RALEIGH, N.C. (AP/WNCN) — Legislation that could shape North Carolina electricity production for decades received initial approval Wednesday by the state House, with the narrow majority rejecting arguments that the measure relies too much on natural gas or could send customer rates soaring.
Republicans pushing the bill — shaped by Duke Energy, customer and business groups and renewable energy boosters — have said it promotes an all-of-the-above energy strategy while reducing carbon dioxide emissions and keeping power reliable and affordable.
The anchor of the legislation, approved 58-50, is the early retirement of inefficient coal-fired power plants at five locations, to be phased out through the end of 2030. These and other alterations in the bill would contribute to a 62% reduction in power-sector greenhouse gas emissions in the state by the end of the decade compared to 2005 levels.
The most significant opponent is Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who can wield his veto stamp and wants a 70% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 2030. He’s said the bill authors should rewrite it with a broader array of interested parties.
“The House Republican energy legislation as currently written weakens the (state) Utilities Commission’s ability to prevent unfair, higher electricity rates on consumers in the short run,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said before the floor debate. “And in the long run, this bill falls short on clean energy, which will create jobs and contain costs.”
Cooper’s opposition likely grew with an approved amendment from bill co-sponsor Rep. Dean Arp that would prevent the state from entering a multistate compact that limits C02 emission in the region through a cap-and-trade program. A state environmental commission controlled by gubernatorial appointees agreed on Tuesday to develop rules to join the 11-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative as a primary tool to meet the 70% reduction.
Arp, a Union County Republican, said it’s the legislature’s job to decide on whether to join: “We are the policymakers.”
The bill, which needed one more vote Thursday before going to the Senate, also would expand solar production but allow Duke Energy to spend $50 million on pursuing a permit to find a location for a new, smaller “modular” nuclear facility.
The measure was panned by several environmental groups, which said it encourages the use of natural gas to fuel these converted coal-fired operations — rather than other technologies. The bill authors counter that the legislation doesn’t demand a specific fuel source at three of the five locations. Other industrial trade groups also panned the bill in part for taking decision-making authority away from the Utilities Commission, which sets electric customers rates.
“These are complex technical energy and utility issues,” said Rep. Becky Carney, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, asking colleagues that when they go home to constituents, “can you explain to them why you voted yes?”
The public staff of the Utilities Commission estimates some Duke Energy customers could see an additional 4.4% increase in retail rates by 2030 if the bill is enacted. But the Carolina Utility Customers Association calculated the cost to be several times that percentage increase. The bill also would let Duke Energy seek rate increases in three-year blocks, rather than year by year.
Duke Energy spokesperson Grace Rountree said on average residential customers’ bills would increase by about $3.50 per month based on the state’s analysis of the impact of the legislation.
“It is clear that North Carolina’s clean energy transition is top of mind for policymakers, stakeholders and communities,” Rountree said. “As parties continue discussions on HB 951 and find additional compromise, we remain committed to advocating for solutions that support communities and ensure the continued reliability and affordability customers expect.”
Dan Crawford, director of government relations for the NC League of Conservation Voters, called on lawmakers to start all over.
“Part of the problem is that it’s being rushed through so quickly no one knows,” he said of outstanding questions about the ultimate impact of the bill on customers. “What’s the rush? Why are we in such a hurry to get this bill through when there’s still a lot of questions about what it does?”
A final House vote occurred early Thursday, just after midnight. That’s because Democrats objected to having a final vote Wednesday evening, and Speaker Tim Moore said he couldn’t wait until daylight because many members were unable to attend then. A dozen of the chamber’s 120 members either didn’t vote or were absent Wednesday.