Saturday, April 1, 2023

Cooper, lawmakers agree on compromise to controversial energy bill

Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican legislative leaders announced a compromise agreement Friday on a controversial energy bill favored by Duke Energy – legislation that barely mustered enough support to pass the House and had since stalled in the Senate.

The latest draft is much shorter than previous versions of House Bill 951, with many earlier proposals deleted from the latest draft. One provision has been sought by Duke for years: The ability to get Utilities Commission approval for multi-year rate hikes, rather than submit a new application with each rate change. Duke says the approach is necessary to create reliable budgeting for major infrastructure projects, but consumer advocates have been opposed.

The final bill also calls for the Utilities Commission to develop a plan that will reduce carbon emissions by 70% by the year 2030, and reach full “carbon neutrality” by 2050. While that’s a higher threshold than previous versions of the bill would have produced, the new version no longer spells out which coal-fired power plants Duke Energy must close. Instead, the bill calls for Duke to use a 50% securitization approach for financing the closure of coals plants – an attempt to ensure that electric consumers don’t foot the whole bill. While the original bill called for natural gas to replace the coal plants, the new version is silent on the subject. 

The advocacy group Appalachian Voices, which opposes the bill, is skeptical about the carbon neutrality plan. 

“In setting an objective (rather than a requirement) for achieving 70% carbon reductions, the bill grants Duke Energy substantial influence and authority in determining how, and when, that target might be met,” the group said on its website. “Indeed, loopholes written into the bill may delay achievement of that goal by several years.”

Another provision aims to settle a long-running dispute between utility companies and solar energy producers, by requiring that utilities can generate only 55% of the solar energy they use, and the remaining 45% must be from competitive bids among independent solar companies.

There’s also an effort to help lower-income residents afford energy efficiency improvements. According to a news release from Cooper and legislative leaders, “consumers would benefit from access to low to zero interest capital and the ability to qualify based on factors beyond credit scores and collateral. They could also pay down the cost of these improvements through a monthly payment that is taken care of by the resulting savings on their lower cost electric bill.”

In the joint news release, Cooper says the bill “sets a clean energy course for North Carolina’s future that is better for the economy, better for the environment, and better for the pocketbooks of everyday North Carolinians.” Senate leader Phil Berger says it will “signal to businesses and families here now or considering a move here that North Carolina’s leaders are committed to pro-growth energy policies.” And House Democratic Leader Robert Reives, D-Chatham, says it “combats climate change, creates green jobs, and helps consumers and businesses have predictable, fair prices.” 

But not everyone supports the compromise. In a news release later Friday afternoon, the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center issued a statement calling for legislators to vote no. It says the bill “will significantly increase electricity bills for all residential ratepayers, by some estimates up to 50 percent in three years. Households spending $2,400 a year on electricity, for example, would see the cost jump to $3,600 annually.”

Various provisions from earlier versions weren’t included in Friday’s deal. One of them would have allowed utilities to spend up to $50 million on initial permitting for a new nuclear power plant in the state. Another provision, opposed by Cooper, would have prevented his administration from joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative without the legislature’s blessing.

Duke Energy isn’t mentioned in Friday’s joint press release from elected leaders, but the company issued a statement later Friday:

“Legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle recognize the opportunity in front of us to move away from coal and accelerate a clean energy transition for our state,” spokesman Bill Norton said. “We thank Senate Leader Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore, Gov. Roy Cooper, Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue, House Democratic Leader Robert Reives and other legislators for their leadership as the legislative process evolves. Our goals at Duke Energy remain – to provide affordable, reliable, and increasingly clean energy to all North Carolinians.”

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