Solar War Continues in North Carolina: Nonprofit vs. Duke Energy
In one of the remaining four states that explicitly ban third-party solar sales, a small nonprofit is continuing its fight against the nation’s biggest utility over the right to sell solar power to churches and other nonprofits without the utility’s involvement.
North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network (NC WARN), a 28-year-old environmental nonprofit with an annual budget of around $1.1 million, is fighting Duke Energy, a massive energy company that raked in $23.5 billion in revenue in 2015 and is valued at $54.4 billion.
Last year, the nonprofit wanted to clarify state law regarding third-party sales, so it picked a fight with the utility Goliath to spark a test case. NC WARN installed solar panels on the roof of a Greensboro church for free and started selling the energy back to the church at significantly lower rates than Duke Energy would charge. In typical power purchase agreements, customers pay the owner of the solar array less per watt than they’d have to pay a utility company, making residential solar more affordable and thus more accessible for customers.
The energy giant’s lost profits from NC WARN’s arrangement with Faith Community Church are minuscule, yet Duke Energy asked the North Carolina Utilities Commission last October to fine NC WARN up to $1,000 per day for selling energy to the church. At that time, it would have cost the nonprofit as much as $120,000.
On April 15, the utilities commission fined NC WARN $200 per day, amounting to roughly $60,000 and the nonprofit suspended its sales of solar electricity to the non-denominational, largely African-American church pending an appeal.
NC WARN will donate the solar array to the church if a final decision deems its actions illegal. But the group still has another chance to convince the commission to side with its vision for affordable renewables.
NC WARN argues in its appeal filed on May 16 that it is neither acting as a public utility, which would violate North Carolina law, nor competing with Duke Energy.
“Duke Energy obviously sought the unprecedented penalty in order to stifle NC WARN in various fights against the corporate behemoth,” wrote NC WARN Executive Director Jim Warren in a statement.
A Solar Company Operating in a Hostile State
Duke Energy Communications Manager Randy Wheeless cited Raleigh-based Baker Renewable Energy as an example of a company that operates legally, offering solar financing plans without selling the energy back to its customers.
But without third-party sales, “There’s no good way for churches, synagogues, town halls or schools to get clean energy if they want it right now because they can’t take the tax credit,” Jason Epstein, executive vice president and general manager of Baker, told DeSmog.
He said that beginning with “a model that deals with nonprofits” would be best, at first, so as not to “open up the spigot all at once.” Then the state could roll out residential third-party sales once the market is established.
Solar installers such as Baker would definitely get on board if third-party solar ever becomes legal in North Carolina. “If that’s an option available we’d team up with financing teams. Of course,” said Epstein.
Baker’s former “sample purchase and payback model” (archived here) included a state incentive for residents and businesses to purchase solar panels, a 35 percent tax write-off, which the North Carolina legislature let expire in 2015. Duke Energy failed to take a position on the measure, despite receiving a letter from Baker and other energy companies begging the energy giant to support the credit.
Without the state incentive, solar buyers only have the federal credit to work with and a solar system from Baker now costs more than $15,000, according to Baker’s numbers. Even those who could afford to purchase the panels wouldn’t break even for 18 years.
“Instead of selling $21,000 systems, the market has shifted towards people with greater means who can afford $60,000 systems that offer a quicker return on investment,” said Epstein.
The expiration of the tax credit “has affected our sales,” Epstein sad. “I think any solar company in the state would say it has. Our residential and light commercial work is down 40 percent.”
Wheeless said that Duke Energy has approximately 4,000 customers who use rooftop solar. But while North Carolina currently ranks third in the nation in installed solar capacity, 93 percent of that capacity comes from utility-scale operations due to the state’s ban on third-party sales.
Conflicting Stances on Renewable Energy
While Duke Energy has fought third-party solar sales in North Carolina and in Florida, it has taken different stances on the practice in other states. In South Carolina, for example, the company actually took part in a compromise agreement that expanded residential solar in the state.
As a result, Baker “is doing significantly more work in South Carolina,” said Epstein. “It saddens me because my company is based in Raleigh, I’ve been here for seven to eight years and employ people who work here. I want to work in North Carolina.”
However, Epstein said several times that Baker has a good relationship with Duke Energy.
Wheeless told DeSmog he wants stakeholders in North Carolina to get together, as they did in South Carolina, to discuss a wide range of solar options and that just focusing on third-party sales is a nonstarter, something he has said previously to the media.
Warren said this line is “a recipe for delay. It came [first] at a time where Duke was clearly very concerned about third-party sales. They were spending a lot of money on lobbyists to try to beat back that Energy Freedom Act [of 2015],” which would have legalized third-party sales.
Duke also purchased a majority stake in REC Solar last year, which makes money from third-party solar sales in California and Hawaii, states that permit these agreements and where Duke Energy does not directly operate.
Despite holding back residential solar in some states, Duke Energy, Wheeless said, is “absolutely” concerned about environmental pollution. He said the company has invested $4 billion in wind and solar across 13 states and has “retired about 40 coal units in the past five or six years.” But Duke has replaced these coal plants with natural gas facilities and natural gas contributes large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon, into the atmosphere.
Duke wants to build up to 15 new natural gas plants in North and South Carolina alone and NC WARN is challenging them on this, too. Duke will likely acquire Charlotte-based Piedmont Natural Gas as it hopes to pipe gas 554 miles from West Virginia, through Virginia and into eastern North Carolina.
“We believe natural gas is going to be the backbone of energy generation going forward,” said Duke President and CEO Lynn Good.
When DeSmog asked Wheeless about the dangerous methane that comes from natural gas, he had no direct response, only citing Duke Energy’s work with “hog operations to capture that methane and burn it at our own plants, taking out harmful emissions.”
In contrast, Warren said, “The people on this planet are in a world of hurt and we need to be expanding solar and cutting emissions as fast as we can.”
Duke Energy plans to invest $3 billion in renewables over the next five years. “We don’t have an absolute [percent of total output] target” for renewable energy over those years, said Wheeless, “but we feel like we know where we’re going.”
Yet Duke does have a target for solar, wind and biomass energy for 2029: “a measly 4 percent,” as Greenpeace’s Monica Embrey described it.
Keeping Up the Pressure
Warren and NC WARN have no plans to relent in their campaign against the big polluter, Duke Energy.
“It’s hard to say if we’ll win our appeal,” said Warren. “We feel strongly that this project is in accord with the state constitution, which prohibits monopolies, but also state policy that promotes the expansion of renewable energy …
“We want to clarify that Duke doesn’t get to lock off these rooftops and prevent competition, especially when you’ve got an industry that wants to be involved with upfront solar in this state.”
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France moved one step closer this weekend to banning short-haul flights in an attempt to fight the climate crisis.
A bill prohibiting regional flights that could be replaced with an existing train journey of less than two and a half hours passed the country's National Assembly late on Saturday, as Reuters reported.
"We know that aviation is a contributor of carbon dioxide and that because of climate change we must reduce emissions," Industry Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher told Europe 1 radio, according to Reuters.
The measure now has to pass the French Senate, then return to the lower house for a final vote. It would end regional flights between Paris's Orly airport and cities like Nantes and Bordeaux, The Guardian explained. It would not, however, impact connecting flights through Paris's Charles de Gaulle/Roissy airport.
The bill is part of a legislative package which aims to reduce France's emissions by 40 percent of 1990 levels by 2030, Reuters reported. It is a watered-down version of a proposal suggested by France's Citizens' Convention on Climate, BBC News explained. This group, which was formed by President Emmanuel Macron in 2019 and included 150 ordinary citizens, had put forward a ban on flights that could be replaced with an existing train journey of under four hours.
However, the journey length was lowered after protests from KLM-Air France, which had suffered heavy losses due to the coronavirus pandemic, and regions who were concerned about being left out of national transit networks, as The Guardian explained.
"We have chosen two and a half hours because four hours risks isolating landlocked territories including the greater Massif Central, which would be iniquitous," transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said, as The Guardian reported.
However, some environmental and consumer groups objected to the changes. The organization UFC-Que Choisir compared plane routes with equivalent train journeys of under four hours and found that the plane trips emitted an average of 77 times more carbon dioxide per passenger than the train journeys. At the same time, the train alternatives were cheaper and only as much as 40 minutes longer.
"[T]he government's choice actually aims to empty the measure of its substance," the group said, according to The Guardian.
The new measure also opens the French government to charges of hypocrisy. It bailed out Air France-KLM to the tune of a seven-billion euro loan last year, though it did require the airline to drop some domestic routes as a condition. Then, days before the measure passed, it more than doubled its stake in the airline, BBC News reported. However, Pannier-Runacher insisted to Europe 1 radio that it was possible to balance fighting climate change and supporting struggling businesses.
"Equally, we must support our companies and not let them fall by the wayside," she said, as Reuters reported.
This is not the first time that climate measures and aviation bailouts have coincided in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Austrian Airlines replaced its Vienna-Salzburg flight with additional train service after it received government money dependent on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, BBC News reported.
The number of flights worldwide declined almost 42 percent in 2020 when compared with 2019. It is expected that global aviation may not fully recover until 2024, according to Reuters.
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Four gray whales have washed up dead near San Francisco within nine days, and at least one cause of death has been attributed to a ship strike.
More whales than usual have been washing up dead since 2019, and the West Coast gray whale population continues to suffer from an unusual mortality event, defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as "a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response."
"It's alarming to respond to four dead gray whales in just over a week because it really puts into perspective the current challenges faced by this species," Dr. Pádraig Duignan, director of pathology at the Marine Mammal Center, said in a press release.
As the world's largest marine mammal hospital, the Sausalito-based center has been investigating the recent spate of deaths. The first involved a 41-foot female who washed up dead at San Francisco's Crissy Field on March 31, SFGate reported. The cause of death remains a mystery, as the whale was in good condition with a full stomach. The second, another female, washed up on April 3 at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve on Moss Beach.
"That animal's cause of death, we suspect, was ship strike," the Marine Mammal Center's Giancarlo Rulli told SFGate. "Our plan is to eventually head back out to that whale and take more samples."
The third whale washed up April 7 near Berkeley Marina, The AP reported. The center determined it was a 37-foot male in average condition, with no evidence of illness or injury.
A 41-foot female turned up the next day on Marin County's Muir Beach. She suffered bruising and hemorrhaging around the jaw and neck vertebrae, indicating a vessel strike.
Vessel strikes are one of the leading causes of death for gray whales examined by the Marine Mammal Center, along with entanglements in fishing gear and malnutrition. While the species is not endangered, the population has declined by 25 percent since last assessed in 2016, CNN reported.
West Coast gray whales travel 10,000 miles every year between Mexico and the Arctic, according to The AP. They spend the winter breeding off of Baja California, and feed along the California coast in spring and summer on their way back north. The Marine Mammal Center began noticing a problem for the migrating whales in 2019.
"Our team hasn't responded to this number of dead gray whales in such a short span since 2019 when we performed a startling 13 necropsies in the San Francisco Bay Area," Dr. Duignan said in the press release.
The 2019 deaths led NOAA to declare an unusual mortality event for West Coast gray whales. It is similar to another event that happened from 1999 to 2000, after which the whales' numbers rebounded to even higher levels. This suggests population dips and rises may not be uncommon for the species. However, it is also possible that the climate crisis is playing a role. The 2019 deaths were linked to malnutrition, and warmer waters can reduce the amount of food whales have to eat in the Arctic, giving them less energy for their migration, CNN explained. Overfishing can also play a role in depriving whales of food, the Marine Mammal Center said.
Dr. Jeff Boehm, Marine Mammal Center CEO and veterinarian, told CNN that he had observed an uptick in shipping traffic after the pandemic caused a slowdown. At the same time, the center is less able to conduct research because of COVID-19 safety precautions. And even in the best of times, only around 10 percent of dead whales wash up on shore, The AP reported.
"This many dead whales in a week is shocking, especially because these animals are the tip of the iceberg," Kristen Monsell, legal director of the Center for Biological Diversity's Oceans program, told The AP.
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About 70% of the buildings in Kalbarri were damaged and tens of thousands are without power by winds gusting over 100 miles per hour. Climate change, caused by humans' extraction and combustion of fossil fuels, is making cyclonic storms more extreme by increasing air and ocean temperatures, which effectively supercharges the storms.
"You just thought, this is it. I would have thought that when we opened the door, that there would be nothing around us except that roof," Kalbarri resident Debbie Major told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "We are a small town. Half of it has been flattened." Seroja devastated regions of Indonesia and Timor-Leste last week, where it triggered deadly flash floods and landslides.
#CycloneSeroja: homes & units before & after the cyclone hit #Kalbarri, 170kmh gusts causing major damage. #7NEWS https://t.co/WYFL2QOlwB— Paul Kadak (@Paul Kadak)1618186830.0
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By Rishika Pardikar
Search operations are still underway to find those declared missing following the Uttarakhand disaster on 7 February 2021.
"As of now [18 March], we have found 74 bodies and 130 people are still missing," said Swati S. Bhadauria, district magistrate in Chamoli, Uttarakhand, India. Chamoli is the district where a hanging, ice-capped rock broke off from a glacier and fell into a meltwater- and debris-formed lake below. The lake subsequently breached, leading to heavy flooding downstream.
The disaster is attributed to both development policies in the Himalayas and climate change. And as is common with climate-linked disasters, the most vulnerable sections of society suffered the most devastating consequences. Among the most vulnerable in Chamoli are its population of migrant construction workers from states across India.
Of the 204 people dead or missing, only 77 are from Uttarakhand, and "only 11 were not workers of the two dam companies," Bhadauria noted. The two dams referred to are the 13.2-megawatt Rishiganga Hydroelectric Project and the 520-megawatt Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower Plant, which has been under construction since 2005. The flash floods in Chamoli first broke through the Rishiganga project and then, along with debris accumulated there, broke through the Tapovan Vishnugad project 5–6 kilometers downstream.
"Both local people and others from Bihar, Punjab, Haryana, Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh…from all over India work on these two [hydroelectric] projects," said Atul Sati, a Chamoli-based social activist with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation.
Sati noted that the local community suspects the number of casualties from the Uttarakhand disaster may be higher than reported because not all the projects' migrant workers—including those from bordering countries like Nepal—have been accounted for by the construction companies and their subcontractors.
The National Thermal Power Corporation is the state-owned utility that owns the Tapovan Vishnugad project. "NTPC has given building contracts to some companies," Sati explained. "These companies have given subcontracts to other companies. What locals are saying is that there are more [than 204] who are missing. They say there were [migrant] workers from Nepal."
NTPC and the Kundan Group (the corporate owner of the Rishiganga project) have not responded to repeated requests for comment.
No Early-Warning System
"NTPC did not have a proper early-warning system," said Mritunjay Kumar, an employee with the government of the east Indian state of Bihar. Kumar's bother, Manish Kumar, was a migrant worker employed with Om Infra Ltd., an NTPC subcontractor. On the day of the disaster, Manish was working in one of the silt flushing tunnels of the Tapovan project and lost his life in the flooding.
Mritunjay Kumar noted that it "would have taken time" for the floodwater and debris to flow from the meltwater lake to the Rishiganga project and then to the Tapovan project. "Even if workers knew 5 minutes in advance," he said, "lives could have been saved."
An advance notice "would have given [Tapovan] workers at least 5–6 critical minutes," agreed Hridayesh Joshi, an environmental journalist from Uttarakhand who reported from Chamoli after the disaster. "Many people made videos; they shouted and alerted people on site. If there was a robust early-warning system, many more lives could have been saved…even if not all, at least some would have escaped."
"It is true that this was an environmental, climate change driven disaster. But NTPC had not taken any measures to save their workers from such disasters," Kumar said. "They [NTPC] hadn't even installed emergency exits for tunnel workers. The only proper exit was a road which faces the river. If NTPC had installed a few temporary iron staircases, many people could have climbed out."
Kumar noted that the Tapovan project has been under construction since before the 2013 Kedarnath disaster, in which more than 5,000 people lost their lives as rainfall-driven floods ravaged northern India. "If they [NTPC] knew that such disasters will happen, why didn't they install early-warning systems?" Kumar asked. "Scientists have been warning about climate change and [dam and road] constructions in the Himalayas from a very long time. Obviously, NTPC was aware."
This story originally appeared in Eos and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
Biden Refuses to Shut Down Dakota Access Pipeline, Despite Campaign Pledges on Tribal Relations and Climate
By Jessica Corbett
Indigenous leaders and climate campaigners on Friday blasted President Joe Biden's refusal to shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline during a court-ordered environmental review, which critics framed as a betrayal of his campaign promises to improve tribal relations and transition the country to clean energy.
"Biden's inaction to protect our fragile ecosystems, natural resources, traditional medicines, and Indigenous rights is a clear sign that this administration is the exact opposite of the climate leadership narrative they promised to lead during his campaign," said Tasina Sapa Win Smith of the Cheyenne River Grassroots Collective.
Brooke Harper, campaign strategist for the environmental group 350.org, declared that "the Biden administration missed a huge opportunity today to take a step towards ensuring a livable future for everyone in this country."
"The Dakota Access Pipeline violates treaty rights and endangers land, water, and communities," Harper said. "The climate crisis is here; we can no longer afford to build polluting, dangerous fossil fuel pipelines and delay a just transition to 100% clean energy. In solidarity with Indigenous water protectors, we call on President Joe Biden to stop the Dakota Access pipeline, Line 3, and all new fossil fuel projects immediately. If Biden wants to be a climate leader on the world stage, he needs to start at home."
U.S. District Judge James Boasberg, who ordered the environmental impact assessment last year, held a hearing Friday afternoon so the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could provide an update on whether the Biden administration planned to allow the pipeline known as DAPL to continue operating without a federal permit.
After Ben Schifman, an attorney for the government, shared that the Army Corps of Engineers would not shut down the pipeline at this time but "is essentially in a continuous process of evaluating," Boasberg granted the 10-day continuance. The DC-based judge is expected to decide whether he will order DAPL to shut down by April 19.
The pipeline carries oil from North Dakota, through South Dakota and Iowa, to Illinois. Although the project was denied permission to cross beneath Lake Oahe on unceded ancestral tribal lands by former President Barack Obama — under whom Biden was vice president — former President Donald Trump swiftly reversed course and allowed the project to proceed.
Indigenous water protectors and environmentalists have been fighting against the pipeline for years — opposition that's been met with forceful crackdowns by private security and law enforcement. Since it began operating in 2017, DAPL and the communities through which it runs have been plagued by repeated leaks.
The climate crisis is the greatest threat we face as a nation and a planet. Today I led a letter with… https://t.co/2PuYkQChxE— Rep. Ilhan Omar (@Rep. Ilhan Omar)1618001676.0
"For hundreds of years, our people have faced unwelcome and deadly incursions upon our homelands," said Phyllis Young, Standing Rock organizer for the Lakota People's Law Project and former tribal liaison to the Oceti Sakowin protest camp. "Today's decision is disappointing and demonstrates a lack of understanding by Washington politicians for Indigenous sovereignty."
"We will do our very best to see this pipeline removed, our water protected, and our sacred lands healed," Young said. "We will replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. One bad decision can't change that. We're dedicated to providing a better future for the generations to come. We've been fighting for our lives for centuries, and we aren't going to stop now."
Chairman Mike Faith of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said Friday that "we are gravely concerned about the continued operation of this pipeline, which poses an unacceptable risk to our sovereign nation."
"In a meeting with members of Biden's staff earlier this year, we were told that this new administration wanted to 'get this right,'" Faith noted. "Unfortunately, today's update from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shows it has chosen to ignore our pleas and stick to the wrong path."
Joye Braun, an Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) DAPL frontline organizer and citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Nation, said that "it is imperative that the Biden administration shut down DAPL now."
"The Army Corps of Engineers should not twist the rule of law to favor big oil interests and further spit on the nation-to-nation relationship between tribal nations and the U.S. government," Braun continued. "The Biden administration needs to do the right thing and stop this illegal pipeline."
"Why allow something illegal to continue?" Braun asked. "Set the example, honor the treaties, and show that the rule of law is greater than oil corporate interests. We will no longer accept being the sacrificial lamb for corporate raping of our Mother Earth and her water."
According to CNN, Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman, who has represented Standing Rock in its legal challenge against DAPL for several years, called the administration's inaction on Friday "a continuation of a terrible history."
"This pipeline is unsafe and operating in violation of federal law. Meanwhile, Energy Transfer is seeking to double capacity, which would make DAPL twice as dangerous," Hasselman added in a statement, referring to one of the pipeline's owners. "Yet the Biden administration's decision here is to do nothing."
"It's hard to see how we'll ever transition away from fossil fuels or show the rest of the world that we're serious about tackling climate change, if we are just going to shrug and look away when the fossil fuel industry brazenly ignores tribal concerns and tramples our federal environmental laws and safety regulations," the attorney said.
We are not backing down, @JoeBiden. We will #ShutdownDAPL. Respect us, or expect us.— Indigenous Environmental Network (@Indigenous Environmental Network)1617997041.0
"The Leaders Summit on Climate will underscore the urgency — and the economic benefits — of stronger climate action," said a White House statement about the event. "It will be a key milestone on the road to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) this November in Glasgow."
In a statement Friday, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune noted that "Biden campaigned and was elected on the boldest climate platform ever. Minutes after being sworn in, Biden began taking real, meaningful climate action. Less than a week into office, the president issued a memorandum on strengthening tribal consultation."
"Yet, President Biden's actions today fail to live up to the climate and tribal commitments he made," Brune said, adding that the decision to not shut down DAPL doesn't align "with the bold action he has taken since taking office."
"The Dakota Access Pipeline is a dirty, dangerous, illegally constructed pipeline that has continued to threaten tribal sovereignty and our collective right to clean water and a healthy, sustainable climate," he said. "Continued and expanded reliance on crude oil is not compatible with the president's own climate commitments, including the ones we expect him to make in weeks' time at his climate summit."
"The climate crisis demands that President Biden and his administration seize every opportunity to confront it," he concluded. "Today's decision is deeply disappointing, and we expect the courts to rightfully put an end to the Dakota Access Pipeline, just as we expect the president's future actions to meet his rhetoric and commitments."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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