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Energy & Environment
WFAE reporter David Boraks explores how the way we live influences climate change and its impact across the Carolinas. You also can read additional national and international climate news.

Compromise energy reform bill heads for a full NC Senate vote

071621 power substation Cornelius.jpg
David Boraks
A power substation is seen in Cornelius, N.C.

An energy reform bill backed by Republican and Democratic North Carolina lawmakers and Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to come up for a vote in the full state Senate Wednesday. That's after it easily passed two key Senate committees Tuesday afternoon.

The bill gives the North Carolina Utilities Commission until the end of 2022 to develop plans for meeting the governor's goals for reducing carbon emissions from electricity generating plants. And it would put those goals into law — cutting CO2 emissions by 70% from 2005 levels by 2030 and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 — though regulators would have leeway to push back those goals.

Energy is the second leading cause of carbon emissions that lead to global warming. Cooper's 2019 Clean Energy Plan seeks to reduce emissions from energy, transportation and other sources.

The bill also requires regulators to choose the lowest-cost and most reliable method when considering how to replace coal-fired plants with solar energy or gas. The bill's chief Senate sponsor, Republican Paul Newton of Cabarrus County, said the legislation doesn't stipulate using renewable energy or gas when replacing coal plants.

"The choice must be made to maintain or improve upon the reliability and adequacy of the grid … at the least cost," Newton said before Tuesday's Senate Agriculture, Energy & Environment Committee vote.

But environmental groups say that leaves the door open for more gas-fired power plants — something called for in Duke Energy's long-range plans. Though cleaner than coal, gas-fired plants still emit greenhouse gases, and some people worry that will keep the state from hitting those climate goals.

The bill also would allow big utilities like Duke Energy to seek multi-year rate increases, instead of year by year. Some consumer and business advocates oppose that provision, saying it could lead to big rate increases.

"It will significantly increase electricity bills for all residential ratepayers served by subject utilities, and make it even harder for millions of people living in poverty in North Carolina to keep the lights on," said Al Ripley, of the North Carolina Justice Center. "There is nothing, in our opinion, in this legislation to help low income people offset these costs,"

Some businesses also oppose the bill. Kevin Martin of the Carolina Utility Customers Association, which represents big manufacturers, said, "We expect to see large rate increases that will be too great for the consumers of North Carolina, both residential as well as manufacturing."

Duke Energy supports the bill, said Kendal Bowman, a vice president for regulatory affairs and policy.

"This energy legislation charts a course for the future that will ensure cleaner energy and carbon reductions while balancing reliability and affordability," Bowman said during the energy committee hearing. "Duke Energy looks forward to working with the Utilities Commission and stakeholders to implement this major energy legislation."

The bill replaces one approved by the House this summer that would have specified which coal-fired power plants Duke Energy must close and how.

If approved by the Senate, the bill still would have to go back to the House, where a vote could come before week's end.

If it becomes law, it would then fall to the utilities commission to develop the new energy transition plans and manage other regulatory changes. Newton said it would require additional staff and software at the agency.

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