Controversial energy legislation narrowly passes NC House despite widespread opposition

Published July 15, 2021

By Lisa Sorg

Among the many unsupported, if downright bizarre, statements uttered about House Bill 951, Rep. Larry Pittman’s bested them all. 

Solar farms, he announced on the House floor yesterday, make deer meat inedible.

“I’ve been told if deer eat vegetation around these things the meat might not be fit for human consumption,” Pittman (R-Cabarrus) said on the House floor yesterday, in opposition to House Bill 951.

 Rep. Larry Pittman: Concerned about solar panels’ effect on venison (Photo: NCGA)

While folklore and falsehoods aren’t the best bases for policymaking, a ‘no’ vote is a ‘no’ vote, and bill opponents needed every one they could muster.

Known in some corners as the “Super Secret Energy Bill” for the covert way in which it was crafted, the measure, is opposed by the state’s major manufacturers and industries, businesses, environmental groups, and public-interest organizations.  

“Almost every single stakeholder is opposed to this bill,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) on the House floor yesterday.

Across-the board rate hikes

Drafted with outsized input by Duke Energy, it’s a complex and technical bill, 48 pages long with a 17-page summary. It could change the arc of the state’s energy policy for at least a decade. 

Rep. John Szoka (R-Cumberland) acknowledged in a previous committee meeting that he wasn’t even sure he understood it all — not usually what you want to hear from a bill’s co-sponsor.

But the meat-and-potatoes reason for the opposition — the kind of blowback that politicians hear about on the campaign trail — is that the bill would result in higher electricity rates.

The 1.3 million Duke Energy Progress residential customers would pay a cumulative increase of $11 to $18 in monthly bills by 2030 and 2035, respectively, according to an analysis by the Public Staff of the NC Utilities Commission. This is based on a usage of 1,000 kilowatt hours per month; if you have a poorly insulated home, or a large house, your bills could be even higher.

Another 1.9 million Duke Energy Carolinas residential customers would pay an extra $12 to $24 each month by those dates.

Over the same time period, industrial and commercial customers would see cumulative increases ranging from 11% to 31% depending on which service territory they’re located in.

“There is the potential for a massive rate increase,” said Harrison, noting that for low-income North Carolinians, “this will be a hard hit for them.”

(“Securitization,” essentially low-interest bonds, would help pay off about half the value, $500 million, of Duke coal plants as they retire. This ends up saving ratepayers money; otherwise the costs of retirement would increase monthly bills even more.)

Boosting Duke’s power

The bill contains other more subtle, power grabs. 

Bill co-sponsor, Rep. Dean Arp (R-Union), for instance, sprung an amendment on the full House that was drafted in response to a recent decision by the Environmental Management Commission that would have put North Carolina on the road to joining 11 states, including Virginia, in curbing carbon emissions.

On Wednesday, the EMC had approved a petition for rule making, submitted by the Southern Environmental Law Center, to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. RGGI, as it’s known, is a market-based way to cap and reduce carbon emissions. The approval was only the first step in a protracted and uncertain process that would, even if it clears all potential hurdles, likely not come to fruition for two years.

“We are the policy makers,” Arp said in his justification for the amendment. “This amendment makes sure that the governor does not have authority to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative without authorization of the General Assembly.”

The bill would also takes steps to defang the North Carolina Utilities Commission, an independent institution established by the legislature several decades ago, in part, to oversee regulated monopolies. As in many other states, investor-owned utilities are allowed to operate in the state as monopolies in exchange for being held accountable to the commission.

The commission, which is govrened by seven-member panel of gubernatorial appointees) regulates the rates and services of all investor-owned public utilities, like Duke Energy and Dominion Energy. It holds rate increase hearings, approves or disapproves utilities’ energy mix plans, among other duties.

 Rep. Becky Carney: Concerned the bill will undercut utilities commission authority (Photo: NCGA)

In debate, Rep. Becky Carney (D-Mecklenburg) pointed out 13 clauses in the bill that strip authority from the panel. This includes requiring the commission to approve a utility’s proposed energy replacement for coal, as long as it meets a few basic benchmarks, like reliability. The commission must allow utilities to pass along to ratepayers some costs of retiring the coal plants. Other sections set a time limit on how long the commission can deliberate.

The bill does add one small enhancement to the commission’s authority by specifying that it must hold more than one public hearing on the retirement of the coal-fired power plants. Previously, it could hold only one.

Climate change provisions spur debate

Beyond the bill’s financial and procedural aspects, it’s not far-fetched to say there are existential consequences of the measure.

HB 951 would establish a new, overarching energy policy for the state. It also would establish, at least through mid-century, North Carolina’s contribution to climate change and the habitability — or inhabitability — of the planet. 

The bill proposes to reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 63% by 2035, compared to 2005 levels, short of the 70% goal laid out in the governor’s Clean Energy Plan.

It would retire most of Duke Energy’s coal-fired power plants. Allen would convert to solar plus battery storage, but at least one — Marshall Steam Station, and possibly another, Roxboro, would convert to natural gas, a major source of methane and a significant contributor to climate change. 

“Conversion from coal to gas is trading one stranded asset” — essentially obsolete technology that the utility still owes money on — “for another,” Rep. Harrison said.

The total amount of solar power capacity would increase to 7,327 megawatts. For bill proponents this was the most promising part of the proposal.

Not for Reps. Pittman and Mark Brody, a Union County Republican.

Brody proposed an amendment, which failed, that would require counties to hold a public meeting and install a sign at potential solar sites giving notice of the proposed use. (Cities and counties already must notify the public of rezoning cases, including signage, although sometimes the uses are not explicitly stated.)

Brody also said that while he is a “property rights guy,” he was concerned that the amount of proposed solar would require 45,000 acres of land for the installations. However much of that property is farmland; for context, 60,000 acres of forest is cut in North Carolina each year for the carbon-intensive wood pellet industry, according to the advocacy group Dogwood Alliance.

A study by the US Geological Survey showed that from 1992 to 2006, there was a 16% decrease in forest acreage in southeastern North Carolina. However, that was before the proliferation of solar farms. High-density and low-density urban development accounted for a 34% increase in land cover; agriculture acreage rose by 2%, and “barren” land increased by 86.5%.

“Solar panels are toxic,” Brody claimed. “What happens to the water supply if they break. I’ve got a well.”

It is true that solar panels contain metals, but those materials are encapsulated. Rarely do the panels break and release contamination. Studies by NC State have shown solar installations do not pose an environmental threat. 

The panels can also be recycled as electronic waste. The European Union requires them to be properly recycled; most states, including North Carolina, have no such mandates.

Brody and Pittman, who also is anti-solar, did not mention the water contamination that has occurred from fossil fuels: unlined coal ponds, coal used as structural fill, methane in wells from natural gas, and most recently, the presence of toxic PFAS in fracking fluid, which can contaminate nearby drinking water.

The bill would also allow Duke Energy to incur expenses of up to $50 million for the siting of a small nuclear reactor at an undetermined location in North Carolina. 

Rep. Arp had announced in a previous committee meeting that the technology for such a facility is “proven and safe.” However, no such reactors have been deployed in the U.S. beyond a test site. 

Nor did Arp address the issue of how nuclear waste would be disposed. The production of nuclear fuel — uranium mining, for example— can contaminate the groundwater, as can operations of the plants themselves. 

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as of October 2020, 40 of the 57 nuclear sites in the U.S. have reported leaks or spills that involved tritium levels in groundwater at the plant above legal levels. 

North Carolina plants reporting spills or leaks include McGuire, Brunswick and Shearon Harris; and Catawba in South Carolina near the North Carolina border. None of the incidents resulted in offsite groundwater contamination, according to reports to the NRC.

On to the Senate

After 40 minutes of debate, it was time for a full House vote. “Like a football game, we’re at the two-minute warning to halftime, Szoka said in asking the members to vote ‘yes.’ “I’m well aware not everyone happy with the bill. More work has to be done.”

The bill passed on its second reading, 58-50. Because there were objections to a third reading, the final vote was delayed until after midnight. Each side lost a vote to attrition, and there were 13 excused absences, probably because of the late hour. The final tally: 57-49. 

Two Democrats voted for it:  Rep. Shelly Willingham of Edgecombe County, and Michael Wray of Northampton County. Five Republicans voted against it: Brody, Pittman, John Sauls of Lee County, Larry Strickland of Johnston County, and John Torbett of Gaston County.

The measure now goes to the Senate. If that chamber passes the bill in its current form, Gov. Roy Cooper, who earlier in the day had issued a statement critical of the measure, will likely veto it.