North Carolina energy law adds urgency to weatherization

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A ceremony this month to sign into law a new North Carolina law aimed at reducing pollution from power plants produced a rare image in the often polarized state: Republican leaders who control the state legislature alongside Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat.

But notably absent from the event were most of the state’s top conservationists and taxpayers, who say the law does little or nothing to help those already struggling to pay their electric bills.

It’s a powerful criticism that caused a handful of Democrats to vote against the Bipartisan Compromise, and one that even some of its top negotiators recognize.

Today, the enemies and champions of the new law are determined to offset the risks for the overworked people, starting with a huge injection of funds into the state budget to help poor residents repair and protect homes from the weather.

The governor and his staff have expressed support for the plan, though exactly how much money would go to which programs remains unclear.

“It’s critical that we get help for low- and middle-income people with their rates,” Cooper told reporters during the bill signing. “Help has to come from a lot of places. We’re negotiating help in this budget negotiation right now.

“These Things Add Up”

Decades of redlining and other discriminatory housing policies mean low-income people, who are disproportionately people of color, are more likely to rely on old appliances and live in drafty homes. requiring major repairs. These households end up paying a large part of their income on energy costs, sometimes having to choose between buying food or paying their electricity bill.

“Power and utilities are human rights,” said Josh McClenney, field coordinator with Appalachian Voices focused on energy democracy. “But for black and brown communities, keeping the lights on has always been a struggle.”

On average, low-income renters in North Carolina spend 21% of their income on energy costs, according to the state. Clean Energy Plan, while low-income homeowners spend 17%. Even those earning $50,000 for a family of four — twice the federal poverty rate — are spending 7% of their salary on energy costs, above the benchmark most analysts consider affordable.

Many of the same communities live near power plants, compressor stations and other fossil fuel infrastructure, exposing them to health-threatening pollution. Particularly in the eastern part of the state, where energy poverty is most acute, they are also being hit hard by another consequence of the legacy energy industry: more intense extreme weather events fueled by climate change.

“If you live in a hurricane community,” McClenney said, “several months of the year, you’re a storm away from having to drop a few thousand dollars on a hotel room. These things add up. very quickly.

A worker takes a break from installing insulation at a home in Elkin, North Carolina, in a photo from 2012. Credit: Yadkin Valley Economic Development District

A huge injection of weatherization funds?

Although critics of the new carbon law praise its aims, they say the few bones it throws at low-income taxpayers will do little to significantly reduce energy poverty – a reality that even some authors of the compromise admit.

“As a climate advocate, I’m proud to have worked on this and I’m proud to support it,” said Senator Julie Mayfield, an Asheville Democrat and co-director of the environmental advocacy group Goal. nonprofit MountainTrue, to his colleagues on the Senate floor. But, she added, the bill falls far short of protecting overcharged people. “I challenge all of us to stay at the table.”

Senator Don Davis, a Greenville Democrat among six from his party to vote against the bill in the Senate, urged fellow senators not to forget the poor in the future. “I am running on behalf of my constituents. I beg you, he said, to try to do something to help the least of us.

For Mayfield, Davis and many other Democrats, that means looking at the state budget first. Cooper and the General Assembly haven’t passed a full two-year budget since 2018 — before the GOP lost its supermajority and with it the ability to override vetoes. But both sides have become conciliatory lately, and they maintain publicly that they are converging on an agreement.

Earlier this month, Mayfield said he had been assured the deal included “over $400 million for weatherization.” The amount would be an exponential increase over that typically allocated to the state by the federal government, or about $15 million per year. the lodge and Senate the budget versions both include nearly $9 million a year for weatherization for low-income people.

“It would be extremely helpful if this actually happened,” said Al Ripley, director of the Consumer, Housing and Energy Project at the North Carolina Justice Center and a vocal critic of the new law.

Yet extra insulation, upgraded windows, and more efficient appliances — all typical energy upgrades — offer little benefit to homes with leaky roofs or other major issues. That’s why other Senate Democrats say the budget deal could include funding to help low-income taxpayers make major repairs to their homes.

“It’s an intersectional issue,” said Sen. DeAndrea Salvador, a Charlotte Democrat who founded a nonprofit focused on low-income energy assistance and, along with Mayfield and others, helped drafting of the new law. “What we’re talking about is as much housing quality as energy affordability. There can be different things that need to work together to get people where they need to be.

Mary Scott Winstead, a spokeswoman for Cooper, said by email that the governor had proposed $300 million for low- and middle-income housing and $25 million for low- and middle-income weatherization. She did not respond to follow-up questions about whether the figure was for one or two years and whether legislative leaders had agreed to the proposal.

Ripley welcomed new funds to help reduce the state’s energy load, but he warned against stealing from Peter to pay Paul.

“We certainly appreciate all efforts to increase funding for weatherization and urgent repairs,” he said. “But it is imperative that it does not come from other funds intended to help low-income people.”

“Keep this promise responsible”

No matter what appears in the budget – if there is one – taxpayer advocates will face other key challenges and opportunities over the next 12 months.

On the one hand, utility regulators must develop a plan for Duke Energy to meet prescribed pollution reduction targets with stakeholder input. Many will argue that the plan does not let Duke build a series of natural gas plants, allowing the company to meet near-term emissions limits but making mid-century ones more difficult and expensive.

The law requires Duke to own most next-generation resources, including renewable energy such as solar and wind power. Since the company typically spends more money than independent power producers on renewables, experts say, taxpayer advocates also want to avoid a Virginia scenario, where Dominion Energy has inflated its offshore wind costs by $2.5 billion.

“We have to be very concerned about utilities overloading expensive generation,” Ripley said, “when there are cheaper options.”

Another challenge will come if Duke seeks a multi-year rate increase next year. The law allows the utility to earn a half percentage point above its approved profit margin without refunding customers, and it caps rate increases in the second and third year at 4% each. Although performance incentives may target low-income customers, there is no guarantee that they will.

There’s a consolation for customer advocates: It restores the discretion of utility regulators to modify the rate application — not simply accept or reject it as an earlier version of the law dictated. That means players like the North Carolina Justice Center could enter into side deals with Duke to help poor taxpayers, as they did in the last general tariff case. And it gives more leeway to the seven-member Public Utilities Commission, which will soon be made up entirely of Cooper appointees.

A final concession to low-income families is a mandate that regulators establish a “utility bill rebate program tied to energy efficiency investments.” Such a program could help some people who can hardly afford the initial cost of new, more efficient appliances or additional insulation. But details are sparse, with no guarantees to ensure the program will help renters or those with bad credit. Lawyers say they will be vigilant.

“Our communities need resource assistance, not a loan or a funding program that will compound their debt,” said La’Meshia Whittington, deputy director of Advance Carolina, a nonprofit organization working to build power in black communities, in a statement. “Our communities deserve to have the opportunity to give their opinion to the public on the programs designed for them. »

Along with the text of the new law, utility regulators have already ordered a working group of stakeholders to report by August next year on policies that would help low- and moderate-income taxpayers. Many are pushing for the findings to include an income-based payment plan for the state’s poorest.

“I’ll be clear that I don’t think this is a one-size-fits-all, one-size-fits-all policy,” McClenney said. But, he added, “a plan that caps the percentage of income a person would have to pay for a basic service would go extremely far.”

Still, such a program may require more action from the General Assembly — part of why advocates say they will be engaged in multiple forums to fight for low-income taxpayers.

Lawmakers, regulators and Duke himself have all pledged to protect energy-overloaded people before the energy compromise becomes law, Whittington said in his statement. “We’re here to keep that promise accountable,” she said.

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