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North Carolina Senate passes compromise energy reform bill

The North Carolina Senate on Wednesday approved a bipartisan energy reform bill that calls for reductions in greenhouse gases that lead to global warming.

The legislation gives the North Carolina Utilities Commission until the end of 2022 to draft a plan for meeting Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's goals for reducing carbon from energy generation.

The bill also makes major changes in the way electric utilities are regulated, including allowing Duke Energy and others to seek multi-year rate increases.

The bill replaces an earlier version passed by the House in July that drew lots of opposition. The new text was a compromise announced last Friday by Cooper and Republican and Democratic leaders. It passed two key Senate committees Tuesday and the Rules committee earlier Wednesday before going up for a full Senate vote.

The 42-7 vote was bipartisan, with six Democrats and one Republican opposed. It now goes back to the House.

Republican supporters have focused on the bill's requirement that regulators seek the lowest cost and most reliable sources for new plants to replace coal-fired power plants. That leaves the door open for utilities to expand the construction of gas-fired plants.

"This bill sets in stone the requirement that North Carolina's electricity be generated using the lowest-cost option available. Whatever that option is — including nuclear, the cleanest form of energy generation known to man — energy producers must adopt it. It's a big win for families and businesses," Republican Sen. Paul Newton of Cabarrus County said after the vote.

But some business and consumer groups worry the bill still could lead to big rate increases.

During a brief debate on the Senate floor, Sen. Gladys Robinson of Guilford County said thousands of people across the state already have difficulty paying their electric bills.

"And with this rate increase that we know all of us are going to have to absorb, it's going to be even more difficult, very much more difficult for them," Robinson said.

The bill also puts into law the governor's goals of reducing carbon emissions from energy production by 70% from 2005 levels by 2030 and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. Andrew Hutson, executive director of Audubon North Carolina, called it a "major turning point for climate action" in the state.

"We just saw a broad, bipartisan vote for deep cuts to North Carolina’s carbon emissions, and to require that it be done on a timetable that will help us reduce the worst impacts of climate change. Only a few states in the nation have made this kind of commitment," Hutson said. "There’s still much work to be done to ensure our clean energy transition is just and equitable, and we look forward to the bill being heard in the House.”

The bill also specifies that utilities can develop up to 55% of new solar projects, leaving 45% for third - party developers.

The compromise bill also deleted a provision that would have prevented state environmental regulators from pursuing their own carbon-reduction strategy. The state Environmental Management Commission in July granted a request by several environmental groups to consider adopting rules for carbon reduction. The petition also called for North Carolina to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which includes 11 states from Maine to Virginia. That process would now be allowed to go forward.

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.