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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By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.