Largest Power Company in U.S. Joins ALEC in Plot Against One State's Solar Revolution
By David Pomerantz
The new hot spot for solar energy in the U.S. is North Carolina. The state was second in the nation in solar growth in 2013, behind only California.
In fact, if U.S. states were considered as countries, North Carolina would have been among the top 10 countries in the world for solar growth last year.
All of that solar growth, driven by policies like the state’s renewable energy portfolio law, has been great for the North Carolina economy, generating $1.7 billion in revenue for the state. At the end of 2012, 137 solar companies employed 1,400 people in North Carolina—a number that increased during solar’s record 2013 year.
But while North Carolina’s solar sector shines brighter, a cloud is approaching on the horizon that places all of the benefits of solar power at risk of disappearing: Duke Energy, the state’s monopoly utility and the largest power company in the country, is about to launch a major attack on solar energy.
On Jan. 7, Duke’s president of North Carolina operations, Paul Newton, fired the first shots of the war. Speaking in front of a joint energy committee of the state’s legislature, Newton attacked net metering, one of the key policies to North Carolina’s solar growth.
Net metering allows customers with rooftop solar panels to get credit for any extra electricity that they send back to the grid, like rollover minutes on a cell phone bill.
Newton argued that solar customers aren’t “paying their fair share” to Duke, and that his company would thus be forced to charge higher rates to all of its other customers in response.
Those allegations are false. A study conducted last year showed that the benefits of rooftop solar in North Carolina—even for customers who don’t have the panels—would outweigh any costs by 30 percent. That’s because as more homes and businesses go solar, Duke wouldn’t have to keep building expensive gas and coal plants and raising rates on its customers to finance them. Those rate benefits are aside from the job creation, climate and public health positives of solar power.
But Duke’s shareholders profit by building those gas and coal plants, which is exactly why rooftop solar is in the crosshairs.
Duke’s key ally in its war on solar: ALEC
Duke isn’t the first utility in the country to attack net metering; utilities in California, Arizona and Colorado began similar campaigns in 2013, and others are forming battle plans now.
In December, The Guardian newspaper revealed that these power companies have been coordinating their efforts under the guise of the American Legislative Exchange Council, (ALEC), a group that lets corporations like Duke ghostwrite laws for right-wing state legislators.
Many utilities are ALEC members, and they have made it ALEC’s top priority to attack net metering laws around the country. Forty percent of North Carolina state lawmakers are ALEC members, and Duke will rely on them to do their bidding.
So far, Duke and ALEC’s communications strategy has been to stigmatize solar energy as being only for the wealthy. Their argument is that we shouldn’t be letting rich families with solar panels get even richer on the backs of non-solar households.
It wouldn’t be surprising if early adopters of solar do have higher incomes, since buying the panels involves an upfront cost. But recent research shows that solar penetration is increasingly happening in middle class neighborhoods. In any case, if ALEC and utilities are so worried about the poor, they should be trying to give more solar access to working and middle class communities, since it will help them save money, not take away their chance to go solar by attacking policies like net metering.
The idea that the nation’s power companies, which have raised rates on customers to pad corporate profits and sited coal plants in the nation’s poorest communities for decades, suddenly want to act as champions for social justice doesn’t pass the smell test.
Duke will eventually learn to bask in the sun.
— Duke Energy (@DukeEnergy) January 16, 2014
It’s not the only public display of support for solar power Duke has shown in recent months. Previous CEO Jim Rogers said that he saw rooftop solar as an opportunity as much as a threat, and in March, Duke bought a stake of a distributed solar power financing company, Clean Power Finance.
Were these moves signs that Duke is embracing the solar revolution, or just greenwashing? Both answers may be true: Duke is feeling its way around the edges of solar opportunities while it mostly stalls for time by attacking net metering. One thing that would hasten Duke’s solar transition is if it loses on net metering, since that would force the company to more quickly come to terms with the inevitability of rooftop solar.
A Duke loss on net metering is far from a given, considering Duke and ALEC’s almost unlimited influence in North Carolina politics. But for all of Duke’s money and political power, it can’t change a simple reality: Rooftop solar is immensely popular. A 2013 poll showed that 88 percent of North Carolinians support solar energy. Last year, when ALEC attacked North Carolina’s renewable energy law, the effort failed because Republicans in the legislature recognized solar power as a job creator. In fact, ALEC’s efforts to attack renewable energy laws failed in every state where it tried in 2013.
Now, solar advocates will gear up to bat away the next attack wave in 2014. The sooner they win, the sooner utilities like Duke will have to face the music and realize that they need to join their customers in the sun.
Visit EcoWatch’s RENEWABLES page for more related news on this topic.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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