Dirty Duke

by Grant A. Mincy

Duke Energy, headquartered in Charlotte, NC, is the largest power utility in the United States – even the world. In 2012 they merged with Progress Energy and expanded their corporate empire. In many sates, including their home state of North Carolina, they hold a monopoly on the energy market. Recently, Duke/Progress Energy released a long-term Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). This long-term plan proposed by the utility giant will dictate to rate payers how they get their energy. The IRP’s reveal a commitment to high-cost energy from coal, natural gas and nuclear, while backing away from energy conservation, efficiency and investment in renewable energy sources. Under the plans, the utilities would burden consumers with an additional 14% rate hike. The hike would hit residential consumers the hardest, as hikes for business and industry are lower. This, of course, raises a number of environmental, economic and social justice issues.

Many people cannot afford an increase in rates, especially the poor. Low income households will surely be the most impacted from this plan. Due to poor energy efficiency, on average, the low-income have to consume more energy to heat and cool their homes. In these economic times, it has been increasingly difficult to make ends meet for many working families. In this economy, these rate hikes will burden rate payer budgets while increasing capital for the largest utility monopoly in the country. With monopoly status, and no market competition, rate payers are captive consumers. Furthermore, the ecological, environmental, and public health costs will also not be footed by Duke/Progress Energy. Ratepayers will share the collective burden of coal surface mining, natural gas exploration and nuclear investment. Consumers will bear the costs of depreciating ecosystem services.

With more dependence on coal, the public will see environmental degradation and even more moonscape’s where there should be lush deciduous forests. The public will see more communities trapped in mono-economies where there should be market competition. The public will see more natural gas exploration, despite all of the evidence from peer-reviewed journals, government and industry reports that link hydraulic fracturing to groundwater contamination, seismic activity and greenhouse gas emission. The public will see the natural gas boom turn to a bust, and suffer from the economic fall out.

It is truly unjust to force communities to pay for the public and environmental health risks of the extraction of fossil fuels. Across the coal fields, private property value is depreciating, cancer rates are on the rise, and ground and surface water used for consumption is being contaminated. In the oil and gas fields, health risks have been associated with the exploration of these resources, there is growing concern of air pollution, and toxins have been found in well water.  The cost to ratepayers of these fossil fuels also impacts the most vulnerable and low-income communities held captive by the monopoly.

The situation is incredibly troubling because investment in energy efficiency and conservation will lower rates for consumers and benefit not only the environment in Duke’s home state of NC, but all of the South Eastern bio-region – and even globally with less greenhouse gas emissions. Consumers should not be paying for fossil energy when people could be saving money with efficiency and conservation programs. The monopoly, with the help of their friends in the government (favorably regulated by a Utility Commission – here is just one example from their home state and one from neighboring SC), is protecting private profits while the environmental, social and economic costs of this plan are socialized. All of this is coming at a time in our nations history where unemployment and other social programs low-income folks depend on are being cut. In the age of mergers creating large monopolies, rising costs, a growing wealth gap, “too big to fail”and economic bailouts, how much more are working people supposed to take?

On May 2nd, Duke held its annual shareholder meeting. As the meeting began, CEO Jim Rogers spoke about how well the corporation was doing, how they had successfully merged with Progress and ended with the work the monopoly had done to better the environment. In the shareholder meeting, however, was a room full of concerned citizens, in a united movement, to address the social, economic and environmental issues within the long-term IRP and rate hikes. As the question and answer period began it was clear that Mr. Rogers was going to be asked repeatedly to invest in efficiency, conservation and renewables – after all this will foster local jobs, clean water, clean air and lower bills. Rogers was told that cultural and natural heritage, along with folks bank accounts, deserve better than the proposed rate hikes to subsidize dirty energy.

Mr. Rogers fielded many questions during the meeting, but perhaps the most pronounced came from and elderly African-American woman who simply just told her story. She spoke of paying higher rates during the seasons as she lives in an outdated apartment complex – this makes it hard for her to manage a comfortable living level. She spoke of herself and other low-income seniors having to make hard choices, such as paying their utility bills or buying their prescription medications. She then asked the monopoly CEO an incredible question – “is [relying on] Duke Energy taxation without representation?” After all, with no competition and favorable state oversight, the public has no choice. The public interest is very different from the state/corporate interest in the rate hike case. The public has no shareholders to increase profits for. The public has no democratic voice in the current legislative environment. She then told Mr. Rogers that “Duke Energy needs to be held accountable for spending and collecting the public’s money.”

I couldn’t agree more.