North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law Wednesd ay a major energy reform bill designed to promote cleaner energy and change the way electric utilities are regulated. Cooper signed the bill even though business, environmental and consumer groups say it doesn't go far enough and could lead to big price increases.
House Bill 951, which passed both the House and Senate last week, was a compromise between the governor and Republican and Democratic legislative leaders.
The bill orders state regulators to draft a plan by the end of next year to meet the governor's goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from energy plants. The law requires the utilities commission to use the cheapest and most reliable technology to replace coal plants. While allowing for solar or wind energy, it also could let Duke Energy expand construction of new gas-fired power plants.
It also lets Duke Energy and other utilities seek rate increases over multiple years, instead of year-by-year. It also would let utilities receive incentives based on meeting goals set by regulators. And it creates a mechanism to reduce utilities losses if they close coal-fired power plants earlier than planned.
“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," Cooper said after signing the bil l.
The state Democratic Party cheered Cooper's signing of the bill, noting that it puts into law the governor's 2019 goals of reducing carbon emissions from energy plants by 70% from 2005 levels by 2030 and to net-zero carbon by 2050. In a statement, the party said Cooper and lawmakers "put the state on track to a clean energy future that promotes economic growth, protects the environment, and keeps money in the pocketbooks of everyday North Carolinians."
But objections to the bill are wide-ranging.
The North Carolina Council of Churches said in a statement that the bill doesn't help those "hurt first and worst by the ongoing climate crisis." In particular, a loan program to help low-income people improve energy efficiency in their homes "is not enough to adequately offset the increased costs of the legislation because these programs are often not available to low-income homeowners due to the poor condition of their homes."
A coalition that includes some of the state's largest tech, food and pharmaceutical businesses said the compromise bill is better than a previous version passed by the House. But it doesn't do enough to help them reach their own climate goals. The group includes Google, Biogen, candy makers Mars and Nestle and breweries New Belgium and Sierra Nevada.
“North Carolina businesses are increasingly looking to power their facilities with clean energy and want to see the state adopt policies that will help build a clean, affordable and resilient electricity grid," said Brianna Esteves of Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit that has been working with the businesses.
The revised bill "still does not adequately prioritize affordability and decarbonization," Esteves said. "The onus will be on the good faith of the North Carolina Utilities Commission to safeguard an affordable transition to the clean energy future."
It's too soon to say how the reforms might affect rates. The next step in the process is for the utilities commission to begin drafting the clean energy plan, which will determine how coal-fired plants are replaced and how much they cost.
Duke Energy has said it supports the legislation. In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Duke's North Carolina President Stephen De May said: “We thank Governor Cooper and Senate and House leaders for passing this landmark legislation with broad bipartisan support, creating a framework to reach some of the most aggressive carbon reduction goals in the country, while maintaining least-cost and reliability requirements to protect customers. We look forward to implementing this new policy for the benefit of all North Carolinians.”