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OPINION: Duke Energy Plan Leaves Vulnerable Communities Behind

We know climate change is already affecting us here in the Charlotte region, where Duke Energy keeps a tight grasp on power in its most literal sense. We only have to look around to see that spring comes earlier, there are more hot days in summer, and rain storms are getting more intense. As the air gets warmer, it can hold more moisture, and those drenching rains that have helped change our floodplains will continue to grow in frequency and intensity.

Other parts of our state have suffered even more dramatically. Looking at trends in extreme weather and natural disasters, we see the cost of these storms rising precipitously. In the 1980s, North Carolina had 11 disasters that cost taxpayers more than $1 billion dollars each, but in the past decade (including 2020) we had 41. The frequency of these disasters is changing insurance rates, property values, and the ability of towns to repair their infrastructure — not to mention the loss of life that results from hurricanes, floods, mudslides, and tornadoes.

Small coastal towns like Emerald Isle face daunting costs due to climate change. (Photo by James Hose Jr./Unsplash)

Sunday’s New York Times highlighted how small coastal N.C. towns are facing skyrocketing and potentially bankrupting costs to protect themselves from rising seas. These facts and more are the reason for urgency in our country’s transition to clean, renewable, non-polluting sources of energy like wind and solar.

Duke Energy, as a regulated utility, is required to submit its future plans for its rates and energy mix every two years in an Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) for approval by the NC Utilities Commission. The commission is holding a (virtual) public hearing on March 16 to receive input from the public about Duke’s IRP. Over 200 people are signed up to speak, so they will be adding more days as well in order to hear from everyone. Clearly there is great public interest in the future of our energy mix and rates.

Unfortunately, Duke’s IRP shows little respect for this interest or urgency (and the IRP only represents a plan, not a commitment).

Although Duke plans to stop using coal by 2030, one coal-burning power plant (Cliffside 6) will switch to burning fracked gas in 2030 — methane that is a fossil fuel and is 86 times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Duke has the ability to move faster to actual clean energy, and one sentence in the IRP (pg. 41) admits that “the inclusion of a CO2 tax … would further incentivize the expansion of additional solar resources.”

There is also the issue of justice. Charlotte has done a lot of hand-wringing since the 2014 Harvard study that ranked us 50 out of 50 in terms of upward economic mobility. But Duke Energy’s low-income customers are disproportionately energy burdened. Duke continues to get low marks in the harm that its rate structure vests on low-income customers. 

As reported in a June 2020 EWG article, “Duke does little to close the affordability gap, consistently underfunding its own programs designed to help low-income customers pay their bills. And much of the support comes not from the company but from ratepayers in the form of mandatory bill charges or voluntary donations.” 

The slow pace of transition to renewables also has implications for climate justice. When it comes to harm caused by worsening impacts, Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities and low-income communities suffer the most. The Environmental Justice Movement began in N.C., after all, in 1982, when African-Americans in Warren County protested the dumping of PCB-laden soil in their neighborhoods. They did not get the toxins cleaned up until nearly 20 years later. 

Today we have medical data and statistics that show the long-term effects of locating coal plants, biomass facilities, coal ash ponds, and other environmental hazards near BIPOC communities. Black Americans are three times as likely to die from asthma as Whites. Neighborhoods that were redlined, concentrating Black Americans in less desirable neighborhoods, can be as much as 10-15 degrees hotter in the summer due to less green space, fewer trees, and disinvestment.

Duke Energy
The Duke Energy Center looms large in Charlotte’s skyline. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Research shows it is harder for children to learn when it is too hot, and over 40% of America’s public schools have no air conditioning. So the slower we progress on tackling global warming and our climate crisis, the more children of color will suffer.

With these injustices in mind, we are disappointed to see that Duke makes little attempt to address disparities and the energy burden to low-income communities in their IRP.  In fact, the City of Charlotte’s analysis recognizes this as well, as can be seen in their first request in comments submitted to the Utilities Commission: “The City encourages the NCUC to prioritize racial and economic equity in its deliberations on Duke Energy’s IRP.”  

We concur with the city’s analysis. We are also puzzled by Duke’s reluctance to do what so many other utilities in the U.S. are doing, which would be planning for a rapid and complete transition to clean renewables — one that does not include fossil fuels such as fracked gas. We urge the NCUC to work with Duke Energy to adjust their rates and their energy mix — and to show that they care about improving the health and lives of our BIPOC neighbors, and the health of the planet our children will inherit.  

Jennifer Roberts, former Charlotte Mayor
Tiffany Fant, Visionary Architect
Nakisa Glover, Founder and Executive Director, SolNation

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