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5 takeaways from today’s hearing on the energy bill

Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant, near New Hill in southwestern Wake County (Photo: Duke Energy)

A Senate committee today took public comment on the unpopular energy legislation, House Bill 951, which still faces staunch opposition from nearly everyone but Duke Energy and the NC Chamber of Commerce.

1) In addition to environmental advocates, like the Sierra Club, large industrial customers are united against the bill: Nutrien, a large fertilizer company; several textile companies, and the NC Manufacturers’ Alliance. “If I had two hours, I could tell you just how much industrial customers dislike the bill,” said Alliance President Preston Howard.

Kevin Martin, executive director of the Carolina Utility Customers Association, has projected rate increases of up to 50% over a decade. Duke Energy disputes those figures, at least publicly. Martin submitted an email to lawmakers to support his projections. Policy Watch obtained an email exchange about rates between Duke Energy, CUCA and an energy consultant in which Laura Bateman of Duke, says “I think our totals tie; [it’s] just different timing of the investments.”Duke Energy spokeswoman Grace Trilling Rountree told Policy Watch the exchange addressed the utility’s Integrated Resource Plan, and was unrelated to the proposed legislation.

2) Natural gas and nukes made an appearance. The bill requires the Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman to change over from coal to natural gas. The measure also leaves that option open for the Roxboro facility, which environmental groups fear could incentivize the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate project — currently in limbo because the main line in West Virginia and Virginia is years behind schedule because of permit violations and successful court challenges.

An American Petroleum Institute representative extolled the virtues of natural gas, even though yesterday’s dire report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change urged nations to sharply curb their methane emissions. Natural gas operations are the primary source of methane because the pipelines, fracking wellheads and other infrastructure leaks the powerful greenhouse gas.

As for nuclear energy, the bill would allow Duke to incur up to $50 million in expenses — borne by the ratepayers — for an early site permit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for siting of a small reactor at an undetermined location in North Carolina. Nuclear energy proponents, including Robert Hayes of NC State University’s Department of Nuclear Engineering, emphasized that per gigawatt, this energy source takes up less physical space than solar or wind. All the radioactive waste generated since the 1970s, Hayes said, could fit in a football field, 9 feet deep.

However, Chemical and Engineering News reported last year that there are scientific concerns about the integrity of casks and containers in which the waste is stored: “In some cases, the aging containers have already begun leaking their toxic contents.”

Also not mentioned: the amount of water nuclear plants need for cooling. From the Union of Concerned Scientists: “Nuclear power plants consume vast amounts of water during normal operation to absorb the waste heat left over after making electricity and also to cool the equipment and buildings used in generating that electricity.”

3) The NC Utilities Commission is popular. Not because everyone agrees with all of its decisions, but the commission is the only state regulatory body that can tell Duke what to do. Duke Energy enjoys a regulated monopoly, meaning that in exchange for being (nearly) the only game in town, they are subject to the commission’s rulings.

The bill would strip the commission of some of its authority, and in doing so, cut the public out of the decision-making process. Commission hearings are quasi-judicial proceedings, with sworn testimony and public comment. Fewer of those proceedings equals fewer opportunities for the public to be heard.

“The current decision-making process gives us a voice,” said a representative of Nutrien, a larger fertilizer company, with a phosphate mine in eastern North Carolina. “It’s critical that ratepayers participate in the process, and that is jeopardized in this legislation. Public input is essential to sound energy policy.”

4) Despite the scientific consensus and overwhelming evidence, climate change deniers still exist. Dave Burton of Cary opposed the bill because it declares a “war on coal” by phasing out that energy source. Burton, a climate change denier, touted the (false) benefits of coal and carbon dioxide, and (falsely) claimed CO2 is the reason widespread famine is rare. Burton was on the board of NC-20, a group of coastal real estate and government interests, behind the now-infamous sea level rise bill. In 2012, that bill restricted state and local governments in using only select historical data to predict sea level rise along the North Carolina coast. With a stroke of a pen, a 3-foot increase suddenly became just 8 inches.

Burton claims to be a reviewer of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, but that’s a low bar to clear. Most anyone can sign up to be a “reviewer,” which is not the same as being an author.

5) File under unintended consequences: When a large manufacturer closes or leaves North Carolina, that’s a loss in tax revenue. But small towns are harder hit by those losses. Without the manufacturer, the water and wastewater utilities also lose funds, but the costs of maintaining and upgrading the treatment systems, main lines, etc., remains the same.

What happens? The utilities can’t pay their bills or are forced to raise water and sewer rates on their customers. The utilities can become “distressed,” and risk being taken over by the state.

 

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