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Price Shocks and Energy Costs Burden North Carolinians, but Solutions Are at Hand

Climate Justice Energy Environmental Justice North Carolina

On the 16th of every month, I dread it: opening my Duke Energy bill.

After the shock of seeing our first electric bill of $182 back in October 2022, I knew we were in for a long winter. I thought I was imagining bills going up every month, but it’s not all in my head. In December 2022, Duke Energy rates where I live in Asheville, North Carolina, rose 10 percent due to increased fuel costs.

I’m in a privileged position, but the price hike still hurts.

Relative to the demographics of Buncombe County (with a per capita income of around $36,000 in 2021), I’m well off. I work for a living wage-certified employer (shoutout to the Center for Progressive Reform!) and live in a dual-income home. I have low-interest student loans and relatively affordable health care.

But our electric bills will keep rising unless we press the state’s utility commission to take action. The North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC) regulates the state’s monopoly electric utility provider, Duke Energy, which recently asked the commission to allow it to increase electric rates by 18 percent over three years.

I’m nervous NCUC will approve these rate hikes given the recent price increases in Florida. An average residential customer could see a $115 monthly bill spike up to $134 — around $250 extra per year, including in my household.

That’s $250 I won’t be able to spend on other necessities like groceries or medications. And households with far lower wealth than mine will inevitably suffer the most. With more money spent on electric bills, some families will have fewer funds for child care, rent, or keeping their homes warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Already, millions of North Carolinians face high energy bills; nearly 20 percent of residents were unable to pay their electric bills at least once in 2021. Black and Latino customers, as well as people who live in multi-family and rental households, mobile and manufactured homes, urban areas, and low-value housing, already face high “energy burdens” — the share of their income that goes to electricity and gas. I fear their burden will only intensify as rates increase.

A better way

There is a better way. We can ensure that all North Carolina residents can both afford their electricity and invest in cleaner, more equitable solar energy.

The solution: customer-owned solar electricity generation (think solar panels on residential properties and subscriptions to community solar projects).

The Center launched a Campaign for Energy Justice last year to help ensure that all people have reliable access to clean, affordable electricity as our state decarbonizes and our climate changes. As part of that effort, we are releasing a policy brief today that outlines recommendations the state can take to encourage customer-owned generation, particularly among low-wealth people. While focused on North Carolina, it has lessons for energy justice advocates in other states, too.

The brief — Power to the People: Advancing Energy Equity via Customer-Owned Electricity Generation —  recommends the following proposals:

  • Use retail rates for “net metering” (whereby people who generate their own energy are compensated for electricity they transfer to utility companies) for all households, especially low-wealth households.
  • Incentivize low-wealth people to generate their own electricity on their own properties or in their own communities.
  • Create structural conditions that promote a vibrant, competitive energy marketplace.

If adopted, these recommendations would allow more customers in the state, particularly low-wealth customers, to benefit from their own energy production. Customers who own their own energy production systems build wealth as they reduce spending on energy bills and can even sell excess energy produced back to the grid. Because solar energy is a renewable resource, it has the added benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving the environmental and public health of communities. Clean, affordable solar energy is power — and a win-win!

To learn more about the Center’s Campaign for Energy Justice, read our paper, watch the recording of our related March 30 webinar, visit our campaign webpage, subscribe to our email list, and follow us on social media.

Climate Justice Energy Environmental Justice North Carolina

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