Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Duke Energy silent on ALEC ties

Duke Energy isn't saying whether it's a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, the conservative, state-level policy group that is a frequent target of the left.

The British newspaper The Guardian released internal documents last week that list Duke as a lapsed ALEC member. ALEC counts as members nearly one-third of North Carolina's Republican-led legislature, including House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius, the documents show.

Duke won't confirm or deny being a member. Duke has supported ALEC's past events, including spending $50,000 to sponsor a 2012 meeting in Charlotte, and might do so again, says spokesman Tom Williams.

All six of the states in Duke's territory -- the Carolinas, Florida, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky -- have Republican-majority legislatures, Williams notes, and five have Republican governors.

"It's all about having a seat at the table as discussions are held, and sometimes supporting things and sometimes not," Williams says.

Greenpeace and other groups say Duke's status matters because of ALEC's positions on renewable energy. Among them is a proposal that, critics say, would make it more expensive for owners of rooftop solar panels to pay utilities to use the electric grid.

"Duke's customers deserve to know whether their utility stands with an organization that plans to attack homeowners in North Carolina who have installed solar panels," Greenpeace researcher Connor Gibson said by e-mail. Duke's membership would "prove," he said that the utility supports the ALEC proposal.

ALEC lost support following the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida last year for its support of "stand-your-ground" laws.

Dozens of bills introduced in the N.C. legislature this year, including measures on voter identification and private school vouchers, reflected the group's positions, Raleigh's News & Observer has reported.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Fewer Charlotte commuters get to work by car

A slightly smaller proportion of metro Charlotteans is commuting by car as working from home, public transit use and biking increase, says a new study based on federal transportation and census data.

The study was commissioned by the NCPIRG Education Fund, a Raleigh-based consumer group. The group declared the results, which showed an overall drop in miles traveled by vehicles, to mean "the driving boom is over." It urged policy makers to invest more heavily in public transit and biking.

The proportion of commuters using cars dropped in 99 of the 100 largest U.S. cities in recent years, the report says. That included a 3.4 percent drop in metro Charlotte between 2000 and the period of 2007-11, the ninth-largest decrease nationwide.

Public transit passenger-miles transit increased in a majority of cities, including Charlotte. So did biking, although Charlotte showed little recent change. Every metro area showed an increase in employees working from home.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Doubts grow on man-made climate change

Mecklenburg County residents are becoming more dubious about man-made climate change even as scientists become more sure of it, the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute's annual survey shows.

Three out of four residents still believe climate change is a serious problem. But the number who say it's not a problem has doubled since 2012, to 14 percent, the survey shows.

UNC Charlotte Urban Institute 2013 Annual Survey data
And while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in September raised its confidence that humans are the main driver of warming to 95 percent, Mecklenburg finds that proposition less convincing.

Fewer than 40 percent of those surveyed blame human activity, significantly lower than the 45.5 percent who said so in 2012.

A Pew Research Center poll in June found Americans generally less concerned about climate change than people in the rest of the world.

The Urban Institute quotes assistant earth-science professor Manda Adams, who studies the interaction between weather, climate and energy systems, as saying "there's still a lot of confusion in the general public" about climate change.

Most climate scientists, she notes, no longer debate causes. Instead, she says, they focus on the "lots of little parts that we don't have an understanding of yet."

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Rates could save customers millions, analysts say

Customers of Duke Energy Progress could save $50 million a year by switching to a little-used rate, says a Wilmington firm that audits and analyzes utility rates.

Utility Management Services says most residential customers with electric bills of more than about $125 a month can save money on the R-TOUD, or time-of-use, rate schedule. The schedule charges more for electricity during weekday high-demand periods and much less at night and on weekends, when there is less demand for electricity.

Most large-use customers realize a net savings -- equal to about one month's bill -- over a 12-month period, according to UMS' analysis. Duke Progress serves Eastern North Carolina and the Asheville area.

Here's the catch: Duke Progress is phasing out R-TOUD for new customers on Nov. 30, and will replace it with a new time-of-use schedule that UMS says won't save customers as much money.

But Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks says the new schedule, R-TOU, has changes that customers will like.

Under the old schedule's on-peak/ off-peak prices, he said, some customers could see their bills actually go up. That happened if they weren't careful to run high-demand appliances such as the dishwasher or clothes dryer at night or weekend off-peak hours.

"The key to any time-of-use rate is aligning habits to the benefits of the rate," Brooks said.

The new schedule's peak, shoulder and off-peak times are intended to send "price signals" that motivate customers to pay attention to their energy use. Those who don't will not end up paying more than if they used a standard rate. "The flexibility will be more attractive to customers," Brooks said.

R-TOUD has been around for 30 years but has only 30,000 customers. Utility Management Services says another 500,000 customers could save money by using the rate.

The company's founder, Brian Coughlin, testified as an expert witness on behalf of business customers during Duke Progress' rate hearing before the N.C. Utilities Commission.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Duke CEO among Fortune's 50 "most powerful women"

Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good, who took over leadership of the nation's largest regulated utility on July 1, has made Fortune's list of the 50 most powerful women in business.

Good landed at No. 16 on the list, just behind business stars including Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg (No. 5) and Meg Whitman of Hewlett Packard (No. 9). She's the highest-ranked new member of the 50-woman club.

Fortune writes that Duke's former chief financial officer, 54, was elevated to "to steady the ship after Duke's merger with Progress Energy, executive departures and an investigation (actually two) into whether misled state regulators about management of the combined company."

Good succeeded former CEO Jim Rogers, who will retire as chairman of Duke at the end of the year. Rogers agreed to retire as part of Duke's settlement of the merger investigation by the N.C. Utilities Commission. Lead director Ann Maynard Gray will replace Rogers.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Federal judge says coal ash needs regulation

In a partial victory for two North Carolina advocacy groups, among several others, a federal judge has ruled that the government needs to regulate coal ash.

The order was signed Monday by Judge Reggie Walton in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. It grants in part a claim by 11 advocacy groups including Appalachian Voices of Boone, Asheville's French Broad Riverkeeper and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which operates in the Carolinas.

The groups say the order "marks the first step toward federally enforceable safeguards, monitoring and protections against coal ash."

Their lawsuit, filed in 2012, sought to force the Environmental Protection Agency to write new regulations for coal ash, the power plant byproduct that's been the focus of lawsuits against Charlotte-based Duke Energy.

The groups contend EPA has failed for more than 30 years to regulate ash. The issue burst into national consciousness in 2008, when a rupture at a TVA plant in Tennessee spilled 1 billion gallons of ash over 300 acres.

Worries about contamination of Mountain Island Lake, Charlotte's water supply, groundwater and other waters -- publicized by the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation and other advocates -- pushed the state of North Carolina this summer to sue Duke Energy over ash violations.

EPA, meanwhile, proposed federal regulations on ash in 2010 but has not enacted them.

This week's terse order rules in favor of the environmental groups' claims that EPA violated the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which governs solid and hazardous wastes, by failing to review the impact of ash on water and air quality.

The court ruled for the EPA on two other claims on review of standards that define hazardous waste. Environmental advocates say ash should be listed as hazardous because of the potentially toxic heavy metals it contains. The power industry says such a classification would raise the costs of handling ash by billions of dollars.

The court is expected to expand on the order within 30 days.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Interactive water-quality maps posted

The N.C. Division of Water Resources has created nine interactive maps that locate facilities or activities with water-quality permits.

The maps give the locations and descriptions of sites such as hog farms, municipal and industrial wastewater treatment systems, and stormwater facilities.

The maps can be searched by location, permit type, facility name, permit number and status, county or administrative region and river basin.

The maps complement the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources' Permit Application Tracker, which lets viewers follow pending environmental permit applications.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Summer interns power Carolinas energy sector

Energy firms in the Carolinas put about 600 interns to work this summer, creating a pathway for new entries into an aging workforce, says the two-state trade association E4 Carolinas.

Internships and cooperative education assignments give students a peek into prospective careers and let employers evaluate potential hires. There's some urgency to internship programs that span Charlotte area's largest energy companies, including Duke Energy, Westinghouse and ABB.

E4 quotes the Center for Energy Workforce Development as reporting that 46 percent of the industry's workforce -- 200,000 workers nationally -- might have to be replaced by 2015 as baby-boomers retire.

Many companies say they have a hard time finding qualified people for skilled positions. U.S. children, meanwhile, are lagging in science and math.

Carolinas companies say internships help close that gap by giving them a pipeline to talent.

Siemens Energy in Charlotte is known for its innovative partnership with Central Piedmont Community College and the Centralina Workforce Development Board to train new workers. SCANA's nuclear program hires 40 percent of its interns.

"Internship programs serve as outstanding human resources marketing tools," E4 quotes Joan Espinosa, who heads HR in North America for Charlotte-based SGL Group. "A positive experience with the company gives us a unique insight into what is coming out of the universities."

Friday, August 23, 2013

McCrory signs 'job-promoting' enviro bill

Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill Friday to cut "burdensome regulation" that dissolves the state's water-quality division, relaxes groundwater standards and places a moratorium on local environmental rules.

McCrory had hinted he might veto the Regulatory Reform Act. Instead he signed it nearly a month after the bill landed on his desk and two days before a veto deadline.

Environmental pieces of the bill:

-- Require state agencies to review rules every 10 years to judge whether they're still in the public interest. Rules that are not reviewed will expire.

-- Let billboard operators take down trees outside defined cut zones on freeway ramps in order to make their signs more visible.

-- Ban until October 2014 new, local environmental ordinances on issues that state or federal laws also address -- unless the ordinances are adopted unanimously.

-- Extend the "compliance boundary" for groundwater contamination violations, previously 500 feet from the source, to the owner's property line. Existing compliance boundaries won't change. Duke Energy, which has been sued by the state over coal-ash pollution, and its critics disagree on whether the change will benefit the company.

-- Combines the N.C. Division of Water Quality, which policed water pollution, with the N.C. Division of Water Resources. Their combined staffs are expected to be about 15 percent smaller as the streamlined division adopts a customer-friendly approach to regulation.

Monday, August 12, 2013

DENR to see jump in "exempt" jobs

North Carolina's environment secretary, John Skvarla, scrambled late Friday to explain to his staff a big jump in the number whose jobs will be defined as "exempt," meaning they can be fired without cause or appeal.

House Bill 834, now on Gov. Pat McCrory's desk, increases from 1,000 to 1,500 the number of exempt positions in state government. "Exempt" includes managers deemed to be vital to the enterprise, but the term also embraces policy-makers who are supposed to carry out the governor's agenda.

Raleigh's WRAL reported that exempt positions at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources would rise from 24 under former Gov. Bev Perdue's term to 167 under McCrory -- the biggest jump among the eight departments affected by the bill.

Environmental advocates say the move will force top DENR officials to toe the Republican-dominated legislature's view of regulations as job-killers. The legislature has cut budgeting and moved whole divisions out of DENR.

Skvarla, in an after-hours email Friday to DENR staff members whose jobs will become exempt, called it a "badge of distinction of which you should be proud."

"It was always silly to pretend that only 30 or so people in a department of nearly 4,000 were making managerial decisions," he wrote. "DENR has more than 600 managers, and the majority of those carry the responsibility necessary to operate our agency."

Skvarla says management changes will be based on "competency, efficiency, performance and changing requirements, not based on politics."

The exempt-jobs news came after legislators last month dissolved the Division of Water Quality, which polices water pollution, and rolled it into the Division of Water Resources. The change is expected to trim the combined staff by about 15 percent as top managers adopt a "customer-friendly" regulatory approach.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

UNC to Duke Energy: Include us in renewables rate

The 17-campus University of North Carolina system wants in on the renewable-energy rate Duke Energy has proposed for large energy users such as data farms.

In a letter to new Duke CEO Lynn Good this week, UNC president Tom Ross notes that system's goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. But 3 percent annual growth in the system's footprint makes that target a challenge, Ross writes.

Duke said in April it would seek a new rate structure for large customers to boost development of renewable energy. The news came as Google announced a $600 million expansion of its Lenoir data center.

Ross' letter, provided by Greenpeace, said UNC likes the idea and could become "a potentially significant customer" of the new rate class. He asks that the university system be allowed input into the rate design before it's submitted to the N.C. Utilities Commission.

Duke spokesman Randy Wheeless said the tariff will be filed with the commission in the next few weeks. UNC "would definitely fit the profile" of potential customers, he said.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Greensboro takes Duke Energy tree complaint to regulators

Continuing a dust-up that began months ago, the city of Greensboro this week filed a formal complaint about Duke's tree-trimming practices with the North Carolina Utilities Commission.

Residents of some of the city's oldest, leafiest neighborhoods began complaining last December that Duke was over-pruning trees that could hit power lines. So many complaints poured in that Duke, under threat of legal action by the city, agreed to a temporary halt to work out their differences.

"Vegetation management," as utilities call it, is a hot-wire because it can disfigure trees. Utilities say it's necessary to reduce power outages.

In June, after months of meetings, Greensboro's city council adopted a new ordinance regulating tree-trimming by utilities. But the measure didn't resolve all issues, and Duke and the city agreed to take their differences to the Utilities Commission.

The city wants Duke to remove large wood trimmings when property owners ask; agree to a local appeals process; apply pruning standards citywide; and shorten the period between trimmings to four to five years, making them less severe.

Duke hasn't yet replied to the city's complaint.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

NC budget fires Environmental Management Commission

North Carolina's base appropriations budget, ratified Thursday, fires all current members of the state's environmental rule-making board effective next Wednesday.

The move gives Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republican-led legislature, which has targeted environmental regulation as a drag on business, a clean slate to remake the powerful Environmental Management Commission. The commission is charged with adopting rules protecting air and water resources.

The budget pares the commission's 19 members to 15, nine appointed by the governor and six by legislators. It retains most of the specialty positions on the board, such as experts in air and water pollution, biology, agriculture and manufacturing.

McCrory named Charlotte attorney Benne Hutson, whose term was scheduled to end in mid-2014, as EMC chairman effective July 8. Ten members' terms expired June 30.

The budget also fires all but four members of the 15-member Coastal Resources Commission, which adopts rules and policies on coastal development.

Expertise to be represented on the board would continue to include coastal development, engineering, agriculture, fishing and forestry. The board will no longer have designated seats for marine ecology and conservation.

The legislation also pares the state Clean Water Management Trust Fund board from 21 to nine members, but adds language charging the board with land preservation in addition to protecting water resources. The fund had been the state's largest conservation grant source until recent years, when appropriations to it were slashed.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Charlotte commuters drive more than most Americans

Charlotte-area commuters log 1,000 more miles a year and urbanites use public transit half as much as average Americans, says an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

That pattern means local commuters spend some $350 more a year on driving than most Americans, says the analysis of National Household Travel Survey data.

The NRDC's point in all this, of course, is that drivers could save money -- and carbon emissions -- by using transit, carpooling and combining trips more often. Urban commuters in the Charlotte area could save $931 and rural residents $2,163 a year if they took transit, it found.

Shannon Binns, executive director of the nonprofit Sustain Charlotte, said "it is critical that we expand our transit system while also encouraging more carpooling, telecommuting, and moving closer to work, if possible."

In that vein, officials broke ground Thursday for the Lynx Blue Line light-rail extension from uptown to UNC Charlotte. The 9.3-mile line is expected to open in 2017.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Duke gets thumbs-up on endangered fish

The National Marine Fisheries Service says Duke Energy's Catawba River hydroelectric dams won't snuff out two endangered fish species, inching Duke toward a new, 50-year license to manage the river.

Shortnose sturgeon
The fisheries service's final biological opinion says Duke's 11 dams "is likely to adversely affect but is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of shortnose sturgeon and Atlantic sturgeon." That's good news for Duke, whose hydro license expired in 2008 and has operated on yearly extensions since then.

An ancient species, sturgeon swim upriver to spawn but can't get past dams. The fisheries service estimates their adult spawning populations at only about 300 of each species.

Duke has agreed to start trapping two other migratory species, American shad and blueback herring, and truck them around its Wateree Dam in South Carolina by 2018. The trapping system isn't supposed to capture sturgeon.

Duke says it's reviewing the fisheries service opinion, which has been years in coming. But it still has to resolve legal issues in South Carolina.

The S.C. Court of Appeals ruled last December that state environmental officials had not missed a deadline to oppose a water-quality permit Duke also needs to renew the federal license. Duke asked the S.C. Supreme Court in June to review that ruling.

Once those issues are resolved, Catawba licensing manager Mark Oakley said last month, Duke expects the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to take about six months to review the license. If the review begins this summer, Duke could finally have its license in the first quarter of 2014.

Approval will unleash millions of dollars in recreational improvements and land conservation Duke promised in negotiating the license terms.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Air study looks at the Southeast's cooling trend

Part of the largest U.S. air-quality field study in decades is examining whether human-caused pollution and natural chemical emissions explain a cooling trend in the leafy Southeast.

The Southern Oxidant and Aerosol Study began last month and runs through July 15. It's part of a five-pronged air study that will deploy airplanes and ground-based instruments from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic.

The study will look at how interactions between natural and human-made emissions affect air quality -- and how they relate to climate change. Unlike much of the world, the Southeast has seen a cooling trend over the past century.

The region saw a warm period during the 1920s to 1940s, says the U.S. Global Change Research Program, followed by a downward trend through the 1960s. Temperatures have been rising again since the 1970s.

Pollutants interact with volatile organic compounds that come from plants, turning them into airborne particles called aerosols. So-called black aerosols absorb solar radiation and warm up temperatures. But lighter-colored ones, typical of the Southeast, reflect sunlight and have a cooling effect.

Light aerosols have a dark side. They can make ground-level ozone -- which cities such as Charlotte and Atlanta have wrestled with for decades -- worse.

The larger study is supported by the National Science Foundation, Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Electric Power Research Institute, with researchers from 30 U.S. and international institutions.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Rogers' radio interview goes silent

A funny thing happened, says public radio reporter Alex Chadwick, during his interview about the nation's electric grid with Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers: The power went out.
It happened during taping of an hour-long special called "The Switch" that will air on Charlotte's WFAE at 7 p.m. Sunday. The apparently brief outage, Rogers quickly pointed out, wasn't Duke's fault.
The special is part of "Burn: An Energy Journal," hosted by Chadwick. It's about the aging, over-capacity electric grid, which transmits energy from power plants to consumers and most people don't think about until the lights go out.
Chadwick was in a Los Angeles studio, recording Rogers at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., when, Chadwick says in the piece, the connection went "boom."
Rogers set the record straight once power was restored. "I want the record to reflect that the power hit you just took had nothing to do with Duke Energy," he laughed. Duke doesn't serve either city.
Rogers went on to describe the grid as an engineering marvel "because it enables virtually everything else. It's the great enabler."
He'll give up CEO duties at Duke on Sunday, remaining as chairman through the end of the year.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Duke Energy 8th in solar power

The nation's largest electric utility, Duke Energy, comes in eighth among holding companies for solar-energy capacity, the Solar Electric Power Association reports.

Duke's regulated operations have a combined solar capacity of 183 megawatts, most of it bought from other companies. San Francisco-based PG&E Corp., parent of Pacific Gas and Electric, led the list with 1,569 megawatts.

Duke Energy Progress, which serves much of eastern North Carolina, the Asheville area and parts of South Carolina, ranked eighth for the growth of its solar installations last year. It has 94 megawatts of solar capacity while Duke Energy Carolinas, serving Charlotte and the western Carolinas, has 77 megawatts. Duke has 12 megawatts of solar in Florida.

Duke Energy Renewables, an unregulated subsidiary, owns more than 100 megawatts of utility-scale solar, including 15 projects in five states. The power they produce is sold to other utilities.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Feds deny late entry into Alcoa hydro relicensing

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission won't let a New Hampshire private equity fund join the Alcoa hydro relicensing case on the Yadkin River.

As recounted in today's Observer, New Energy Capital Partners made a late -- like six years late -- bid to intervene in Alcoa's bid for a new license to control four dams on 38 miles of the Yadkin.

The fund claimed Alcoa's intention was to secure the new license and flip the Yadkin project, as it did last year with a hydro project in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee that sold for nearly $600 million. Alcoa doesn't deny Yadkin could be sold at some point.

New Energy proposed an alternative. A public agency or the fund itself could buy Alcoa's assets and somehow, eventually, transfer them back to public ownership. It offered no details on the mechanics of such a move.

But FERC's order says the fund didn't show the "good cause" needed to allow late interventions.

With backing from Stanly County, its dogged rival for control of the Yadkin (the two settled their differences this month), Alcoa needs only a North Carolina water-quality certification for FERC to approve the new license.


Monday, May 13, 2013

AG Cooper, Public Staff disagree over Duke rate hike case

Attorney General Roy Cooper said he was standing up for consumers when he challenged Duke Energy's 2012 rate hike, and won. Last month the state Supreme Court sent the case back to the N.C. Utilities Commission to better assess the 7.2 percent hike's impact on customers during a sour economy.

But Cooper apparently won't get any help from the state's other consumer advocates -- the commission's Public Staff.

Days after the high court ruled, Cooper wrote Robert Gruber, the Public Staff's longtime executive director. The court order, he said, meant Gruber's staff no longer had to defend a settlement agreement with Duke that formed the basis for the rate hike.

"We strongly believe that ... the Utilities Commission cannot simply go back and add a few sentences to its decision to justify the return on equity and the rate increase that the court has just reversed," Cooper wrote. "In fact, we believe the commission must consider new evidence on consumer impact in order to provide the analysis that the Supreme Court now requires."

In a 1998 remand, involving a natural gas utility, the commission allowed parties to the case to offer new evidence and held an additional hearing. Cooper has asked the commission to put Duke's rate increase on hold until the current issue is settled; Duke has argued against that.

But Gruber, who will retire June 30 after 30 years on the job, was having no part of walking away from the settlement agreement.

The agreement cut Duke's increase by more than half, he noted in a response to Cooper, and spread it evenly across all customer classes. It also deferred $51 million in revenue Duke had sought for its Cliffside power plant construction and required Duke to donate $11 million to help low-income customers -- provisions that the commission itself could not have independently ordered.

"If the Public Staff abandoned the settlement in light of the Supreme Court's decision, as you suggest we do, these benefits would be in jeopardy and consumers could face even higher rates as a result," Gruber responded to Cooper. "....Our intention now is to fulfill our statutory obligations by assisting the commission in this process, while striving to preserve the substantial benefits to consumers achieved in the settlement."

Monday, April 15, 2013

Duke Energy paid no federal income taxes in 2012

Just in time for Tax Day comes word that the nation's largest electric utility, Duke Energy, paid no federal income taxes on last year's profit of nearly $1.8 billion.

Duke instead got a $46 million rebate in 2012, says N.C. Policy Watch, a project of the anti-poverty group N.C. Justice Center. Last week's blog post cites previous work on corporate taxation and off-shoring of profits by Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Duke says it and other large companies are simply following the tax guidance in the federal government's 2008 economic stimulus package. Duke also accelerated $9 billion in spending to replace old power plants and upgrade other infrastructure, creating "tens of thousands" of temporary and permanent jobs, it says.

Much of Duke's tax treatment relied on deferrals related to accelerated depreciation, Citizens for Tax Justice has reported. That's allowed Duke to take in $299 million in federal rebates despite profits of $9.1 billion between 2008 and 2012, for a negative tax rate of 3.3 percent, Policy Watch calculates.

"If Duke wants to get serious about living up to its claims about what it is and what it stands for and begin to repair its tarnished image, it would do well to begin by paying its federal income taxes," Policy Watch writes, referring to state investigations of Duke's merger with Progress Energy.

Duke will ultimately have to pay the deferred federal taxes, spokesman Tom Williams said. Duke also paid $402 million in property and other utility non-income taxes in North Carolina in 2012, the company said.

Friday, April 5, 2013

New air rules would hurt coal power, study says

Tougher federal air standards could further tilt U.S. electric power away from coal fuel and toward natural gas, says a Duke University study published online this week.

Utilities including Duke Energy are fast moving toward gas as prices drop, retiring older coal-burning plants rather than fit them with new pollution controls.

The cost of complying with stricter air regulations could make nearly two-thirds of the nation's coal-fired power plants as expensive to run as those fueled by natural gas, the study found. That would be true even if gas prices rise to four times coal's cost, it says.

Duke Energy Carolinas' latest 20-year generation plan forecasts a 45 percent drop in coal use by 2032 and an 86 percent increase in natural gas. Duke Carolinas is retiring 38 coal-fired units in its territory.

The Energy Information Administration released this graph Friday. It shows that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2012 were the lowest in the United States since 1994.

The Duke study was published in the online edition of Environmental Science & Technology. The study is behind a pay wall, but here's the abstract. The lead author is Lincoln Pratson, a professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, with Drew Haerer and Dalia Patino-Echeverri.

Friday, March 22, 2013

McCrory's budget slices conservation funds

Gov. Pat McCrory's first budget cuts conservation funding so deeply it could affect the state's economy, says Land for Tomorrow, a coalition of pro-conservation groups.

The proposed budget cuts:

-- The Clean Water Management Trust Fund to $6.75 million from $10.75 million this year, and includes an appropriation only for the first year of the biennial budget. The grandaddy of North Carolina conservation funds, Clean Water once got $100 million a year.

-- The state Parks and Recreation Trust Fund to $15.5 million from $27.5 million.

-- The Natural Heritage Trust Fund to $4.23 million from $9.9 million. The budget also removes the fund's dedicated funding, a portion of the deed stamp tax.

Advocates have pointed lately to conservation spending's effects on the North Carolina economy, including the creation of new state parks, 250,000 acres of state gamelands and protection of the borders of Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune.

"The creation and consistent funding of North Carolina's conservation trust funds have been the result of bipartisan leadership over the past 25 years," said Katherine Skinner, executive director of the Nature Conservancy in the state. “These land protection successes have played a major
role in the state’s economy – boosting agriculture, the military, tourism, forestry, hunting,
fishing and outdoor recreation. As our economy continues to recover, we need to
continue a strong investment in these economic drivers. Gov. McCrory’s proposed
budget doesn’t reflect the level of investment needed to carry us forward.”

Stay tuned for how legislators respond.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

NC was 5th-largest solar market in 2012

North Carolina was the fifth-busiest state for solar installations in 2012, says an annual industry analysis, and now ranks No. 6 in total solar capacity.

California became the first state to install more than 1,000 megawatts in a single year, said the analysis by GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association. Nationally, the market size of the U.S. solar industry grew a record 34 percent in 2012.

North Carolina trailed only California, Arizona, New Jersey and Nevada in installing 132 megawatts last year, enough to supply about 22,000 homes. The state now has a total of 229 megawatts installed, good for sixth-place nationally, the report says.

Falling prices for solar components get credit for the strong growth, but so does North Carolina's renewable-energy portfolio standard. The law forces utilities to get some of their power from the sun and created new markets for solar developers.

Regardless, Republican state legislators filed a measure Wednesday that would gut the standard.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Bill introduced to kill NC renewable-energy standard

A measure to eliminate North Carolina's renewable-energy standard, the first in the Southeast when it was adopted in 2007, was introduced in the N.C. House Wednesday.

House majority whip Mike Hager, a Rutherford County Republican and former Duke Energy engineer, was among the bill's primary sponsors.

Hager had targeted the law for "picking winners and losers" in the energy marketplace. He's said the law unfairly forces consumers to subsidize renewable energy, which costs more to produce than traditional energy forms.

At the end of 2012, Duke Energy Carolinas, which serves Charlotte, was charging residential customers 22 cents a month to recover its costs of complying with the law. Progress Energy Carolinas, serving the state's eastern half and Asheville, charged 41 cents a month.

The N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, which represents the renewables industry, calls the portfolio standard "the first real opportunity for clean energy companies to compete with the utilities and offer consumers a choice."

The association says the standard has had too powerful an economic impact to destroy. Its 2012 jobs census found the equivalent of 15,200 employees working for 1,100 energy-related companies that pull in $3.7 billion a year.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Ban on limiting greenhouse gases before Senate committee

A measure that bans state agencies or local governments from regulating greenhouse gases comes before a North Carolina Senate committee today.

The bill, sponsored by Republican senators Brent Jackson, Andrew Brock and Jim Davis, allows limits only if they're required by federal law. Jackson, who's from Sampson County, and Brock of Davie County co-chair the Senate Agriculture / Environment / Natural Resources Committee, which meets this morning. [Update at 12:50 p.m.: The bill was pulled from the committee agenda.]

It's not immediately clear what impact the bill would have it becomes law.

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx signed the city to a U.S. Conference of Mayors climate-protection agreement in 2009, committing the city to curbing greenhouse-gas emissions. But the city hasn't set a firm reduction goal.

The North Carolina Sierra Club says the bill is so sweeping it's hard to know whether it would apply to cases in which greenhouse gases are collected for purposes unrelated to climate change, such as methane capture at landfills.

But Sierra notes that Duplin County, in Jackson's district, is also the planned site of a 100-megawatt solar farm that would be by far the state's largest.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Wind farm energy might be over-estimated

Wind farms of the sort dotting the Plains states might have markedly less generating capacity than previously assumed, a UNC Charlotte researcher has found.

New research by UNCC's Amanda Adams and David Keith of Harvard University says the drag of large clusters of turbines slows wind enough to curb farms' generating capacity.

Conventional estimates have assumed large wind farms can sustain production of 2 and 4 watts per square meter. New atmospheric modeling by Adams and Keith show it's more likely limited to about 1 watt per square meter at farms larger than 100 square kilometers.

Their research was published Monday in the journal Environmental Research Letters. It was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, which reports to Canada's Parliament.

"It's easy to mistake the term 'renewable' with the term 'unlimited' when discussing energy," Adams said in a UNCC release. "Just because you can keep generating new energy from a sources does not mean you can generate energy in an unlimited amount."

Adams' research group focuses on the interface of energy, weather and climate. Densely-placed wind turbines can also have environmental impacts, her research found, including low-level warming when wind farms change natural wind shear and produce turbulence.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Senate bill could backfire on Charlotte

The North Carolina Senate's move to purge members of three state energy and environmental commissions could upset the Charlotte region's plan to meet a federal smog standard.

The region's air quality meets the ozone standard set in 1997, according to smog readings. But the Environmental Protection Agency wants the state to make a last tweak to its air-quality rules before officially designating it in compliance.

That's where Senate Bill 10, which would replace all members of the state's Environmental Management Commission, comes into play. The N.C. Division of Air Quality held a hearing on the rule change EPA wants in January, and the commission is expected to make it final in March.

A change in the EMC's membership -- terms would end when the bill is adopted -- could throw off that schedule. If the rule is not adopted and the EPA designation isn't completed, a hot, smoggy spring and summer could conceivably put Charlotte back in violation of the air standard.

"Not fixing this could affect a lot of small businesses," that might face stricter regulations if the city violates the standard, said Mecklenburg County air-quality chief Don Willard. Federal transportation funding could also be blocked if the region violates the standard.

"It would be nice if this were a non-issue," Willard said.

State environmental officials had nothing to say about Senate Bill 10's potential effects on Charlotte. My questions to the Division of Air Quality were routed to an assistant secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, who referred them to a department spokesman, who told me to call Gov. Pat McCrory's spokeswoman.

But lawyer and blogger Robin Smith, a former assistant environment secretary who left DENR in December, agreed with Willard that Charlotte could get caught in a timing crunch on the smog standard. Smith also raised other issues with Senate Bill 10, related to conflicts of interest among EMC members.

The bill deletes existing language that says at least nine EMC members must have get no significant income from entities the commission regulates. That language existed partly, Smith says, to meet federal requirements for permitting programs delegated to the state under the federal Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.

"Complete repeal of the language may cause EPA to question North Carolina compliance with federal rules governing those delegated programs," she wrote.

DENR, in a memo to legislators the N.C. Coastal Federation published Friday, warned of similar conflicts the bill could pose for the Coastal Resources Commission. In addition to firing the CRC's current members and deleting seats for environmentalists, the bill removes language limiting how many members may have ties to developers.

Those changes would likely have to pass muster with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which partners with the states under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act, the memo said. That partnership includes an important provision that says federal activities and permits in North Carolina's coastal counties have to be consistent with state policies.

"In any case, the proposed bill will result in a significant level of public review and extensive reviews by a range of state and federal agencies," the DENR memo said. 

The N.C. Senate approved Senate Bill 10 in a little more than a week. It's now before the N.C. House.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Smokies to feel sequestration's impact, group says

Great Smoky Mountains National Park will close five campgrounds and picnic areas, affecting 54,000 visitors, under the across-the-board federal spending cuts called sequestration, a parks advocacy group says.

That's from the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, which says it acquired National Park Service information. Last month, the retirees' group published an internal memo that directed NPS officials to plan for a 5 percent cut in the current year's budget.

The group says the sequestration "meat-cleaver" will cut parks' workforces, close some areas for extended periods, shut visitor centers and restrict access to backcountry areas.

In the Great Smokies, it says, reduced staff will mean less road maintenance and increased time for emergency responses to accidents, rockslides, downed trees and the like. More than 35,000 vehicles a day use heavily-traveled routes around Cades Cove and between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in Tennessee and between Gatlinburg and Cherokee.

Park spokeswoman Dana Soehn said those are among the "possible consequences" of sequestration but aren't final. The examples cited were for a planning exercise, she said.

The Great Smokies, the most-visited national park, had 9 million visitors in 2012.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Dolly Parton's ode to the American chestnut

Superstar Dolly Parton has recorded an ode to the decimated American chestnut, once the most important tree of the Appalachian forests, for the Asheville-based American Chestnut Foundation.

The tuneful "Oh, Chestnut Tree" is available as a free download on the foundation's website.

Parton, a native of eastern Tennessee, collaborated on the song with her uncle, Nashville singer-songwriter Bill Owens. Owens has been a member of the Chestnut Foundation for 25 years and helped arrange for hundreds of chestnut trees to be planted at Parton's Smoky Mountains theme park, Dollywood.

Chestnut trees provided mountain families rot-resistant lumber and a cash crop of nuts that fed people, livestock and wildlife through bitter winters. An Asian fungus accidentally imported more than a century ago spread rapidly through Eastern forests, killing four billion trees by 1950.

"The importance of the American chestnut to the Smoky Mountain region is hard to overstate, and its loss created considerable hardship," Owens says in a release about the song.

The Chestnut Foundation used a special breeding process that in 2005 produced the first blight-resistance trees. Its 16 state chapters are now planting "restoration chestnuts" throughout the East. As Parton sings, "Thank God for second chances."

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Doing the math on Duke's rate hike

Duke Energy Carolinas filed 5,012 pages of written testimony, data analyses and appendices Monday in support of its request for an overall 9.7 percent North Carolina rate hike.

Buried in all those numbers is one that's most relevant to most customers: 14 percent. That's the increase the majority of residential customers are being asked to pay.

Duke's news release said the hike, if approved by the N.C. Utilities Commission, would raise residential rates 11.8 percent. That's actually a weighted average of the five rate schedules available to residential customers, including cheaper Energy Star and time-of-use rates.

But most customers are billed under Schedule RS. According to Duke's example of the impact residential customers could expect, the typical monthly bill of $102.72 would grow by $14.27 -- a 14 percent increase.

Remember, too, that customer groups and the state's consumer advocates will pressure Duke to lower the rates it's willing to accept before the Utilities Commission votes.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Conservation as a constitutional right

Taking a new tack on conservation, the North Carolina Wildlife Federation and eight other sporting groups are telling budget-minded state legislators it's a constitutional requirement.

"North Carolina's sporting community looks forward to working with the new General Assembly to uphold the state constitution by preserving our state's natural assets," the groups say in a full-page ad in Wednesday's News & Observer.

The Charlotte-based Federation, which paid for the ad, quotes a 1971 legislative addition to the constitution that says it's a state function to "acquire and preserve park, recreational and scenic areas, (and) to control and limit the pollution of our air and water."

Legislators beginning the year's session this week will get copies of the ad and a resolution from the Wildlife Federation urging them to increase funding for the beleaguered Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which has been North Carolina's biggest source of conservation grants. Legislators last year slashed its funding to $10.7 million, 90 percent below its historic high, and made it a non-recurring budget item.

The Fund has helped create hundreds of thousands of state gamelands, said Federation CEO Tim Gestwicki, boosting a state hunting and fishing industry worth $3.3 billion a year in revenue.

"Many of the legislators are new, so we wanted to take this opportunity to let them know just how important land and water conservation is," Gestwicki said. "They are going to face some tough decisions, but this isn't one of them."