Bipartisan energy legislation could impact electric bills for decades

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – As the General Assembly prepares to vote this week on a bipartisan bill that would cut greenhouse gas emissions and impact what Duke Energy could charge customers, some environmental and social justice groups urged lawmakers to scrap the plan Monday. 

A compromise on the bill (click here to view) emerged Friday, with Gov. Roy Cooper (D) and Republicans and Democrats in the legislature announcing their support for it.  

“This bipartisan agreement 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. I am encouraged that we have been able to reach across the aisle to find a way forward that will update our energy systems while saving people money and doing our part to slow climate change,” Cooper said. 

The bill would allow Duke to seek multiyear rate increases instead of one year at a time. It also includes goals for public utilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent of 2005 levels by 2030 and to become carbon neutral by 2050. 

The state’s Utilities Commission would have to work with energy providers and stakeholders to develop the plan to achieve those goals by the end of 2022.  

Duke Energy officials have been meeting with state lawmakers for months in closed-door meetings pushing for a bill to pass. A version that the House approved in the middle of the night on July 15 drew criticism from people across the political spectrum for weakening the authority of the Utilities Commission and potentially leading to rate increases as high as 50 percent for industrial customers, according to the Carolina Utility Customers Association. 

Under the compromise version of the bill that’s poised to pass this week, the commission would retain the authority to approve rate increases. If Duke sought a multi-year increase, the first year would be tied to the company’s actual costs and revenues while years two and three would be capped at 4 percent. 

“The final cost determination is going to rest with the Utilities Commission,” said Sen. Mike Woodard (D-Durham). “It puts safeguards in there so that you won’t see 50 percent increases, and there are gonna be fluctuations in there.” 

Sen. Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus), who retired from Duke Energy, was among those who negotiated the compromise. 

“Duke Energy will, arguably, make a lot less money on our version of the bill than it would have under the House version,” he said. “Decarbonization is coming to the electric grid. It’s coming globally. It’s coming nationally. It’s coming to North Carolina. So, what we did for the citizens of North Carolina, is we guaranteed it will be done at the least possible cost to them.” 

Alfred Ripley, of the North Carolina Justice Center, blasted the agreement Monday, saying it ultimately will lead to unaffordable rate increases for low- and middle-income customers. 

“We are very concerned that this legislation is going to dramatically increase the rates that people have to pay for electricity,” he said. “We want to pursue ways that bear those costs responsibly, but this legislation does not do that.” 

Under a previous version of the bill, the public staff of the Utilities Commission estimated retail rates would rise by about 4.5 percent by 2030. CBS17 contacted the agency to see if they’ve developed cost estimates based on the revised legislation but did not get a response.  

“They’re going to take advantage of every loophole and every way that they can manipulate this legislation to make as much money as they can. And, that’s going to cost every North Carolinian dearly,” said Ripley. “We are very concerned with the way the carbon-reduction plan is designed, that it could be manipulated by utilities to delay the impact the design of that program.” 

Bill Norton, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, said it was too soon to estimate costs for customers. 

“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,” he said. 

He noted the bill calls for the Utilities Commission to follow “the least-cost path” to achieving reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. 

Sen. Woodard said the most significant provision is putting the clean energy goals into law.   

Still, some environmental groups have come out against the bill, urging legislators to start over on it. 

The bill “fails to pass the benefits of the clean, renewable energy onto those not named Duke Energy. It fails to address the concerns raised by racial justice advocates. It looks at low-income ratepayers, a group that makes up twenty percent of Duke Energy’s residential customer base — a group whose bills are already unaffordable, and asks them to give even more. It does not go nearly far enough,” wrote Josh McClenney, Energy Democracy Field Coordinator for Appalachian Voices, in an email. 

Two Senate committees are scheduled to consider the bill Tuesday. The Senate and House are likely to vote on it by the end of the week, sending it to Gov. Cooper for his signature. 

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