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Sponsors Defend NC Energy Bill Goals While Cooper Pans It

Negotiators of a wide-ranging North Carolina energy bill to retire Duke Energy coal-fired electricity plants, expand solar power production and keep nuclear power defended their goals on Thursday despite current opposition to the measure from interest groups and Gov. Roy Cooper.

The bill's contents, revealed this week after months of input from utilities, power customers and renewable energy boosters, got its first public scrutiny in a House committee. Members urged Republicans managing the bill not to rush debate and address concerns about changes that would boost customer electric rates.

Rep. John Szoka, a Cumberland County Republican and bill sponsor, said the bill's not perfect and asked for constructive criticism of the 47-page proposal, which he considers a jumping-off point for discussions. No votes were taken Thursday.

"The plan seeks to foster the right mix of energy generation sources to maximize reliability and cost savings for consumers, and minimize environmental impacts and lower our carbon footprint," said another sponsor, Rep. Dean Arp, a Union County Republican.

Cooper, a Democrat who would be asked to sign any bill into law, came out against the measure shortly before the meeting, arguing that it's not a sufficiently aggressive plan to combat climate change. He's called for a 70% reduction in power-sector greenhouse gas emissions in the state by 2030 compared to 2005 levels and to become carbon-neutral by 2050. House Republicans calculate the bill would contribute to a 61% decline by 2030 as low-performing plants are retired earlier.

The bill "would cost ratepayers too much, fall short of clean energy goals, hamper job recruitment and weaken the Utilities Commission which exists to provide accountability for utility companies," Cooper said in a emailed statement. "It takes some steps toward more renewable energy but not nearly enough and it's clear they need to go back to the drawing board and negotiate with a broader spectrum of stakeholders in order to get a better plan."

The measure would direct subsidiaries of Charlotte-based Duke Energy, the state's dominant electric utility, to retire coal-fired plants at the Marshall, Allen, Roxboro, Cliffside and Mayo locations by the end of the decade. Marshall would transition to a plant powered by natural gas, while Allen would go to a combination of solar and battery power.

Many environmental advocates contend the bill would force the state's energy resources to depend on fossil fuels longer than necessary when alternatives are becoming more plentiful and affordable.

"The bill, while well intentioned, does far too little to transition our state away from coal and towards cleaner sources of power and at too great a cost," said Greg Andeck of Audubon North Carolina, addressing the House Energy and Public Utilities Committee. A North Carolina Chamber representative later expressed support for the measure.

Duke Energy also would be able to seek rate increases in three-year blocks through the state Utilities Commission, rather than year by year. The Charlotte-based utility was unsuccessful two years ago in getting legislative approval for the multiyear rate idea, which it says can reduce legal costs and provide more predictability.

The proposal would make changes to and expand a 2017 law designed to acquire renewable energy like solar power for Duke Energy's electric grid using a competitive process. Other solar programs would be modified or replaced. The resulting changes are projected to produce enough power for hundreds of thousands of customers.

The bill's actual cost to electricity customers was still being analyzed, Szoka said. The legislation would permit surcharges to help pay for the work of altering plants and to carry out renewable energy contract agreements.

Szoka said the projected costs of an earlier version of the bill was low "enough for me to say 'I'm willing to pay that.'" But Kevin O'Donnell, who works with the Carolina Utility Customers Association, a trade group for industrial and manufacturing ratepayers now opposed to the measure, said the current bill would result in a 50% increase in electric bills over 10 years.

The measure also would allow Duke Energy to spend up to $50 million to pursue a permit to find a locale for a new, smaller "modular" nuclear facility in North Carolina. And it tells Duke Energy to submit federal license renewals for utility nuclear plants. North Carolina needs an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy to ensure electricity reliability when alternative energy can't be counted on fully just yet, Arp said.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

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