Duke Energy Carbon Plan Hearing: Authentic Community Engagement Lacking

Sophie Loeb

Aug. 4, 2022

On July 27, I had the privilege of testifying at the North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC) public hearing regarding the Duke Energy Carbon Plan. The Asheville hearing was one of six forums designated for public witness testimony on the proposed decarbonization plan.

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In 2019, North Carolina joined 34 other states investing in solar, wind, and other renewable resources when it passed its Clean Energy Power Plan, and, in 2021, when it passed House Bill 951, which commits to a 70 percent carbon reduction by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050. When Duke Energy, a major corporation with outsized influence over the state’s decarbonization plan, submitted its proposal to meet those goals, it failed to account for affordability and equity.

The company and NCUC have also not meaningfully engaged with low-wealth ratepayers in the process. These public hearings are intended to promote community engagement; however, the extent to which they have been successful in reaching low-wealth ratepayers is a point of concern. The Asheville hearing was case in point.

Prior to the hearing, local organizers and climate advocates rallied outside the Buncombe County courthouse, imploring Duke Energy toward a cleaner carbon plan grounded in renewable energy. “Tell Duke Energy we can’t breathe methane!” one organizer chanted. “We want clean, clean, clean energy! Clean energy!” the crowd sang. Among the organizers and speakers, Mary Crowe with the Indigenous Environmental Network spoke about the justice and equity concerns associated with white colonialism and climate change. There were also mentions of the disproportionate impact of Duke’s plan on low-wealth communities of color. However, the main ethos of the rally was preserving the planet through renewables, as opposed to an overarching lens of racial justice.

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Despite a significant turnout of 100 attendees, with about a third testifying, there was a noticeable lack of diverse representation across speakers. Many speakers represented clean energy businesses or nonprofit organizations. A few speakers described themselves as “climate refugees,” escaping climate hotspots like California. Many speakers were multi-generational Ashevilleans, concerned about the fate of the planet for their children and grandchildren. Most speakers were white. Very few, if any, represented the voices of overburdened communities.

In reality, low-wealth households in North Carolina are the most impacted by Duke Energy’s plan and should have a meaningful seat at the table. Low-wealth communities have high energy burdens, where a larger percentage of their income goes toward their energy costs. Low-wealth ratepayers in North Carolina, on average, spend between 8 to 10 percent of their income on energy costs. This means that North Carolina sits in the top half of states with the highest energy burden for low-wealth communities. Indeed, nearly 1.5 million North Carolinians are overburdened by energy costs. These communities, disproportionately of color, contributed little to climate change but face steep increases in electricity rates as North Carolina addresses the climate crisis. And yet low-wealth people aren’t required — or, in many cases, even able — to participate. They’re shut out.

Lamentably, this held true for the Asheville hearing. While it is not up to overburdened communities to fix a problem they didn’t create, it is up to Duke Energy and the state to actively engage with those most impacted by the company’s proposal. Representation of low-wealth communities at the hearing should have been stronger. Duke Energy can do better to authentically engage with overburdened communities.

In response to this lack of meaningful engagement, the Center for Progressive Reform’s Campaign for Energy Justice aims to ensure that:

  1. North Carolina’s transition to a clean energy economy equitably serves all North Carolinians, regardless of wealth or background.

  2. Duke Energy and NCUC improve public participation for low-wealth ratepayers and reduce barriers to substantial investments in consumer-owned/distributed energy generation, like community solar, as a resource to help low-wealth ratepayers while also achieving the state’s climate goals.

Further, the Center presses Duke Energy and the NCUC to:

  1. Educate the public about Duke’s Carbon Plan and ensure all have information needed to meaningfully participate in the rulemaking process.

  2. Reach out to low-wealth communities and communities of color and meaningfully incorporate community input.

  3. Set fair and affordable rates for low-income North Carolinians.

  4. Invest in programs to help people buy and maintain equipment to generate their own energy (customer-owned generation), all the while reducing energy burden and increasing energy security and efficiency.

  5. Adopt and implement programs that support low-income ratepayers.

As I approached the podium at 9:45 p.m., simultaneously exhausted and energized by the people power in the room, I committed the following lines of testimony to memory: “Now is the time for NCUC to act to ensure racial and economic equity and justice are centered meaningfully during every step of the process going forward. Duke Energy’s Carbon Plan is a matter of both economic and racial justice — and getting it right will ultimately strengthen our state and nation.”

Authentic community engagement is a cornerstone to achieve true environmental justice. Duke Energy can and must do better.

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