This commentary was co-authored by Jennifer Roberts, former Charlotte Mayor; Tiffany Fant, a visionary architect of SolNation; and Nakisa Glover, founder and executive director of SolNation, a movement created to address climate justice issues
We know climate change is affecting us here in the Charlotte region already. We only have to look around to see that spring comes earlier, there are more hot days in summer, and rain storms are getting more intense. As the air gets warmer, it can hold more moisture, and those drenching rains that have helped change our floodplains will continue to grow in frequency and intensity.
Other parts of our state have suffered even more dramatically. Looking at trends in extreme weather and natural disasters, we see the cost of these storms rising precipitously. In the 1980s, North Carolina had 11 billion-dollar disasters, but in the past decade (including 2020) we had 41. The frequency of these disasters is changing insurance rates, property values, and the ability of towns to repair their infrastructure — not to mention the loss of life that results from hurricanes, floods, mudslides, and tornadoes.
These facts and more are the reason for urgency in our country’s transition to clean, renewable, non-polluting sources of energy, such as wind and solar. Unfortunately, Duke Energy’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) shows little respect for this urgency. As a regulated utility, Duke is required by state law to file an IRP every 2 years to lay out plans for reducing its carbon footprint over the coming decades. The IRP represents only a plan, not a commitment, and is open for public comment at a (virtual) hearing on March 16. Customers can provide written comments, or email a request to speak on March 16, to IRPPublicHearing@psncuc.nc.gov (or they can call 866-380-9816). They must do so by March 11.
Although Duke plans to stop using coal by 2030, one coal-burning power plant (Cliffside 6) will switch to burning fracked gas in 2030 — methane that is a fossil fuel and is 86 times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Duke has the ability to move faster to actual clean energy, and one sentence in the IRP admits that “the inclusion of a CO2 tax…would further incentivize the expansion of additional solar resources.” (pg 41, IRP).
There is also the issue of justice. Charlotte has done a lot of hand wringing since the 2014 Harvard study that ranked us last — 50 out of 50 — in terms of upward economic mobility. But Duke Energy’s low-income customers are disproportionately energy burdened. Duke continues to get low marks for the harm that its rate structure vests on low-income customers. As reported in an EWG article this past year, “Duke does little to close the affordability gap, consistently underfunding its own programs designed to help low-income customers pay their bills. And much of the support comes not from the company but from ratepayers in the form of mandatory bill charges or voluntary donations.”
The slow pace of transition to renewables also has implications for climate justice. When it comes to harm caused by worsening impacts, Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and low-income communities suffer most. The Environmental Justice Movement began in North Carolina, after all, in 1982, when African Americans in Warren County protested the dumping of PCB-laden soil in their neighborhoods. They did not get the toxins cleaned up until nearly 20 years later.
Today we have medical data and statistics that show the long-term effects of locating coal plants, biomass facilities, coal ash ponds, and other environmental hazards near BIPOC communities: Black Americans are three times as likely to die from asthma as Whites. Neighborhoods that were redlined, concentrating Black Americans in less desirable neighborhoods, can be as much as 10-15 degrees hotter in the summer due to less green space, fewer trees, and disinvestment. Research shows that it is harder for children to learn when it is too hot, and over 40% of America’s public schools have no air conditioning. So the slower we progress on tackling global warming and our climate crisis, the more children of color will suffer.
With these injustices in mind, we are disappointed to see that Duke makes little attempt to address disparities and the energy burden to low-income communities in its IRP. In fact, the City of Charlotte’s analysis recognizes this as well, as it wrote in the comments it submitted to the Utilities Commission: “The City encourages the NCUC to prioritize racial and economic equity in its deliberations on Duke Energy’s IRP.”
We concur with the City’s analysis. We also are puzzled by Duke’s reluctance to do what so many other utilities in the U.S. are doing, which would be planning for a rapid and complete transition to clean renewables – one that does not include fossil fuels, including fracked gas. We urge the Utilities Commission to work with Duke Energy to adjust its rates and its energy mix — and to show that it cares about improving the health and lives of our BIPOC neighbors, and the health of the planet our children will inherit.
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