Duke Energy, a major corporation with near-monopoly control over North Carolina’s electric grid, has outsized influence over the state’s decarbonization plan, which is now under review. The state legislature ordered the utility commission to make a 70 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Duke Energy has submitted a plan to the commission to meet those goals, but the plan fails to take affordability and equity into full account. What’s worse: Low-wealth people aren’t required — or, in many cases, even able — to participate in the planning process. They’re shut out.
For too many low-wealth North Carolina residents, energy bills are already too high. These communities have contributed little to climate change, but they face steep increases in electricity rates as the planet heats up and storms become more frequent and severe. There is a better way forward. Helping North Carolinians buy and maintain renewable energy equipment to generate their own energy (customer-owned generation) will lower carbon emissions, reduce energy cost burdens, improve resilience, and ensure energy security for ratepayers.
That’s why we and our partners are taking action. On July 11, North Carolina Interfaith Power & Light, a faith-based environmental advocacy group in the state, filed a petition to intervene in the fight for energy justice in North Carolina. The Center for Progressive Reform supports this important step toward ensuring that low-wealth North Carolinians have reliable access to affordable electricity as the state transitions to a carbon-free economy.
Energy Costs Burdening Low-Wealth North Carolinians
Nearly 1.5 million North Carolinians are overburdened by energy costs, and some even pay more for energy than for housing. (Energy burden is the percentage of household income spent on energy costs. A household that is spending more than 6 percent of its income on energy bills is considered to have a high energy burden.) Households with higher energy burdens are disproportionately headed by low-wealth people, older adults, renters, and multigenerational families.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 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 ratepayers.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem. In 2020, 1 million North Carolina families were behind on electric, water, and sewage bills. Since pandemic utility shutoff relief has ended, these families have been forced to choose between “keeping the lights on” and food, water, and medicine. Data from the North Carolina Utilities Commission shows that, in the first quarter of 2021, utility companies shut off power for 20,000 North Carolinians a month who were unable to pay their energy bills.
Shutting Out Those at Risk of Being Shut Off
While the North Carolina legislature acknowledged the need for consultation with ratepayers, it did not require or provide any procedures for the participation of frontline communities. Fossil Free NC gave the Carbon Plan an “F” in leading to fair and affordable rates because there is “nothing specific in the carbon plan to address affordability.”
In January, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper sought to address the racial and economic inequities of the proposed energy transition through Executive Order 246, which outlines procedural steps and public consultations state agencies must take in their attempts to incorporate environmental justice concerns. Yet, the Duke Energy Carbon Plan proceedings have been inaccessible for utility customers, particularly for low-wealth people and Spanish-speaking communities that face additional barriers to participation.
North Carolina Must Support Low-Wealth Ratepayers
That’s why the Campaign for Energy Justice in North Carolina is pressing Duke Energy and the North Carolina Utilities Commission to:
Join our campaign to promote the participation of underserved and overburdened low-wealth communities in the Duke Energy Carbon Plan. Attend a public hearing this month on the Duke Energy Carbon Plan. Submit a comment to the North Carolina Utilities Commission. And subscribe to our newsletter and follow the Center on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram.