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After House vote, Cooper gets bill that would help meet climate goals

Energy reform legislation that offers a path to meeting the state's climate change goals is headed to Gov. Roy Cooper.

House Bill 951, "Energy Solutions for North Carolna," passed the House in a 90-20 vote Thursday, after passing the Senate the day before.

The bill was the result of a compromise between the governor and Republican and Democratic legislative leaders. It replaces an earlier version that passed the House in July.

Cooper praised the bill in a statement after the vote: “The strong bipartisan vote for the energy bill is a win for people all across North Carolina who will benefit from clean, renewable and reliable energy that is more accessible for everyone and better for the environment."

The revised legislation keeps power in the hands of the North Carolina Utilities Commission, and aims to fulfill Cooper's 2019 Clean Energy Plan. Regulators would have until the end of next year to plan how to hit Cooper's goals of cutting carbon emissions from energy plants by 70% from 2005 levels by 2030, and reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.

It orders regulators to replace coal-fired plants with the cheapest and most reliable sources, which could include gas or renewable energy.

The legislation also changes how electric utilities are regulated. That includes allowing Duke Energy and other utilities to seek multi-year rate increases and possibly to receive incentives based on meeting goals set by regulators.

And it deletes language in the original House bill that would have banned Cooper's executive branch from considering other greenhouse gas rules. That means the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission can go forward with rulemaking that would set limits on carbon emissions and have the state join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. That's a group of 11 states from Maine to Virginia that operate the nation's first carbon marketplace. Companies that exceed carbon limits must pay a fee for polluting and those below the limits are rewarded.

Some business and consumer groups oppose the bill, saying it could lead to higher rates.

"(With) the implementation of this bill and the mechanisms within this bill, we expect to see large rate increases that will be too great for the consumers of North Carolina, both residential as well as manufacturing," said Kevin Martin of the Carolina Utility Customers Association, which represents manufacturers, during a Senate committee hearing this week.

Republican supporters of the bill said during hearings this week that there were provisions in the legislation that would limit rate increases, including the requirement that the commission seek least-cost sources of energy. Some House Democrats said Thursday that those items didn't go far enough.

“I would love to vote for this bill. But in the final analysis, I have to decide for my ratepayers and not for some of the people in my district who can not worry about how much their energy costs,” said Rep. Mary Belk, a Mecklenburg County Democrat who voted no.

Meanwhile, Rep. Larry Pittman of Cabarrus County, the lone Republican speaking against the bill, said he found the idea that climate change is caused by human activity “a farce and a fraud.” There is little disagreement in the mainstream scientific community, however, that burning coal, oil and gas are causing the world to warm in a dangerous manner.

Duke Energy says it's too soon to say when it might apply for multi-year rates or seek other changes. Many aspects of the bill's goals still have to be worked out by the utilities commission.

Meanwhile, in response to concerns that the bill would give Duke Energy too much power, the company's chief lobbyist said in a letter to state Clean Energy Director Dionne Delli-Gatti Wednesday:

"Duke Energy reaffirms that H951 does not alter long-standing precedent regarding the scope of authority of the North Carolina Utilities Commission and that the Commission retains complete approval and supervisory authority with respect to its development of the Carbon Plan in accordance with the terms of H951. 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. 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."

Read more about how the compromise was reached in WFAE's weekly climate newsletter.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 WFAE

David Boraks is a WFAE weekend host and a producer for "Charlotte Talks." He's a veteran Charlotte-area journalist who has worked part-time at WFAE since 2007 and for other outlets including DavidsonNews.net and The Charlotte Observer.