In a year of landmark energy actions by states, the law signed this week in North Carolina is notable for the way clean energy advocates have responded with faint praise or even criticism rather than adulation.
House Bill 951 requires electric utilities to cut carbon emissions by 70 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, and reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
But the law doesn’t spell out the specifics of how utilities are supposed to reach those targets, or provide any penalties for those that fall short. Instead, it says that the North Carolina Utilities Commission will figure out the details and issue a plan by the end of next year, a process that consumer and environmental groups say is not nearly strong enough.
The law gives utilities “enough wiggle room to either delay meeting that 2030 date or just not get there,” said Josh McClenney, North Carolina field coordinator for the Energy Democracy Program at Appalachian Voices, an environmental group.
Among the loopholes, he said, is a part of the law that says the utilities commission will review its carbon-cutting plan every two years, and that utilities will play a prominent role in the review.
Meanwhile, a provision of the law changes the way the state designs electricity rates, allowing utilities to propose multi-year rate plans with the potential for larger rate increases. The main beneficiary is Duke Energy, based in Charlotte, which is one of the largest utilities in the country.
The overall result, consumer and environmental groups said, is a law that is strong in giving utilities more tools to increase their profits, and weak in implementing plans to cut emissions. But the final bill could have been worse, the groups said, noting their main consolation is that it is an improvement over early drafts written by Republican legislative leaders.
Their disappointment is in contrast to what happened in Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island and Illinois this year when those states passed laws requiring 100 percent carbon-free electricity. In each state, environmental groups played a larger role in writing the bills than in North Carolina. Among the differences is that North Carolina is the only one of the states with a Republican-controlled legislature.
A Missed Opportunity
North Carolina has been moving away from coal-generated electricity and is a leader in developing utility-scale solar power.
The state got a majority of its electricity from coal-fired power plants as recently as 2011, according to the Energy Information Administration. But last year, coal generation was just 17 percent, and the leading electricity sources were natural gas and nuclear power, each with 34 percent.
Solar power has gone from nearly nonexistent in North Carolina a decade ago to providing 7 percent of the state’s electricity last year. The state ranks fourth in the country in installed solar power capacity, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Considering the progress the state has already made on coal and solar, the new law is a disappointment because it doesn’t do enough to speed the growth of clean energy, said Daniel Tait, a research and communications manager for the Energy & Policy Institute, an energy watchdog group.
“Do some things get marginally better in this bill? Yes, they do,” he said. “But do they actually get to the scale of transformation needed to address the challenge of climate change? No.”
Praise, Faint Praise and Criticism
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, signed the bill on Wednesday at a ceremony in which he was joined by the Republicans who control the legislature.
“Today, North Carolina moves strongly into a reliable and affordable clean energy future,” Cooper said.
Stephen De May, Duke Energy’s North Carolina president, issued a statement praising the bill, which he said is 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.”
Asked about some of the criticism of the law, Duke spokesman Bill Norton said it’s premature to talk about rate increases and other actions that will depend on a process at the Utilities Commission that has not yet started.
He pointed to parts of the law that were designed to reduce costs to consumers. For example, the bill allows consumers to pay for energy efficiency improvements through monthly charges on electricity bills, which will allow some people to do projects that they couldn’t otherwise afford.
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The law also has a provision that allows for a financial process called “securitization” that encourages utilities to close coal-fired power plants. Several states have implemented this kind of policy in which utilities can sell bonds, backed by consumers, to cover the remaining value of a coal plant that is closing. The utilities can use the proceeds to build replacement power sources that cost less to operate than coal.
Other groups offered weak praise or criticism of the law.
The North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, a trade group for clean energy businesses, said the bill is a step forward, despite having some serious flaws.
While the bill “is not perfect,” said Ward Lenz, the association’s executive director, in a statement before the signing, “it ultimately marks an important milestone as we continue to work towards more transformational energy policies that ensure affordability and reliability for customers and deliver greater market competition.”
The Southern Environmental Law Center criticized the law, especially the timetable that will lead to more than a year drafting a plan at a time when the problems of climate change are coming on fast.
“We feel there is urgency to do something now,” said Derb Carter, a senior attorney for the law center.
Tyler Fitch, Southeast regulatory director for Vote Solar, said in a blog post before the bill signing that the measure is “a setback,” while also praising Cooper for helping to make the bill better than it otherwise would have been.
“Unfortunately, the bill as a whole erodes critical oversight of powerful utility companies and should not be signed into law,” Fitch said.