Monday, July 25, 2011

House overrides veto on rules reform

The N.C. House voted today to override Gov. Bev Perdue's veto of legislation that sharply limits environmental rulemaking. The N.C. Senate had overridden the veto on July 13, so the measure is now law.

The bill was styled as a way to create jobs by limiting the proliferation of rules that its Republican backers say stifle business. It followed a series of regulatory-reform hearings held around the state this spring.

The law prohibits state environmental agencies, in most cases, from enacting rules that are stronger than federal standards. It orders agencies to ferret out "burdensome" regulations and conduct cost-benefit analyses of new rules, identifying alternatives for those with a fiscal impact of $500,000 or more a year.

Administrative law judges, not state agencies, will have final say on appeals of agency fines or orders. Judges have previously submitted only recommended decisions.

Environmental advocates predict the new restrictions will quickly come back to haunt the state. Among rules likely to be entangled, they say, are standards for the now-banned drilling practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas.

"Effective now," said Sam Pearsall of the Environmental Defense Fund, "it's going to be a mess."

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sierra Club's $50M windfall to boost NC wind power

Today's $50 million commitment by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's philanthropy to the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign will be used in North Carolina to promote offshore wind, a spokeswoman says.

The Sierra campaign aims to "end the coal era" and usher in cleaner technology. The billionaire Bloomberg appeared for today's announcement outside a coal-fired power plant in Alexandria, Va.

In North Carolina, an unspecified increase in Sierra staffers will develop "new, innovative strategies to hasten deployment of offshore wind," said spokeswoman Jenna Garland.

Environmental advocates despise coal power for its pollution, vast releases of carbon dioxide and the damage caused by mountaintop-removal mining in the Appalachians. Sierra claims credit for derailing plans for more than 150 new coal plants, although it didn't stop Duke Energy from building two new plants in North Carolina and Indiana.

Duke and Progress Energy plan to shut down many of their older coal-fired plants in the Carolinas as environmental standards stiffen.

Bloomberg's money will expand Sierra's anti-coal campaign from 15 to 45 states and double the number of staff members assigned to 200 people.

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry group that includes neither Duke nor Progress, quickly pounced. ACCCE said the Sierra plan would raise electric rates and kill jobs.

“Rather than demonize an important national strategic resource, Mayor Bloomberg should be using his millions to push for a balanced energy policy that utilizes all our domestic sources of energy including coal,” the group said.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Carolinas rank 10th, 11th for power plant pollution

North Carolina ranks 10th-highest and South Carolina 11th in a ranking of states with the most toxic air pollution from coal- and oil-fired power plants, the Natural Resources Defense Council said today.

The advocacy group based its rankings on the Environmental Protection Agency's 2009 Toxics Release Inventory, to which industries report their chemical releases to the air, water and land. Physicians for Social Responsibility shared in the report's release.

Power plants are the single largest industrial source of toxic air pollution in 28 states, including the Carolinas, NRDC said. N.C. utilities released 14.9 million pounds of toxic air emissions, 49 percent of the total for the state. South Carolina's emitted 11.4 million pounds, or 43 percent.

NRDC decried efforts in the U.S. House last week to delay proposed EPA limits on mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants. EPA estimates the new limits, proposed in March, would save up to 17,000 lives and prevent 120,000 asthma episodes a year by 2015.

Duke Energy plans to retire many of its smaller, older coal-fired units by 2015 to avoid the expense of installing new air pollution controls. Duke and Raleigh's Progress Energy say "scrubbers" installed at their larger N.C. plants to catch sulfur dioxide, which forms lung-damaging fine particles, also capture up to 90 percent of the mercury the plants release.

Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida led the NRDC's "Toxic 20" list.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Fort Bragg to test fuel cells

Sprawling, camo-intensive Fort Bragg will become one of eight U.S. military installations to test fuel cells as backup power, the Department of Energy said today.

Home to more than 50,000 active-duty soldiers (and endangered species including the red-cockaded woodpecker), Bragg is earning a name for energy innovation. Solar photovoltaic panels and solar hot water systems have been added to construction and renovation projects. Micro-hydro power, geothermal heat pumps, biodiesel production and energy meters to fine-tune efficiency are planned.

DOE's fuel cell tests will see how the technology, which generates electricity by chemical reaction, works in the real world. Department-funded research with 3M, DuPont, BASF and other companies has cut costs up to 80 percent since 2002, the government says. Many of the innovations that came out of that research will be tested at the military bases.

Compared with diesel generators, the usual source of backup power, fuel cells use no petroleum, are quieter and need less maintenance. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory will collect data from the $6.6 million project for two years, passing its findings to fuel cell developers and potential commercial and government adopters.

Fort Hood in Texas, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Base in Colorado, the Marine Corp's Air Ground Combat Center 29 Palms in California and the Ohio National Guard will also test the cells.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Progress outranks Duke in customer survey

Progress Energy topped its intended merger partner, Duke Energy, in J.D. Power and Associates' annual residential customer satisfaction survey released today.

Progress Carolinas ranked third-best among 13 large electric utilities in the South, the study found, while Duke Carolinas came in sixth. Both beat the average for the segment.

The results mark substantial happy-customer slippage for Duke, which led the list in 2010 and placed second in 2009. Progress finished fourth last year and so improved a bit.

Duke can't blame the results on this month's news of the 17 percent rate hike it's seeking for N.C. residential customers. The study was based on 98,000 online interviews conducted from July 2010 through this May.

Customer relations ranked low for both companies outside their Carolina bases. Progress Energy Florida finished dead last in rankings for the South, which was led by Oklahoma Gas and Electric. Duke's Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky operations ranked 10th-highest among 16 utilities in the Midwest.

J.D. Power's release didn't detail each utility's performance, but said customers generally are less satisfied with power quality, reliability and prices compared to last year. Gains in other areas, including customer communications and billing, helped offset the problem areas.

The California-based marketing information firm, also asked about attitudes on nuclear power. It found that 57 percent support building U.S. nuclear plants. Support is 70 percent among people who live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Consumer advocates slam Duke's Indiana costs

Advocates for Indiana utility customers have given a thumbs-down on Duke Energy's request to recover more of the escalating costs of its Edwardsport coal-fired power plant.

The Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor had been generally supportive of the project, which will use cleaner-burning gasification technology and is now nearing completion.

But that began to change last winter, with the fallout over conflict-of-interest allegations between Duke and Indiana utility regulators that ultimately cost the job of Jim Turner, one of Duke's top executives in Charlotte. Duke later withdrew a settlement with the consumer agency and other parties on the Edwardsport cost overruns.

With the issue back before the Indiana utilities commission, the Consumer Counselor's office now says Duke doesn't deserve the extra $530 million in reimbursement it's seeking for cost overruns. Cost estimates of $2.35 billion in 2008 have climbed to $2.88 billion.

"Duke has not demonstrated any budgetary constraints on this project," the office's Barbara Smith wrote in pre-filed testimony to the commission. "There appears to be a lack of responsibility or accountability on the part of those causing these multi-million dollar cost overruns. In addition, there has been no evidence presented to indicate that Duke management, or any other entity, has conducted any kind of timely prudency review regarding these cost overruns."

Smith wrote that Duke didn't fully spell out the project's scope, or finish design work, before starting work. The result, she said, was escalating costs borne by ratepayers and benefits going to Duke shareholders.

Duke has defended its management of the project. The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission will hold hearings on Edwardsport's costs in October.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

UNCC rolls out regional-indicators site

UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute has unveiled a new website that tracks how the Charlotte region's doing on the economy, environment, education and other indicators.

The institute launched its Charlotte Regional Indicators Project in 2007. The new version allows its database to be updated with fresh material as soon as it's released from the source.

"It is our hope that the Indicators website will become a sort of 'community commons,' where the data and commentary found here will spark more serious conversations and dialogue across the region – in city council meetings, neighborhood gatherings, corporate and nonprofit board rooms, in classrooms, and around the family dinner table – as we all strive for that elusive shared vision of what the Charlotte region can be," institute director Jeff Michael wrote in announcing the site.

The site offers search options for 33 indicators grouped around 11 quality of life themes that give an overview of the 14-county region. It also allows searches of detailed local data and can generate graphics based on the data.

It's absorbing stuff: the site lets you watch the steady loss of open space in Mecklenburg County, check out the violent crime index in Lancaster County, S.C. or compare Charlotte's commute times with other cities. Visitors can sign up for data alerts via social media, but a caution: the site won't display properly in Windows Internet Explorer 6.