Friday, December 14, 2012

Climate change reports update U.S. conditions

Two new federal reports update the state of climate change in the United States, including the hotly-controversial subject of sea level rise.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is 90 percent confident that global sea levels will rise by 2100. But NOAA cites a vast range for that rise, from the 8-inch average since 1900 to as much as 6.6 feet -- twice the level a North Carolina science panel says the state should assume for planning purposes.

As the Observer reported in November, some experts say the quickening of sea-level rise documented by satellites since 1992 is too short a period to rely on for future estimates. NOAA also recounts the "hot-spot" of faster rise along the Atlantic coast from Cape Hatteras to Boston that a U.S. Geological Survey researcher and others have documented.

While accelerating sea-level rise is under debate, NOAA says, those reports are "sufficient to suggest" that the northeastern U.S. coast take heed.

The Environmental Protection Agency's Climate Change Indicators update shows temperatures in the contiguous 48 states rising at a rate of 1.3 inches per century since 1901, with a quickening of that rate since the late 1970s. More high-temperature records have been set since the 1980s than cold-temperature records.

EPA also illustrates (above) how the Southeast, to this point, has largely escaped the rising temperatures seen in southern California and the Northeast.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Enviro groups launch coal-ash website

Environmental advocates have created an interactive Web guide to coal ash, the power-plant residue that burst into national focus four years ago with a billion-gallon rupture at a Tennessee plant. The site,, launched Tuesday.

North Carolina hasn't seen such catastrophe, but ash is rightly an issue in a state that still heavily depends on coal power. In high doses, metals found in ash can make people and the environment sick.

Groundwater is contaminated near ash ponds at 14 Duke Energy plants, including those formerly owned by merger partner Progress Energy. Much of the contamination, such as high levels of iron, likely came from natural sources. But other elements, such as selenium, seem to point toward leaking ponds.

North Carolina is one of nine states featured on the new site, a project of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Appalachian Voices, Southern Environmental Law Center and the N.C. Conservation Network.

The Web site houses a database of 100 power plants in the Southeast, categorized by how much damage they would do if they broke. North Carolina has more "high-hazard" dams, meaning ruptures could kill people, than any other state in the Southeast.

A few clicks will take you to deeper detail, including what's known about contamination around each plant as well as local and state contacts.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Holman moves to Conservation Fund

Longtime North Carolina environmental leader Bill Holman will leave Duke University to become state director of the Conservation Fund next month.

Holman plied the halls of the state legislature for 18 years as an environmental lobbyist and served as secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources under former Gov. Jim Hunt. He later worked as executive director of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, the state's largest source of conservation grants.

In 2007, Holman joined Duke's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, where he's director of state policy and collaborated on protecting the Falls Lake watershed, the source of Raleigh's water.

The Conservation Fund, which formed in 1985 and is headquartered in Arlington, Va., also has a distinguished resume. It has helped protect 7 million acres nationwide and more than 200,000 acres in North Carolina, including Grandfather Mountain, Chimney Rock, DuPont State Forest and other landmarks. Senior associate Dick Ludington, who was behind much of that work, will stay with the Fund.

Its Chapel Hill office is the Fund's largest outside Arlington and home to many of its national programs.


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Duke agrees to consumer-friendly reliability reports

Ever wonder, Duke Energy customers, how your service compares to that of other utilities?

You're about to find out. Duke has agreed to file, for the first time, quarterly reports that compare its North Carolina power outage data to industry benchmarks.

Thirty-six other states require utilities to publicly report how often, and for how long, outages occur.

But as the Observer reported last year, it's near impossible for North Carolina customers to get that information. Duke closely monitors the data but doesn't publicly report it. To complicate matters, utilities differ in how they measure and report results to the two widely-used industry reliability indices.

The N.C. Utilities Commission's Public Staff, which advocates for consumers, recommended a change. When the commission approved Duke's merger with Progress Energy in June, it required the companies to find a way standardize the indices and report their service quality.

This week, the two Duke subsidiaries that serve the Carolinas proposed a rule they developed with the Public Staff. The rule bases quarterly performance reports on industry indices for outage duration and frequency, and sets standards to ensure the data is used consistently.

Neither the utility that serves northeastern North Carolina, Dominion North Carolina Power, nor the N.C. Electric Membership Corp., which represents cooperatives, signed on to the proposal.

It's up to the Utilities Commission to approve the rule.

At the time of the Observer's article in August 2011, the industry indexes showed Duke's outage performance in North Carolina had steadily improved since 2003. Progress Energy, now a Duke subsidiary, showed improved performance after 2006 followed by an uptick in outages in 2010.

How have they done since then? I don't know -- and, for now, neither do you.

Friday, October 19, 2012

No health risks in Mountain Island Lake, official says

The arsenic reported earlier this week in Charlotte's major drinking water source poses no health hazards, Mecklenburg County's water-quality chief says.

Rusty Rozzelle and Sam Perkins, the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation's director of technical programs, talked to the community group We Love Mountain Island Lake at a Thursday night meeting. 

The meeting followed publication Monday of a Duke University study that found arsenic in the discharge water that flows into the lake from the Riverbend power plant, and in lake sediment. Arsenic is, of course, toxic.

But Rozzelle told the group the arsenic is largely in sediment, not the lake water itself.

"There is no potential threat to the water supply downstream of the discharge pipe," he said. "We've never found any arsenic above the minimum detection limits, and to my knowledge no one else has either."

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities tests Mountain Island water weekly with similar results, spokeswoman Karen Whichard said today. No arsenic is detected in treated water that flows to household taps, she said.
The Riverkeeper Foundation worked with Duke University to collect water and sediment samples for study. Perkins said contaminated "pore water" in sediment can be released into the water column during certain conditions, such as summer heat, or if the sediment is disturbed.

A more important question, Rozzelle said, is what will happen to Riverbend's ash ponds once Duke closes the c.-1929 plant by 2015. Rozzelle said Duke will have to submit a plan to permanently close the ponds, but hasn't yet.

"To me, the important thing is how it's closed," he said.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Longtime N.C. forestry advocate passes

Bob Slocum, the voice of North Carolina's forest products industry for 24 years, died Tuesday in Raleigh at 62.

Over his tenure, the N.C. Forestry Association grew to nearly 4,000 members, one of the largest such groups in the country. Slocum lobbied the N.C. legislature and served on commissions and task forces, defending his industry and private property rights -- and frequently irritating environmental advocates.

I first encountered Bob in the early 1990s as controversy raged over chip mills and clear-cut logging in North Carolina's national forests. He was a forceful, knowledgeable advocate for his industry, but always a gentleman. At left, he's with Gov. Perdue at last year's Forestry Day at the legislature.

Among his top achievements the association lists is 2005's "Right to Practice Forestry" legislation, which limited local governments' control of forestry operations done under forest management plans or on property taxed as timberland. He also oversaw development of the association's ProLogger training program and forestry education programs for public schools.

A career forester, he graduated from N.C. State University with a forestry management degree. He's survived by his wife, Linda, and three adult sons.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Lake Norman group, volunteer take wildlife awards

Lake Norman Wildlife Conservationists and Carolina Raptor Center volunteer Anne Steinert are among this year's winners of the Governor's Conservation Achievement Awards.

The annual awards are made by the N.C. Wildlife Federation.

The Lake Norman group was named the federation's chapter of the year. The Mooresville-based group has certified the lake as "community wildlife habitat" with the National Wildlife Federation.

Steinert, named wildlife volunteer of the year, has volunteered an average of 800 hours a year for the past 10 years at the Raptor Center, where she's a master-level rehabilitation volunteer. She assists in surgery, transports injured birds -- and bakes bread for the staff each Friday.

Catawba County was named municipal conservationist of the year for its recycling and waste reduction program, which runs the county's EcoComplex and Resource Recovery Facility.

Winston-Salem lawyer Michael Leonard won conservationist of the year for helping land trusts protect 266,750 acres across six states, including 120,000 acres in North Carolina.

Read the full list of winners here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

NC legislators' conservation ratings: Zeroes

The N.C. League of Conservation Voters' annual scorecard awards an unprecedented 44 state legislators zeroes for their votes in the 2012 session. The League had previously handed out only four zeroes since 1999, and none since 2001.

The league calls the 2011-12 legislative session one of the worst for the environment in state history. It charges that the Republican-led chambers, in an anti-regulation drive, made "reckless decisions" in approving hydraulic fracturing, banning policies on sea-level rise, removing key divisions from the environment department and limiting state oversight of toxic air pollutants.

Twenty-nine legislators -- all Democrats -- voted the league's way, earning perfect scores. All the zero scores went to Republicans.

Most interesting about the scorecard is how quickly and deeply divided the political parties have become on environmental issues.

In the 2007-2008 session, the average difference between Democrats and Republicans was about 20 percent in both chambers. In 2011-12, that difference ballooned to 79 percent in the N.C. House and 61 percent in the Senate.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Use NC's offshore winds, group says

Atlantic states including North Carolina should more aggressively take advantage of their offshore wind resources, the National Wildlife Federation says in a new report.

Harnessing 4 percent of the 1,300 gigawatts of Atlantic wind energy potential, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has estimated, could power 14 million homes. North Carolina has more wind potential in near-shore waters than any other East Coast state, the lab has estimated.

Yet not one turbine spins off the East Coast, although the controversial Cape Wind project in Massachusetts is expected to generate electricity by 2015.

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is working with officials in North Carolina, South Carolina and eight other states to set the stage for offshore wind-energy leases. The bureau expects to announce potential lease areas and gauge the interest by commercial developers through an upcoming "call" for information.

About a dozen developers responded to similar calls in Virginia and Maryland, says Brian O'Hara, president of the N.C. Offshore Wind Coalition. The Department of Energy is also expected to announce research grants for offshore wind technology aimed at bringing costs down.

The challenge, O'Hara says, is finding buyers for the power. It's a question not only of connecting offshore turbines to the electric grid but of policy. North Carolina demands that utilities supply the cheapest power available, a position that doesn't consider the long-term benefits of developing a resource with high initial costs.

Wind should be included in the state's renewable-energy standard, alongside the existing targets for solar and other alternative fuels, says Richard Mode, the Wildlife Federation's outreach coordinator in Morganton. Legislators should make the standard itself more aggressive than the 12.5 percent clean-energy goal it sets for 2021, he says, and reconsider a measure to boost the economic development potential of offshore wind.

"All this is to build certainty in the marketplace" that state policies support the industry, he says.

Gov. Bev Perdue created an offshore wind task force in 2011, but because of budget cuts it has never been met.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Duke makes one sustainability list, falls off another

For the seventh year, Duke Energy has been ranked on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for North American companies -- but fell off the world index after a two-year run.

Duke is among nine utilities picked of 33 considered for the North American index. Companies are reviewed for their performance on topics including corporate governance, environmental policy, climate strategy, human capital development and labor practices.

Now the largest U.S. electric utility after its merger with Progress Energy, Duke touts its renewable energy, energy efficiency and environmental records in an annual report“Sustainability pushes us to find the right balance among the needs of people, the planet and profits,” Lee Mazzocchi, Duke's senior vice president and chief integration and innovation officer, said in a press release.

But Dow Jones dropped Duke from its world index, where it was listed in 2010 and 2011. Duke was the fifth-largest corporation to be deleted, following IBM, GlaxoSmithKline, United Technologies and Spain's Telefonica SA. Microsoft, Target and Hewlett-Packard were among U.S. companies joining the list.

It's not clear why Duke fell off the index. A Dow Jones spokesman wasn't immediately available.

"I think it's just a matter that the bar keeps getting raised," said Duke spokesman Randy Wheeless. "We definitely have our sights set on getting back on that list."

Dow Jones compiles the index with Zurich-based Sustainable Asset Management Group.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Charlotteans like public transit -- and suburbia

A national survey by the Natural Resources Defense Council finds support for more local spending on buses, light rail and other public transportation. But additional interviews in Mecklenburg County also show a strong appetite for far-flung suburbs and long commutes.

A bipartisan polling team conducted telephone interviews with 800 likely voters for NRDC in late June and early July. The survey found that Americans want to spend less time in their cars, but most feel they have no other choice.

Mecklenburg officials say vehicle emissions -- compounded by commuters driving alone to and from work -- are the biggest local contributors to Charlotte's long-time smog problem. Metro Charlotte routinely ranks among the nation's smoggiest cities.  

Only one in three in the NRDC survey said convenient public transportation is available, while two out of three said they would like their local governments to spend more on buses, trains and light rail. Those surveyed were twice as likely to support expanding public transportation instead of building new roads.

The pollsters did 200 additional interviews in Mecklenburg County and in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, home of Cleveland, and suburban Philadelphia. All three cities fell in line with national support for improving public transportation.

But this is where the answers get interesting for Charlotte.

While 43 percent of Mecklenburg residents like compact houses on small lots with short commutes, 45 percent prefer larger houses on bigger lots with commutes of 40 minutes or more. Nationally, only 29 percent like such communities.

Fifty-one percent of Mecklenburgers want walkable communities with mixes of houses, apartments and stores. But 46 percent would rather live in residential-only neighborhoods where they have to drive to stores, a lifestyle endorsed by 40 percent nationally.

Another 51 percent in Mecklenburg say new development should be built within existing cities and suburbs. Thirty-nine percent -- compared to 30 percent nationally -- say it should go on undeveloped land outside those areas.

"It seems like it might be people wanting the best of both worlds," says Shannon Binns, executive director of Sustain Charlotte, an advocacy group working with NRDC. The group hosted a panel discussion on the topic during last week's Democratic National Convention.

Binns theorizes that driving is an accepted part of Charlotte's culture and that traffic congestion hasn't gotten bad enough to push local people toward alternatives. Changing that mindset, he acknowledges, will be a challenge.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Conservationists lacking in N.C. legislature, group says

And this year's winner of the N.C. Wildlife Federation's Legislator of the Year award is: Nobody.

For the first time in the 49-year history of its conservation achievement awards program, the Charlotte-based federation found no lawmaker worth honoring.

"These awards are the highest conservation honors in North Carolina, yet in the wake of one of the most wildlife- and environmentally-hostile General Assembly sessions of the last half-century, no legislator was singled out for heroic effort," the venerable group says.

The Republican-controlled legislature rolled back or seriously weakened "decades of common-sense protections and new ideas about sustainable energy development," the federation says. "Fundamental assumptions about science and economics were dismissed during the vicious acts of gutting regulations that protect clean air, clean water and the lands used for farming, timber harvest and outdoor recreation."

Legislators this year approved the controversial drilling practice of "fracking" for natural gas, which the federation says could hurt groundwater and wildlife habitat. Lawmakers also debated, but later softened, a measure that prohibited use of scientific models that show rates of sea-level rise accelerating as oceans warm and glaciers melt due to climate change.  

The federation will honor other winners of its annual conservation awards on Sept. 8.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

NC mining/energy panel ready to meet

North Carolina's new Mining and Energy Commission, created by state legislation this summer, will hold its first orientation meeting on Sept. 6.

The 12-member panel reforms the old state mining commission. It's charged with working with state staff to develop rules on oil and gas exploration, particularly the previously prohibited techniques of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing or fracking.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimated this summer that N.C. shale formations, the deposits that fracking taps, holds gas that could supply the state for 5.6 years at 2010 usage rates. Earlier estimates had cited up to a 40-year supply.

A state study earlier this year concluded that fracking could be safe if properly regulated. That critical task will be overseen by a commission that, per the legislation that created it, is tilted toward mining and oil-and-gas professionals. Gov. Bev Perdue, House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, made the appointments:

Raymond Covington, a Guilford County real estate professional who also's part of a concern that negotiates oil and gas leases for property owners. (Tillis)
Charles Taylor, a council member in Sanford, part of the Triassic Basin in which most shale deposits are found. (Tillis)
William McNeely III, a sand-and-gravel miner in the mountains of Transylvania County. (Tillis)
Charles Holbrook, a former Chevron geologist who lives in Moore County. (Tillis)
George Howard, president of a Raleigh firm that restores waterways and a member of Triangle Land Conservancy. (Berger)
James Womack, a county commissioner in Lee County, also in the Triassic Basin. (Berger)
Ivan "Tex" Gilmore, a former longtime PCS Phosphate geologist in Beaufort County. (Berger)
Vikram Rao, executive director of the Research Triangle Energy Consortium. (Berger)
Jane Lewis-Raymond, general counsel of Piedmont Natural Gas in Charlotte. (Perdue)
Charlotte Mitchell, a Raleigh environmental lawyer and member of Triangle Land Conservancy. (Perdue)
Amy Pickle, a Raleigh attorney at Duke's Nicholas Institute of Environmental Policy Solutions and a member of the N.C. Environmental Management Commission. (Perdue)
Marva Price, an associate professor at Duke's School of Nursing and a member of the N.C. Public Health Commission. (Perdue)

Friday, August 17, 2012

Coal plant cleanup law benefits consumers, study says

North Carolina's 2002 Clean Smokestacks Act, which cracked down on pollution from coal-fired power plants, will save consumers money as it keeps them healthier, says a paper from Duke University.

Scholars at Duke's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions found that complying with the state law put N.C. utilities ahead of the game in meeting two upcoming federal standards.

The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, announced last year, reduces power-plant emissions that add to smog and fine-particle pollution. A second set of new standards place the first federal controls on mercury and other toxic emissions from coal-fired plants.

Because N.C. utilities have already paid for pollution controls to meet Clean Smokestacks, they and their customers will save money in meeting the new federal standards. Duke Energy and its new subsidiary, Progress Energy, plan to shut down older coal-fired units rather than upgrade them.

Expected costs of meeting the new federal standards will depend on how long pollution controls stay in service and how much it will cost to replace them.

Future savings for Duke Energy Carolinas customers, for example, range from $1.2 billion to $1.9 billion under the decades-long scenarios the paper analyzed. Those in Progress Carolinas territory would save $600 million to $1.1 billion. The savings drop, but stay in the hundreds of millions of dollars, when past spending under the state law is included.

Clean Smokestacks also kept people alive longer by giving them cleaner air to breathe, the paper says. It put the median monetary benefits of avoiding premature N.C. deaths at $6 billion to $16 billion, depending on two differing studies, from 2005 through 2011 -- several times more than customers paid for pollution controls.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Delay pig waste-to-energy mandate, utilities ask

It's not easy turning poultry litter and pig poop into economic electricity, North Carolina's power providers are finding.

Duke Energy's two Carolinas utilities reported Wednesday that they have agreed with farm and renewable-energy groups to support a delay in a state mandate to make electricity from poultry and swine wastes. The mandate, spelled out in a 2007 law, goes into effect this year.

The agreement supports a  request to the N.C. Utilities Commission to give electric suppliers another two years to comply with the law. They won't be able to meet the mandate in 2012 and 2013, the suppliers say.

The suppliers cited "overly optimistic" projections by swine waste developers, leading to contracts being canceled. Poultry waste projects, they say, have been afflicted by cost, financing, permitting and "commercial viability" problems.

The agreement reported to the commission Wednesday is among the Duke utilities, the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, the N.C. Farm Bureau, the N.C. Pork Council and the N.C. Poultry Federation.

Under its terms, Duke would report its progress in securing swine and poultry power twice a year, set up a website to help energy developers and increase its solar-energy output for 2012 and 2013.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Duke drops industry rate-break plan

The N.C. Utilities Commission this week let Duke Energy withdraw its plan to offer industrial and commercial customers a temporary 6 percent rate cut.

Duke floated the idea in May, saying some of its biggest customers were struggling. The one-year test program would have cost Duke shareholders $13 million.

As part of a 7 percent N.C. rate hike in January, Duke had agreed to donate $11 million of shareholder money to help low-income residents with their energy bills.

NC WARN, the Durham advocacy group that frequently fights Duke, protested help for big customers. WARN argued the program was a "kickback scheme" intended to win support for its merger with Progress Energy. The commission's Public Staff, which advocates for consumers, investigated but took no immediate position.

Last week Duke withdrew the plan. It cited "overwhelming interest from customers" who collectively asked for more aid than Duke had budgeted. Duke said it will continue to look for ways to help customers with their energy bills.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Law firm trolling for Duke lawsuit

A Boston law firm that represents investors claiming securities violations is already looking for clients amid the debris of the Duke Energy merger.

Block & Leviton said it's "investigating possible breaches of fiduciary duties" by Duke's board, which canned its intended new CEO, former Progress Energy chief Bill Johnson, hours after closing the merger.

The firm noted Standard & Poor's placing Duke stock on a credit watch list soon after Johnson's abrupt departure and an investigation launched by N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper.

Duke's stock has dropped about 5 percent between July 2, when the merger closed, and Wednesday's market close. It's up slightly on Thursday morning.

Progress investors joined a number of class-action lawsuits after the merger with Duke was announced in early 2011. All were settled within a few months.

With passions aflame now, law firms aren't likely to struggle to find aggrieved stockholders. 

"It appears that this action was pre-planned by the board of Duke and smells badly of dishonesty in the board's dealings with stockholders and, apparently, your commission," Duke, and former Progress, stockholder Philip Carter of Raleigh wrote the N.C. Utilities Commission last week.

He added: "I strongly urge the Commission to use its authority to investigate whether there was disingenuous communications between Duke's leadership and the Commission, its stockholders and the public."

Thursday, July 5, 2012

S&P puts Duke on credit watch

Wall Street's reaction to the Duke Energy merger minus intended CEO Bill Johnson has been swift.

Standard & Poor's Financial Services has placed Duke's A- corporate credit ratings on its CreditWatch with negative implications "in response to abrupt change in executive leadership."

Hours after the $32 billion merger closed Monday, Duke stunned employees, regulators and analysts by announcing that CEO Jim Rogers would stay on as president, chief executive and chairman. Johnson had been set to become chief executive since the merger was announced in January 2011.

"The sudden shift in management raises concerns about effective corporate governance, successful handling of the anticipated merger integration, and the ongoing effective management of pending challenges that face the combined entity," said S&P credit analyst Dimitri Nikas.

Credit ratings are critical to utilities, which depend on capital markets to finance power plants and other infrastructure projects that can cost billions of dollars. Including Progress projects, Duke has about $5 billion in new power plants under construction.

S&P said it was also revising its CreditWatch implications on Progress Energy's BBB+ credit rating from positive to developing. The change includes Progress subsidiary Progress Energy Carolinas, which will continue to operate under Duke's ownership.

Standard & Poor said it would resolve the credit watch listing "in the near term" after more assessment of the implications of the leadership change.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Feds propose new NC wildlife refuge

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed North Carolina's newest national wildlife refuge, a 23,000-acre sprawl protecting some of the nation's rarest habitats, Southern Appalachian bogs.

Small bogs are scattered across the mountains. They're often not part of other wetlands, but serve some of the same functions, absorbing floodwaters like sponges and slowly releasing the water. Five endangered species, including the little bog turtle (above), depend on them. Migratory birds and game animals like turkey and mink forage among them.

The proposal, which needs approval by the Fish and Wildlife director, takes a different approach from most federal refuges. It would be scattered across up to 30 different sites in 11 western North Carolina counties. And at least part of it would be held through easements or leases instead if outright purchases.

As always, the plan hinges on whether money is available and landowners willing to protect their land. The Nature Conservancy is among the groups that have already worked for years to protect some bogs, giving the proposal a head start.

The wildlife service will spend the next year soliciting public reaction and evaluating the proposal before sending the findings to Washington in 2013. Written comments are being taken now and  information sessions will be held in Hendersonville, West Jefferson, Franklin and Boone.

North Carolina has 10 national wildlife refuges covering nearly 420,000 acres. Only one, Pee Dee in Anson and Richmond counties, is in the western half of the state.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

NC commission sets merger deadlines

The N.C. Utilities Commission has set a fast schedule for reviewing the federal approval of the Duke Energy-Progress Energy merger.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission attached new conditions in approving the $26 billion merger last Friday. Now the state commission wants to assess the FERC order's impact on North Carolina customers, including merger terms agreed to by the utilities and the commission's Public Staff, which represents consumers.

A commission order says Duke, Progress and the Public Staff have until Wednesday to file comments or testimony on the impact of the federal order. Formal parties to the merger case, such as customer groups, have to file comments and respond to the utilities' position by Monday. The utilities and Public Staff have until next Tuesday to issue rebuttals.

Duke and Progress, meanwhile, have 15 days following Friday's federal order to indicated their acceptance of the new conditions. The companies have targeted a July 1 closing, but have a week beyond that to seal the merger or potentially abandon it.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mecklenburg sets litter(free) record

A new survey of Mecklenburg County found litter at a record low, Keep Mecklenburg Beautiful reported Tuesday.

The county's Litter Index, based on a survey last week of 50 points throughout the county, was 1.22. That broke last year's record index of 1.35.

The index has been falling steadily since the surveys began in 2004, said Jake Wilson, executive director of Keep Mecklenburg Beautiful.

Wilson attributes the falling scores to less debris blowing from construction-company trucks during the economic downturn, and to growth of the state's Adopt-A-Highway volunteer trash pickup program.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Apple says Maiden data center to be all green

Apple says its $1 billion Maiden data center will sport a second large solar farm that will help power the site entirely by renewable energy by the end of this year.

The 500,000-square-foot center will draw about 20 megawatts of power at full capacity, the company says in a post on its website, and produce 60 percent of it onsite. Apple says it will directly buy the other 40 percent from local and regional renewable-energy sources.

Greenpeace has pressured Apple for months over use of coal by Duke Energy, which serves the area, and more recently the use of diesel-powered backup generators.

The N.C. Utilities Commission on Thursday granted a permit for a 20-megawatt solar farm in Maiden. Apple now says it will build a second farm a few miles away.

Apple is also seeking state approval of a 4.8-megawatt fuel cell installation in Maiden that it says will be the nation's largest non-utility project. That project is still before the N.C. commission.

Together, Apple says, the projects will produce 124 million kilowatt-hours of energy, enough to supply 10,874 homes. The actual output will be registered with North Carolina's Renewable Energy Tracking System set up by the utilities commission.

The LEED Platinum-certified Maiden data center, it says, features an array of energy-saving technologies.

Apple says it runs its facilities in Austin, Sacramento, Cork, Ireland and Munich wholly on renewable energy. Its Cupertino, Calif., headquarters now gets more than half its energy from renewable sources including fuel cells.

Photo: Activists stopped a coal train en route to Duke Energy's Marshall coal plant May 3, 2012 and branded it with the Apple logo. The activists contended that coal would be used to power Apple's Maiden, NC data center, currently under construction. Photo by Greenpeace

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Duke seeks rate break for struggling businesses

Duke Energy has asked for state approval to offer its largest industrial and commercial customers in North Carolina a one-year, 6 percent rate reduction at a shareholder expense of about $13 million.

Duke's Carolinas industrial sales have dropped 20 percent since 2002 while other customer classes grew. The N.C. Utilities Commission approved a 7 percent rate hike in January.

The proposal now before the commission would help manufacturers survive the economic slump, Duke wrote in its filing. It would also help stabilize an industrial customer base that brings in 40 percent of Duke's N.C. retail revenue.

"The company believes that efforts like this pilot can help retain the industrial base in North Carolina so that the state can experience economic success,"  Duke wrote. "The company believes that retaining its industrial base is not only good for the state of North Carolina's economy, but that it helps keep rates competitive by keeping larger customers on the system to help pay for fixed costs that would otherwise be spread to other customers."

Duke would offer the rate reductions on a first-come basis to customers with annual demand of 75 kilowatts or more on schedules LGS, I, OPT-G, OPT-I, OPT-E or HP. The program would be capped at  a total of 700,000 kilowatts.

Examples of eligible customers are those that are in financial distress, have lower-cost energy options, are considering a relocation or will commit to retain current job levels or energy use.

In a settlement leading to the January rate hike, Duke agreed to donate $11 million of shareholder money to community nonprofit groups to help low-income residents with their energy costs. N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper has appealed the rate hike.

Spokesman Jason Walls said Duke is "evaluating possible options to support our customers in the economic recovery" in South Carolina.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Battery could give boost to clean energy

For all the clamor over solar and wind energy, making best use of its on-and-off nature is a problem yet to be solved. No one's come up with a viable way of storing the energy on a large scale.

Potential investors and energy engineers at an uptown Charlotte lunch meeting the other day heard about a potential solution: vanadium. The metal is used in high-strength steel and lightweight aircraft frames. It's also the focus of growing interest in 25-year-old technology called vanadium flow batteries.

The main appeal of these batteries is that they can easily be scaled, from small applications for a single household or ones large enough to serve whole grids.

American Vanadium Corp., one of two Canadian companies presenting (the other, Crosshair Energy Corp., mines uranium for nuclear fuel) at the Charlotte lunch, is developing what it says is the only vanadium mine in the United States.

The United States imports virtually all its vanadium from China and Russia. American Vanadium says its Nevada site will produce high-purity vanadium at low cost.

"Energy storage is the holy grail for renewables," said CEO Bill Radvak. "We'd like to be the company that creates battery storage." The company is seeking partners in the solar, wind and grid-scale battery manufacturing industries.

The Energy Department has invested millions of dollars in vanadium storage technology, including a demonstration project at a municipal coal-fired power plant in Painesville, Ohio. The world's largest vanadium flow battery will soon begin serving an onion-processing plant in California, storing energy when electric rates are lowest for use during peak demand times.

"Once permitting is in place, financing remains the main hurdle and an off-take agreement with a battery
manufacturer ... would do a lot to rebrand American Vanadium as cutting edge in alternative energy," said a research report Wednesday from natural resources research firm Hallgarten & Co.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Duke merger filing reflects "changed circumstances"

The $650 million in fuel and operation savings that Duke Energy and Progress Energy have guaranteed to Carolinas retail customers might take longer than five years to achieve, the utilities say in a new settlement agreement with N.C. consumer advocates filed late Tuesday.

The agreement with the Public Staff, which represents utility customers, cements some consumer aspects of the $26 billion merger but allows Duke and Progress wiggle room on others. The N.C. Utilities Commission would have to approve the settlement after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rules on the merger, likely by early June.

Among the changes to September's settlement: An 18-month extension of the five-year cost-saving guarantee, based on whether the falling price of natural gas means that three Duke plants burn less coal than previously expected.

But the companies agree to swallow rate reductions and cost increases related to their efforts to assuage FERC's concerns about decreased market competition from the merger. Analysts at Bernstein Research peg those costs at about $875 million, or 27 cents per post-merger shares. Duke projects the total will be far smaller.

"We see the settlement therefore as a further evidence of Duke's commitment to consummate the merger," Bernstein senior analyst Hugh Wynne wrote Wednesday. "It is also evidence, however, of the merger's high cost, and the incentive that Duke will face, if the merger does not close by (the termination date of) July 8, not to renew the commitment."

Duke CEO Jim Rogers last week predicted the merger is "more likely than not" to be approved, but added that Duke will remain financially strong if it does not.

In Tuesday's agreement, the utilities say they won't try to recover from N.C. customers $220 million to $230 million in severance cost or the $40 million to $50 million in estimated losses from short-term power sales over three years. They also agree to reduce Carolinas retail rates by about $70 million over that period. The utilities won't try to recover $110 million in costs for transmission upgrades for five years after the merger.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Meck's State of the Environment report online

Mecklenburg County staff have updated their biennial environmental report with a shorter, color-coded version that's now online.

Environmental changes, good or bad, typically unfold slowly over a period of years. That's what makes these reports, updated every two years, interesting. They report trends back to 1987.

This year's edition uses a matrix of green-yellow-red and directional arrows to summarize trends in air, land, waste and water quality. Details, with relevant links, are inside the body of the report, which will be updated as new data comes in.

Here's ozone air pollution: Improving but still often unhealthy.

Nature preserves: Lagging behind the county's land acquisition goals.


Streams: Too often contaminated by runoff and bacteria.

Lakes: Generally clean and holding their own.

It's worth a read by anyone interested in the air we breathe, the water we rely on and the land under us.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Poll finds support for renewable energy

North Carolina residents overwhelmingly support renewable energy, including legislation that would let independent power generators sell directly to customers, according to a poll out today.

The N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, which advocates for wind, solar and other renewable fuels, commissioned the poll of more than 700 residents last month by public opinion firm Fallon Research.

The poll found strongest support for solar energy, at 89 percent, natural gas at 84 percent, and offshore wind energy at 76 percent (with 15 percent opposed). Support for nuclear power came in at 57 percent and for coal-fired electricity at 56 percent, with 32 percent opposed to both.

On other questions, residents gave their firmest support -- 87 percent -- to legislation allowing non-utility energy companies to sell directly to customers. North Carolina law now allows only the utilities that serve the state, chiefly Duke Energy and Progress Energy, to sell power.

North Carolina legislators, under a bill sponsored by Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg, are studying whether to allow so-called third-party sales. Twenty states allow such sales, which the association says could open up new markets for solar-energy companies.

Eighty-five percent of the people polled said consumers should have more options for buying electricity.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Sustainability award winners are announced

The nonprofit Sustain Charlotte announced 12 winners of its first annual community sustainability awards at a Saturday night event at UNC Charlotte's new uptown building.

The awards recognize local leaders for helping advance the "Charlotte 2030" sustainability plan Sustain Charlotte launched in 2010 with the support of Mayor Anthony Foxx, then-county commissioners' Chair Jennifer Roberts, business and nonprofit officials.

Recently-elected city council members John Autry and Beth Pickering were among more than 200 people who attended the event. Charlotte City Council last week agreed to develop a sustainability plan for the city.

Kacy Cook, a land conservation biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Commission, was the featured speaker. Foxx and other city officials appeared in a video on sustainability's importance.

The winners by category: air quality, June Blotnick, Clean Air Carolina; buildings and homes, Nicole Storey, city of Charlotte; sustainable economy, Amanda Breeden, Michael Scott Mater Foundation; outstanding educator, Helene Hilger, UNCC; energy, Brian Kasher, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools; food, Robin Emmons, Sow Much Good; parks and green space, Ann Hayes Browning, Carolina Thread Trail; social equity, Tracy Russ, Crossroads Charlotte; transportation, Martin Zimmerman, Charlotte Area Bicycle Alliance; waste reduction, Michael Talbert, Mecklenburg County; water, David Merryman, Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation; and overall outstanding leader, Dan Roselli, Packard Place / Red F.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bat-killing disease found in Smokies

White-nose syndrome, a disease that has killed millions of bats in the East, has now been confirmed in two bats in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Biologists found WNS in both a tricolored and a little brown bat found in a park cave, officials said today. Only the fungus that causes the disease had been previously confirmed in the sprawling park of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.

The disease is named for a white fungus that forms on the faces of many victims. The fungus makes bats restless during hibernation in caves, moving about and burning up fat reserves or losing body moisture needed to survive winter. There is no cure.

Of the 11 bat species found in the Smokies park, at least six hibernate in caves and old mines, making them susceptible to WNS. The park closed all 16 of its caves and two mining complexes to the public in 2009 in an effort to prevent spread of the disease.

The disease does not appear to be a risk to humans, but dead bats or animals that are acting strangely should not be handled because bats carry rabies.

"While the confirmation of WNS in the park is not a surprise," said park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson, "it is still a sad day for the resource." Go here for a podcast on WNS in the Smokies.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Mecklenburg birders' help is needed

Have you spotted a loggerhead shrike in Mecklenburg County lately? How about a barn owl? Or an American kestrel?

The Mecklenburg Breeding Bird Atlas, a three-year work in progress by the Mecklenburg Audubon Society and the county natural-resources staff, needs your eyeballs. Shrikes, barn owls and kestrels are all ranked as "critically imperiled" species in the county, and the first year of fieldwork for the atlas found none breeding here.

About 110 volunteers took part in 2011. More, of any skill level, are needed. Information on observations of bird nests or other breeding clues, such as birds seen carrying food or nest materials, can be reported on the center-left side of the Mecklenburg Audubon site.

Preliminary results of the first year of fieldwork:

-- Of the 117 species expected to breed in the county, 87 percent were documented.
-- One new species, the Eurasian collared-dove, was found nesting in the county.
-- One pair of American redstarts was confirmed breeding, the first such record in Mecklenburg since 1941.

Of particular interest are loggerhead shrikes (left), which were once common in Mecklenburg County. Sightings have declined in the past two decades as they lost habitat, says county biologist Don Seriff, who is coordinating the atlas project. The birds look like a mockingbird with a black mask and are easy to see in open or brushy fields.

"We'd love to know if (volunteers) can find any within the county," Seriff says.

Birders, consider that a challenge.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Feds: Stop delays on Carolinas hydro licenses

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has chastised a fellow agency for delays in biological reviews needed to renew licenses of hydroelectric projects in the Carolinas and Georgia.

Duke Energy has long chafed at delays by the National Marine Fisheries Service in assessing the impacts of its Catawba River project on the endangered shortnose sturgeon. Duke had hoped to get a new license in 2008.

In a letter Monday to the fisheries service, Jeff Wright, the director of FERC's Office of Energy Projects said a 135-day consultation period had passed for a half-dozen projects. Among them: Duke on the Catawba, Progress Energy on the Yadkin River, the S.C. Public Service Authority's Santee-Cooper project and S.C. Electric and Gas' Saluda project.

"We recognize the importance of protecting endangered species and the benefit of having biological opinions from NMFS to inform our licensing decisions," Wright wrote the fisheries service. "However, neither the public interest nor the listed species under consultation are served by the delays in our ability to act on license applications that will advance the protection of listed species."

The issue is whether hydro dams impede the migrations of sturgeon, an ancient species that swims up coastal rivers to spawn. In Duke's case, the utility says its first dam, built in 1904, came well after the last sturgeon was seen downstream in the Wateree River.

But last year the fish showed they're still capable of swimming far inland. Two sturgeon were tracked last spring to just below Duke's Wateree Dam, the first that blocks the Catawba.
Duke has offered to help wandering sturgeon by increasing the amount of water it releases downstream during each spring's spawning season, expanding their range.

Friday, March 2, 2012

N.C. solar prices dropping

The installed cost per watt of solar photovoltaic systems in North Carolina dropped 36 percent between 2006 and 2011, the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association reports.

The NCSEA credits falling prices for a spike in solar installations. By last September, it says, North Carolina ranked eighth-highest in the nation for installed solar PV capacity. More than 1,100 systems with a total capacity of 128 megawatts registered with the N.C. Utilities Commission between 2006 and 2011.

Conventional electricity costs in the state, meanwhile, rose at an annual 3 percent average over the past decade, the study says.

The study projects that the largest solar PV systems, those larger than 500 kilowatts that take state and federal tax credits, will become cost-competitive with commercial retail electricity prices for all N.C. utilities in 2015. The smallest systems, 10 kilowatts or less, would reach parity by 2020.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Home energy-saving plans proposed

Duke Energy this week asked for state approval to launch or tweak three energy-saving programs for residential customers

The changes, which need approval by the N.C. Utilities Commission, include:

-- An appliance-recycling plan would offer customers $30 and free pick-up if they give up old, inefficient refrigerators or freezers.

-- Additions to Duke’s Smart $aver program would offer customers incentives to make their homes more energy-efficient. The program would offer up to $400 to homeowners who install attic insulation, $200 for duct sealing, $350 for duct insulation, $60 for a central air-conditioner tune-up and $125 for a heat pump tune-up.

The program already offers $200 incentives to customers who install higher-efficiency heating and cooling systems.

-- Under a free new program, Duke will proactively seek out customers in low-income neighborhoods. Based on energy-saving needs, it will offer a menu of conservation measures such as weather-stripping, compact fluorescent bulbs, water heater insulation or water-saving showerheads.

Costs of the programs would be paid for by an existing energy-efficiency rider, which adds $2.35 a month to typical residential bills.

More on these if they're approved.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Climate change influences bird migrations, study finds

Warming temperatures mean quicker migrations for birds in eastern North America, a UNC Chapel Hill biologist says in a newly-published paper.

A team led by Allen Hurlbert based its work on 48 million observations reported over the past decade by amateur birdwatchers to eBird, an online database. Results were published Wednesday in the science journal PLoS ONE.

The study focused on 18 species, all commonly found across the East. It analyzed when the birds arrived at various points on their migrations. On average, each species reached stopping points 0.8 days earlier for each degree Celsius of
increased spring temperature. But some species arrived up to three to six days early.

Timing is everything on birds' perilous journeys. Arrive too early, and no food may be available. Get there late and risk losing territory or mates.

Birds that migrate slowly, such as red-eyed vireos (right), are most likely to quicken their migratory pace as temperatures rise and slow them when readings fall, the study found. Those that typically make rapid or especially long migrations were more resistant to temperature cues -- potentially to their peril.

"They have to time it right so they can balance arriving on breeding grounds after there's no longer a risk of severe winter conditions," Hurlbert says. "If they get it wrong, they may die or may not produce as many young."

Hurlbert's coauthor was Zhongfei Liang, a former undergraduate student who helped analyze data.

Friday, February 17, 2012

North Carolina's dirty-water list released

There are a couple of ways to look at water pollution in North Carolina, detailed in a report out this week: as showing a disheartening lack of improvement or evidence that conditions aren't growing worse.

About one-third of the streams, rivers and lakes the state assessed are impaired by some form of pollution, the report says. Waterways fall on and off the impaired-water list, which is updated every two years, but that overall proportion hasn't changed in recent years.

The Catawba River basin, including most of Charlotte, has 356 miles of tributary streams on the list, mostly because they're unhealthy for aquatic life. Among them are most of Mecklenburg's creeks: McAlpine, McMullen, Irwin, Sugar and Little Sugar.

The South Fork arm of Lake Wylie makes the list for excessive copper levels. So does Lake Rhodhiss, in the upper basin, for high pH. Statewide, bacteria, chemicals, sediment and polluted stormwater are most often to blame.

Worth noting are some caveats about the list. It does not include waters for which pollution-control plans have been developed -- among them Mountain Island Lake, Charlotte's water source, which landed on the 2010 list for slight acidity. A plan crafted for the same problem in Great Smoky Mountains National Park will be applied here, the N.C. Division of Water Quality says.

The list also isn't a snapshot of all N.C. waters. Only those where pollution is expected are assessed. Those that don't meet water quality standards or support designated uses, such as supplying drinking water, are listed as impaired.

In that light, says Susan Massengale of the water-quality division, the list shows that waters aren't degrading further despite years of rapid development. New technology has been harnessed, she says, to make the stuff that comes out of discharge pipes ever cleaner.

Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman takes a dimmer view, noting that virtually all urban streams are polluted. "We need to be smarter about new development if we want our waterways to provide for us," he says.

Have your say here. The state will take public comment on the updated list through March 12.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Report questions energy from biomass

Making electricity by burning wood instead of fossil fuels can lower heat-trapping emissions, says a study out today, but not fast enough to head off worsening climatic conditions.

Expanding use of biomass in the Southeast would also mean cutting down more live trees in addition to burning waste wood, the report said, raising questions about its effect on wildlife and water quality.

The Biomass Energy Resource Center, a Vermont nonprofit focused on "community-scale" biomass energy, produced the analysis for the National Wildlife Federation and the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The study analyzed 17 existing and 22 proposed biomass facilities in seven southeastern states, including the Carolinas. The N.C. Utilities Commission ruled in 2010 that Duke Energy could use whole trees, chipped into bits and blended with coal, to help fuel its Buck power plant in Rowan County and its Lee plant in Williamston, S.C.

Researchers looked at the carbon life cycle, forest growth and wood supplies in the region.

They found that fueling commercial power plants with wood and exporting fuel pellets to Europe will produce higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, compared to fossil fuels, for up to 50 years. Levels would drop after that as regrowing forests absorb carbon released earlier.

Adding more carbon to the atmosphere from biomass could accelerate climate change impacts, said the Wildlife Federation's Julie Sibbing. David Carr of the law center says the Environmental Protection Agency should adopt a forest-to-furnace method to calculate the impact of harvesting, burning and regrowing biomass on climate and forests.

The Forest Guild and Spatial Informatics Group partnered with the Biomass Energy Resource Center on the study.