Don’t believe Duke Energy when it says it wants to set the record straight on SB559 (Take 2)

(This piece is as submitted to the Raleigh News & Observer and unpublished by it. This is a second version of an AIRE blog piece, with this one offering some numbers to go along with the rhetorical critique offered in the first version.)

By Steve Owen, Ph.D. and Nancy LaPlaca, J.D.

A recent News & Observer OpEd by Mr. Stephen de May, president of Duke Energy North Carolina, used some rhetorical trickery to promote SB559, the Duke Energy Automatic Rate Hike bill by saying “we know better than you.” This essay is our response.

Duke is neither victim nor benevolent leader. Duke Energy is a monopoly corporation with captive customers that rakes in billions in revenue annually, hasn’t paid income taxes for a decade, takes massive government handouts to prop up its dying business model, and doles out obscene executive salaries. Duke Energy will get back a stunning $647 million from the federal government in 2018 tax rebates, and CEO Lynn Good made $21 million in a single year.

Mr. de May aims the “special interest” label at Duke Energy’s critics — i.e. those of us concerned with the imminent future of life on earth. deMay claims that “special interests” are “intentionally misleading the public” but who could possibly compete with Duke Energy’s staff of 100 people working on PR? Duke uses the word “noise” to throw shade on legitimate critique. Let’s not forget that Duke Energy spends be $80 million per year to bamboozle the public, lobby elected officials, and give money to civic and academic institutions.

Steve Owen of AIRE.
Energy policy analyst Nancy la Placa.

Duke claims that “storm threats continue to grow” and indeed, we agree. However, Duke Energy has contributed to that grim reality, and gotten very rich doing so. Our kids and grandkids tell us that with climate change worse than we thought, stronger language is warranted — at least immoral greed and perhaps criminal negligence? After all, utilities like Duke Energy knew a long time ago that its coal plants were the major single source of CO2 and other deadly toxic waste.

Duke asks us to rely on the utilities commission to decide what “costs are fair and reasonable to share with customers.” The former utilities commission chair, Ed Finley, was a utilities attorney for decades. Nice work if you can get it.

Duke uses the word “share” when it really wants to “charge” customers. When Duke Energy effectively kills solar competition in NC, and yet its own subsidiary uses up half of the solar tax rebates in NC, that’s hardly fair.

In April 2019, Duke Energy got solar bids of 3.2 and 3.7 cents/kWh in its two territories, Duke Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Progress. In fact, a recent study showed that an estimated 10,000 MW of coal in NC is uneconomic. This means that it’s more expensive just to run these dirty coal plants than to build replacement clean energy. Duke Energy’s favorite term this year, “grid improvement,” is code for fossil fuel lock-in and profit extraction.

Duke admits it’s only aiming for 8% clean energy by 2032 while other states leave us in the dust. It might as well be 0%. What Duke Energy is asking for in SB559 isn’t a minor tweak of utilities commission procedure or methodology; it’s a giant, dangerous pandora’s box.

If Duke Energy was really serious about fairness, they would look to leaders like the NC Energy Justice Coalition. These folks actually care about our community members who have been poisoned by coal ash, choked by toxic air from fracked gas compressors, and had their land and lives turned upside down by pipelines, power plants and toxic coal ash pits.

Wake up, Duke Energy: lead, follow or get out of the way.
Steve Owen is co-founder and executive director of the Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy (AIRE); and Nancy LaPlaca is a former Policy Advisor and Regulatory Consultant now working with AIRE in Boone, NC

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