Petition calls for North Carolina to end utility monopoly

Jordan Smith
By Jordan Smith
For business

A coalition of 15 groups has started a petition aimed at persuading North Carolina to adopt a 100 percent renewable energy target. To accomplish this, “Energy Justice NC: End the Duke Monopoly” urges state lawmakers to open up the state’s energy market, which it claims is being held back by the Duke Energy’s monopoly.

The Petition for Energy Choice in North Carolina accuses Charlotte-based Duke Energy of imposing excessive rate hikes and criticizes the utility for influencing politicians through campaign contributions. Additionally, it denounces Duke for its handling of toxic coal ash pollution and plans to construct a pipeline to transport fracked natural gas.

One flaw in its argument: The state’s average residential electricity rate is 10.99 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) – well below the national rate of 12.47 cents/kWh.

The petition declares that North Carolina residents are “suffering” due to the “broken nature of our monopoly electricity system.” This leads to a “lack of choice and stalled job growth while cheaper clean and renewable energy rapidly replaces fossil fuels and drives economic development in states with competitive energy markets,” according to the petition. The state generates more than half its electricity from burning coal and natural gas

The petition argues that Duke’s monopoly should be replaced by a “competitive energy market” that will create “thousands of jobs.”

The coalition, which includes organizations such as the Down East Coal Ash Coalition and NC WARN, did not provide a timetable for the renewable energy transition. Currently, North Carolina generates 5.4 percent of its energy needs from solar power, according to a PV Magazine analysis.

Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order last October calling on the state to reduce its carbon emissions by 40 percent from 2005 levels by 2025, a goal that analysts say can only be achieved if solar power generates 30 percent of North Carolina’s energy needs.

Duke Energy rejects accusations

Duke Energy spokesman Randy Wheeless responded to the campaign by pointing out that North Carolina is second only to California in the amount of solar energy produced. Duke’s plan is to reach 14 percent of renewable power generation by 2030, he adds. At present, the company has 2,500 megawatts of solar connected to the North Carolina grid.

The company also maintains that it is doing its part to expand renewables. In July 2018, Duke presented a call for 680 megawatts of new solar or other renewable facilities in the Carolinas. Additionally, Duke is funding a $62 million rebate program to encourage the development of private solar customers in North Carolina. The program allows private customers operating a solar system of 10 kilowatts or less to receive a rebate of 60 cents for every watt of energy used. For non-residential customers, the rate is 50 cents per watt.

The rebate program appears to be popular. It took just two days in January for Duke to award 1,300 rebates to private customers after the company received 2,000 applications for 2019.

Duke Energy North Carolina’s president at the time, David Fountain, noted last July that the two initiatives would “drive further solar-related investment, job creation, and economic development for North Carolina.” Fountain continued, “The competitive bidding process will lead to better prices for solar energy for our customers. It will also improve geographic distribution of projects around the Carolinas which promotes reliability.”

The company also boasts a 36 percent reduction in carbon emissions since 2005, including the shutdown of 30 coal power plants since 2011. By contrast, solar power generation rose in the Carolinas by 36 percent in 2018, most of which is owned by Duke.

Nationwide involvement

However, Duke’s record is not good enough for the campaigners, who include state and national groups. Two national organizations supporting the petition for a 100 percent renewables target are the Center for Biological Diversity and Food and Water Watch.

The coalition argues that it has public support on its side. According to one poll conducted by Clean Energy Conservatives, 85 percent of voters would be more likely to back a candidate for office if he or she pledged to increase the availability of renewable energy.

The coalition argues that in states where more competitive energy markets operate, renewables do better because they’re more efficient. In Texas, for example, combined solar and wind power generation rose to 22 percent of overall generation in 2018, an increase of 4 percentage points from the previous year.

“Duke’s energy monopoly, where dirty power is king, needs to end,” states Jean Su, energy director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The climate crisis demands we ditch fossil fuels as fast as possible, but Duke’s stranglehold on North Carolina is stopping the clean energy transition in its tracks.”

Jordan Smith is a freelance journalist and translator covering issues related to energy, the environment, and politics. His work has appeared on the independent news site Opposing Views, and at the Canadian Labour Institute.