fears the plan's carbon goals are "aspirational" and can be "neutralized and ignored." She voted against the bill.

The bill's passage follows years of back and forth, not just over climate change policy but over rate-making, which Duke executives have said was a priority in North Carolina. The company remains one of the state's biggest political powers, and its political action committee donated roughly $462,000 last year to campaigns for state lawmakers and other statewide elected officials, including the governor.

The PAC gave another $5,000 each shortly before this year's legislative session began in January to the Republican and Democratic caucus funds in both the House and the Senate.

Company executives and employees gave another $132,000 or so to state level politicians going back to the start of 2020, including nearly $19,500 to Cooper's campaign and $30,700 to Berger's. That includes max-out donations of $5,400 each from Duke Chief Executive Lynn Good to Cooper, Berger and Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue in October of last year, about a month before the November elections.


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