of the Duke Energy Accountability Coalition
DOCKET NO. 1, ORDER NO. 1
In the Matter of: )
Environmental and Economic Injustice: ) ORDER DEMANDING
How Duke Energy Pollutes and Punishes ) REMEDIAL ACTION TO
Low-Income Customers and ) CORRECT DECADES OF
Communities of Color ) ENVIRONMENTAL INJUSTICE
1. History of Proceeding
On Jan. 29, 2021, the People’s Commission, the oversight arm of the Duke Energy Accountability Coalition, made up of public interest, environmental and economic justice organizations, convened its first-ever hearing examining Duke Energy’s policies and practices, which have polluted and financially harmed its low-income ratepayers and communities of color throughout its vast six-state service area.
2. Synopsis of Testimony
The Commission heard testimony from noted environmental justice advocates and policy experts on how Duke, the largest investor-owned utility in the U.S., has routinely taken positions and pushed for state policies that have contaminated fenceline communities with coal ash and gas pipeline accidents, hastened the serious effects of the climate crisis, and cut off electricity to tens of thousands of ratepayers unable to pay their bills during the coronavirus pandemic, among other harmful actions.
Duke’s coal ash dumping in communities of color
Witnesses Xavier Boatright, an organizer for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, and Bobby Jones, founder of the Down East Coal Ash Environmental and Social Justice Coalition, testified to Duke Energy’s contemptible treatment of communities harmed by coal ash contamination.
Mr. Boatright described the fight to help residents near Duke’s Asheville Steam
Station, a 376-megawatt coal-fired plant that closed in January 2020; and its Rogers Energy Complex (formerly Cliffside Steam Station), a 1,387-MW coal-fired power plant, both in North Carolina. Drinking water sources near both sites have been contaminated by coal ash from the plants.
Mr. Boatright explained how many people have for years had to rely solely on bottled water provided by Duke. A number of people in both communities have suffered and died from cancer, with pollution from Duke’s coal ash pits a possible cause. In the community next to the coal plant in Cliffside, residents of all ages, including people in their teens and mid-20s, have suffered from severe heart conditions.
Mr. Boatright said:
[O]n many occasions, I witnessed myself Duke Energy tell neighbors who live within this half-mile radius of the coal plants that they were not responsible for the [drinking water] contamination and that the bottled water was just for peace of mind.
Witness Bobby Jones testified that he found similar circumstances when he and others began to organize in communities around Goldsboro, N.C., where coal ash from Duke’s H.F. Lee Energy Complex is stored.
Mr. Jones said:
As we began to work in organizing this community, we noticed so much cancer, so many people had died from cancer. We’d knock on doors, and we could not go two doors without knocking on the door where somebody would come, and either they were suffering with cancer or somebody in their family was suffering from cancer. Quite a few of their family members had died from cancer.
They [Duke Energy] lied about the retaining walls breached during Hurricane Matthew’s flooding, and that resulted in poisonous coal ash being released into the Neuse River, as well as into our community. It would not have been exposed had the Riverkeepers not had a helicopter in the air and videoing it while Duke was lying that their wall had not been breached, and they knew it had been breached, but this is just how they do business.
Atlantic Coast Pipeline
Witness Belinda Joyner, an organizer for Clean Water for North Carolina, recounted her long and ultimately successful battle to help stop Duke Energy and Dominion Energy from building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline through her community. Duke and Dominion planned to construct the 600-plus mile pipeline to transport natural gas through Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina.
But Ms. Joyner said that even though local activists were able to stop the pipeline from being completed, there is lasting harm to those communities. Duke and Dominion had begun work to clear the path for the pipeline before it was canceled, and they have left behind damage to landowners' property, environmental destruction, and legal uncertainty as they insist on retaining eminent domain rights obtained during the process.
Ms. Joyner said:
The original route of the pipeline was supposed to go through Raleigh, but when they [Duke Energy] looked at the demographics, we have the golf courses, we cannot send this through there. So what they did, they preyed – P-R-E-Y – on communities of color, low-income communities, and Northampton County is a Tier 1 county. We are below the poverty level.
Energy burden borne by Duke’s low-income ratepayers
Witness Rory McIlmoil, a senior energy analyst at Appalachian Voices, provided a detailed presentation on how Duke Energy regularly and repeatedly punishes its low-income ratepayers through high energy bills and electricity shutoffs during the coronavirus pandemic.
According to Mr. Mcllmoil, in November and December of last year, in the middle of the pandemic, Duke Energy cut off power for 29,000 families in North Carolina and another 20,000 households in Florida, putting these struggling families at even greater risk of contracting, spreading and dying from Covid-19, as they are forced to leave the shelter of their homes.
Mr. McIlmoil said:
Energy burden directly relates to energy insecurity, which describes the threat of disconnection from energy services and forgoing basic needs such as food, education and healthcare in order to keep folks’ lights on or their homes at a safe temperature. Both energy burden and insecurity are severe problems facing society and also stand as significant racial injustice issues, as they disproportionately affect Black and brown households.
Denying low-income ratepayers access to clean energy
Duke Energy has long fought attempts by residents in its service areas to make community solar a reality. Although the company regularly claims it makes sizeable investments in community solar in the Carolinas and Florida, Duke’s definition of “community solar” is very different from the version most people and other utilities ascribe to, making community solar an additional cost, rather than a savings for customers.
Duke has used its considerable resources and political clout throughout its service area to block attempts to implement real community solar programs, because it would reduce profits and put the power over energy choice into the hands of people.
Witness Zach Schalk, Indiana program director for Solar United Neighbors, described what a just and equitable expansion of community solar generation and distribution would look like for those who are now unable to access it. He highlighted the Solar for All program in Washington, D.C. The city’s intent is to reduce energy bills for 100,000 low- to moderate-income households by half by 2032.
Mr. Schalk said:
Unfortunately, many residents and businesses can’t go solar directly for any number of reasons. This means that right now, without community solar, homeowners with good roofs and good credit can benefit from distributed solar, but most other people can’t. So that is where community solar comes in.
A well-designed community solar program should deliver meaningful savings, should not use credit ratings or other restrictions to keep people from participating, should offer contracts on flexible terms with no cancellation fees, should provide support for education and outreach initiatives so that members of the community can be aware of the program and make sure they benefit, and in some cases should also offer free power as part of an intentional program designed by specific jurisdictions to guarantee access.
Responding to questions from Commissioners, Mr. Schalk emphasized that community solar is an energy equity issue, because such programs should deliver economic benefits to underserved communities beyond energy bill savings. As an additional investment in these communities, these locally focused programs should also provide solar installation job training.
3. Discussion and Findings of the Commission
Following testimony from the hearing, members of the Commission, including Chair Donna Chavis, concluded that Duke Energy has pursued years-long practices throughout its service area that have disproportionately harmed communities of color, in comparison with other communities that are majority white and more affluent.
The Commission has determined that Duke Energy is uniquely responsible for a number of persistent abuses of these underserved communities. We find that Duke should take a series of critical measures to reverse or significantly reduce the environmental and economic injustices it has inflicted upon these residents and ratepayers.
4. Commission Order
In light of Duke Energy’s continued negligence and abuse of underserved communities in its regulated territories, the Commission hereby orders that Duke Energy:
Maximize clean energy for the least cost to its ratepayers and expand low-income energy efficiency investments to a level sufficient for reducing the energy burden for those households to an affordable level.
Immediately restore electricity for all ratepayers who have had their power cut off since the state moratoriums were lifted in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Clean up all unlined, open coal ash pits at no cost to ratepayers or taxpayers.
Return land taken through eminent domain and other maneuvers for the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to landowners and spend whatever is necessary to return it to the original condition.
Implement a percentage-of-income payment plan for low-income customers across all regulated territories, based on the program adopted in Ohio.
Begin quarterly reporting on arrearages, disconnections and the company’s strategy to improve affordability for its low-income customers.
Expand funding for its low-income weatherization programs to match the revenue generated by low-income customers in each regulated territory.
Design community solar programs that target underserved communities and provide reasonable savings to customers, reduce financial barriers to participation and assist with solar installation job training.
The Duke Energy Accountability Coalition and the People’s Commission will hold a series of future hearings on these and many other issues surrounding Duke Energy’s policies, including clean energy transition, climate change, affordability, access, influence peddling and greenwashing.
Each hearing will be free and open to the public. Participants beyond the invited witnesses will have the opportunity to put questions to both those who will testify, as well as members of the Commission.
Signed, March 5, 2021 by Commissioners:
Donna Chavis, Chair
Rev. Dr. Rodney S. Sadler, Jr.