Shutting down the scammers: Petition filed over North Carolina utilities’ ‘unlawful’ use of ratepayer funds

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In the same week as Utility Scamming Awareness Week – a campaign designed by utilities “to expose the tactics scammers use to steal money from customers and provide advice on how they can protect themselves” – the U.S. Center for Biological Diversity has submitted a petition to the North Carolina Utilities Commission. It argues that customers’ First Amendment rights are being violated when utility membership fees are used by trade associations, like the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), for lobbying and political contributions.

It is a response to the commission’s proposed regulations released this August 29 to stop investor-owned utilities from engaging in such practices.

Overall, the center is calling for transparency, accountability mechanisms, and a complete ban on “all funding to third-party entities – such as the Edison Electric Institute – that engage in lobbying or political activities, regardless of how the specific funds provided by the utility are being used.”

Duke Energy has been specifically targeted in the brief, because it is “the second-largest electric utility in the world, generates 90 percent of the electricity used in North Carolina and emits more carbon pollution than any other U.S. utility.”

Howard Crystal, a senior attorney at the center commented, “Duke is funneling ratepayers’ money to trade groups as a backchannel way to attack environmental protections and buy political influence.”

He continued, “Edison Electric Institute and similar trade associations spend millions of dollars a year fighting air and water safeguards while propping up dirty fossil fuels. North Carolinians shouldn’t be expected to bank-roll lobbying and propaganda that will fuel even more climate chaos and pollution.”

This was proven by the Energy and Policy Institute in 2017, when it released a report with evidence that ratepayers were being “forced” to fund the EEI and other political organizations.

At that time, it stated, “EEI is not the only political organization that receives money from utility ratepayers. The American Gas Association, Nuclear Energy Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, are all groups that are often included in rate requests so that ratepayers pay for the utility’s annual membership fees.

“Given how these organizations promote fracking and natural gas infrastructure, propose bailouts for nuclear power plants, and spread 34misinformation regarding the science of climate change, they are also all political in nature.”

Coming out of the woodwork

Last week, pv magazine USA reported on the results of a survey conducted by Greer Ryan, Renewable Energy & Research Specialist at the U.S. Center for Biological Diversity, which found evidence of significant greenwashing by the biggest investor-owned utilities in the United States.

Indeed, while their outward facing images were found to be clean, green and invested in renewables – solar in particular – their actions behind closed doors told a different, pro-fossil fuel, story.

Speaking to pv magazine at the time about her findings, Ryan said, “The gist is that utilities pay a lump sum of money … in the form of dues, claim it’s necessary for their operations, and it’s impossible to ensure that those dues don’t in turn go to political activities that would otherwise be excluded.”

The utilities Ryan surveyed included Duke Energy, which was highlighted, alongside NextEra Energy, as having the highest proportion of clean energy to fossil fuel energy images, with ratios of 15-to-4 (almost 5-to-1) and 6-to-1 respectively.

When approached about the results of the greenwashing survey two weeks ago, Duke’s spokesperson Randy Wheeless dismissed the claims, pointing instead to how much the utility had invested in renewables to date. He declined to comment on how the fees the utility pays to EEI are used.

In the press release issued by the Center for Biological Diversity this week, it read, “Duke often wields its political influence to block competition from cheaper, cleaner renewable energy sources. It has also pushed for projects like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would cut through North Carolina communities.”

In her interview last week, Greer explained, “Under the current utility business model, in order to meet clean energy goals, utilities fear losing money if renewable energy ramps up too quickly and fossil fuel sources ramp down too quickly. This is particularly true for concerns around self-generation (e.g., rooftop solar). As customer-owned solar energy systems have become more widespread, electric utilities have sought to systematically undermine favorable solar policies.

Ironically, Duke is currently prominently promoting the Utility Scamming Awareness Week on its website under the headline “Shutting down scammers.”

Alarming

The activities of utilities are particularly alarming given how entrenched this greenwashing is in power structures versus the reality of what needs to be done to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

As John Farrell, who directs the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR), wrote in a guest post for the EPI on November 26, “In the pathway to 100% renewable energy lie electric utilities.”

Meanwhile, adding to the almost daily release of reports detailing just how bad of a situation humans are currently in, was the Emissions Gap Report published this Tuesday by the UN Environment Program (UNEP); the news that we may have already passed a number of significant global climate tipping points on Wednesday, and the declaration of a climate emergency by the European Parliament on Thursday.

Editor Max Hall reported on the global site on Tuesday, the roll-out of renewable energy technology is an “easy win” in the battle to mitigate global heating, but it needs to be happenings  six times faster than current levels. Solar PV is one of the biggest keys to the energy transition, as has been repeatedly demonstrated.

However, a report released by EEI this June showed that many of the largest investor-owned utilities are planning to slow down their decarbonization efforts. It read, “Electric utilities lie at the crux of the effort to decarbonize the U.S. economy, which involves two steps: the first is to move all electric generation to zero-carbon sources of electricity. The second is to switch everything that’s currently fueled directly by oil or gas, like cars and trucks, onto that carbon-free electricity.

“Most U.S. utilities have decreased the carbon dioxide that they pollute directly from power plants over the past decade, mainly by retiring coal-burning power plants. But between now and 2030, these same companies are planning to slow down their rates of decarbonization, according to a new analysis of the utilities’ goals.

“The slowdown is surprising for several reasons: renewable energy sources like wind and solar are now the lowest-cost ways to generate electricity in vast swaths of the country, cheaper than coal and in many cases, gas. At the same time, the last ten years of climate science have shown that the need for rapid emissions reductions is more crucial than ever.”

The response to last week’s greenwashing article has also been one which confirms that the problem sits at a rotten core of the very structures we need to avoid catastrophic climate change. This means not just the utilities, but also energy commissions, businesses and lawmakers. Many are willfully fighting the required transition.

How bad does it need to get, before they act? Because everyone will be affected, eventually.

Leveling UP

This year, pv magazine pledged to place the issue of sustainability in the solar and energy storage industries at the heart of our reporting and events. Via the UP initiative, we have launched quarterly themes to examine key issues, like the use of lead in solar modules (Q4 2019) and raw material sourcing in storage (upcoming Q1 2020); are holding webinars shining a spotlight on issues like greenwashing; and ramped up our general reporting on a host of other sustainability issues. To help shape this agenda, we also conducted a sustainability survey in October, the results of which you can discover in the December edition of pv magazine. In 2020, meanwhile, our global series of roundtable events will help the initiative step UP even further. We feel this spotlight on sustainability is crucial, as these two industries are the keys to our clean energy transition. Join the conversation; contact up@pv-magazine.com