by Jessica Finkel, NC Newsline
The energy transition could help our democracy flourish. But, in North Carolina, powerful industries and their political allies are doing everything they can to roll back progress – wasting our money and keeping us locked into an outdated and polluting fossil fuel economy. This undermines our democracy and our future.
The outsized political power of Duke Energy means that North Carolina is missing a once in a generation opportunity to create a modern, renewable energy economy. The Department of Energy just awarded $90 million to support climate-resilient and energy efficient building codes as part of the Biden-Harris administration’s Investing in America agenda. North Carolina did not get a dime. Our state government’s inability to stand up to our monopoly utility means we will continue to get passed over for federal investment and stay stuck with a dirty energy economy.
The most recent example? Republican legislators manipulating how our building codes are written. The existing Building Codes Council’s members–appointed by Governor Roy Cooper–proposed an overdue rewrite of the state’s energy conservation code, which had not been updated since 2009. The update would have modernized our state’s buildings standards, for example by increasing insulation thickness and window quality, which would help to keep homes cool in the summer and warm in the winter, improving our quality of life, conserving energy, and saving families money on their utility bills.
In response to these positive changes, Republican lawmakers passed H.B. 488, overriding the governor’s veto. The law will strip the Building Codes Council’s authority and place it instead with a new “Residential Code Council” whose members are appointed or approved by the state legislature, assuring that the party famous for denying the realities of climate change will pick the people who decide our building codes.
This means that new homes will not be energy efficient, sticking residents with higher utility bills and saddling the world with more greenhouse gas emissions. It means that our state won’t meet our climate targets since industrial, residential and commercial buildings make up 13 percent of our overall greenhouse gas emissions. By blocking building code updates, the GOP essentially transfers money from our wallets straight to Duke Energy.
What else happens when our regulatory bodies are captured by corporate interests? The people charged with holding powerful industries accountable to the public good act as little more than marionettes controlled by the very industries they are supposed to be regulating.
Take for example HB 951, which passed in October 2021 after months of private negotiations between GOP legislators and Duke Energy. This requires the North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC) to take “all reasonable steps” to achieve 70 percent carbon emissions reductions from 2005 levels by 2030, and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. But it also enabled Duke Energy to write its own Carbon Plan that slow-walks coal retirement and permits a massive build out of climate wrecking methane gas.
Now Duke Energy is requesting an 18 percent rate increase in order to pay for the unnecessary and unaffordable fossil fuel expansion in its Carbon Plan. If approved, this rate increase would raise monthly residential energy bills by $25 a month or more. The NCUC is supposed to ensure that Duke Energy doesn’t overcharge its customers, but the Commission is not standing up for us.
The double-whammy of utility rate hikes and outdated building codes will hurt low-income North Carolinians the worst. In 2019, nearly 1.4 million households in North Carolina paid 6 percent or more of their income on energy. The burden increases as household wealth decreases. According to the North Carolina Justice Center, families living between 50 and 100 percent of the federal poverty level spent roughly 16 percent of their income just to cover energy bills. Someone working a minimum wage job would, on average, have to work one to two more weeks each year to cover Duke’s requested rate hike.
North Carolinians need to reimagine our future beyond the current fossil fuel industry power structure. The good news is that dedicated experts, activists, organizers who have been testifying at the rate hike hearings are lighting the way forward, and showing us why energy should not be a private commodity but a human right, and a renewable resource shared and managed by our communities. Energy development should not destroy our ecosystem or our democracy, it should enrich both.
NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: email@example.com. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.