The flag of North Carolina flutters in the wind.
The flag of North Carolina flutters in the wind. Credit: Ken Lund / Flickr / Creative Commons

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and leaders from both parties in the GOP-controlled General Assembly have forged an agreement on a major energy bill — the culmination of months of talks and a rare showing of bipartisan cooperation in Raleigh.

The compromise language scraps most of the Duke Energy-backed bill that narrowly cleared the House in July. That version drew opposition from an array of critics, from clean energy advocates to textile mills to the governor himself.

“Our goal was to have a different bill and a better bill,” said Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat and one of the chief negotiators, “and I think we achieved that.”

The new draft of House Bill 951, a trim 10 pages compared to the previous 49, eliminates mandates for new gas plants, energy storage projects, and solar farms — leaving it up to regulators on the utilities commission to permit such resources as they see fit.

At the same time, the bill instructs the commission to take “all reasonable steps” to cut carbon emissions from the power sector by 70% in the next decade, a key goal for Cooper, who’s made tackling the climate crisis and investing in clean energy a priority.

“The focus of this was implementing the governor’s clean energy goals,” Woodard said, “and putting those in law is a big deal.”

But the measure also retains a key feature sought by Duke, allowing up front, multi-year ratemaking that critics believe would heavily favor the utility and hit low-income ratepayers the hardest.

Thus, while Cooper and legislative leaders issued a joint statement praising their achievement Friday afternoon, the solar industry and clean energy advocates stayed mum, still working to parse the legislation’s details.

“A key consideration will be whether there are loopholes that call into question the certainty with which critical pollution reductions will be realized within the timeline provided,” David Kelly, North Carolina state director for the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a prepared statement.

The North Carolina Justice Center was among the few groups to flatly oppose the bill, saying that an on-bill financing program included in the bill, purportedly to help poor people, had proven largely ineffective in other states. Plus, the possible benefits of that measure were far outweighed by the multi-year ratemaking section’s harms.

Appalachian Voices, an outspoken advocate for energy-burdened North Carolinians, estimated a provision allowing the utility to over-earn by half a percentage point would cost ratepayers $72 million. The group issued a scathing denouncement of the new language.

“Increasing costs for families and businesses just to give Duke Energy more profits, especially when the only trade-off is that we ‘might’ get to 70% carbon reductions by the end of the decade is bad enough,” Rory McIlmoil, senior energy analyst for the group, said in the statement. 

“But doing so at a time when nearly a half a million households served by Duke Energy remain $125 million in debt to the utility as a result of the pandemic is downright immoral and unjust.”

Woodard strenuously defended the compromise, which he said was hard won. Republicans, he said, especially resisted programs to help low- and moderate-income ratepayers.

“Is it perfect and all that we wanted? No, not by any means.” Woodard said. “But as a piece of compromise legislation, working with our Republican colleagues who are in the majority, I think this ended up being pretty remarkable.”

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat, praised the hard work of the governor and other negotiators but sympathized with energy justice advocates.

“If we achieve the 70% reduction because of the discretion being restored to the commission, that would be tremendous” she said. “But it would be good to protect low-income ratepayers along the way.”

Despite its critics, H951 looks poised for swift passage. The measure is scheduled for a Tuesday committee hearing and backers say it will be returned to the House by the end of the week.

“A bill with opposition from a number of corners has turned into a consensus bill,” said Rep. John Szoka, Republican of Fayetteville and one of the legislation’s original authors. “I think it is a huge step forward for energy policy in North Carolina.”

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Elizabeth has covered the state’s clean energy transition for the Energy News Network since 2016. She has also produced features for Environmental Health News and SEJournal, the news magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. A former communications director for the nonprofit Environment America, Elizabeth brings over two decades of environmental and energy policy experience to her reporting.