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Duke Energy gives $3 million to committee tied to Gov. Pat McCrory

A new analysis of government records reveals that Duke Energy – the world’s largest private electric utility – began writing unusually large checks to the national Republican Governors Association while Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican lawmakers debated how to respond to the company’s giant spill of coal ash sludge into the Dan River.

In four payments from June to December 2014, Duke sent the Republican Governors Association a total of $3,050,000 – more than 10 times its previous record donation to the RGA. Duke’s contributions made it the top corporate donor to the RGA in 2014 and the second largest donor, behind the $3.5 million given by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, owner of the Las Vegas Sands.

In 2012, the RGA spent $5 million to boost the election of Pat McCrory as governor, and it is expected to be a major financial backer of his 2016 bid for reelection. Records show McCrory has attended numerous RGA events and helped the association raise funds.

“Duke Energy’s large donations raise questions about the governor’s ability to serve the public interest more than his own political interest,” said Bob Hall, executive director of the nonpartisan watchdog group Democracy North Carolina. “Critics say the coal ash regulation law passed in 2014 was too soft on Duke. Is this money the reason why?”

RGA’s website says its “primary mission is to help elect Republican governorships throughout the nation.” As a “527 political organization,” it can receive and spend unlimited donations from corporate and other donors to elect candidates, without directly coordinating with the candidate.

The organization files relatively obscure reports with the Internal Revenue Service. Democracy North Carolina’s analysis shows that Duke Energy and Progress Energy gave RGA a total of only $40,000 in the five years from Jan. 1, 2003 to Dec. 31, 2007, an average of $8,000 a year.

In January 2008, Pat McCrory, a long-time Duke Energy executive and former Charlotte mayor, announced his campaign for governor. Within weeks, Duke and Progress Energy began sending checks of $10,000 or more to the RGA, according to the IRS disclosure reports.

In October 2008, candidate McCrory hosted a fundraiser for the RGA in Charlotte. As the invites circulated, Duke Energy stepped up with a gift of $100,000 – its first six-figure RGA donation.

Duke and Progress Energy gave a total of $155,000 during 2008 – or 10 times their previous record of $15,000 in 2007. The two companies, now merged, increased their giving after 2008, reaching a high of $275,000 in 2013 before the new high of $3,050,000 in 2014.

The companies also increased their donations to other 527 partisan committees. Duke Energy gave $200,000 to the Democratic Governors Association in 2012 and another $200,000 in 2014. Progress Energy donated $200,000 to the DGA in 2013.

Duke also donated a total of $235,000 during 2012-2014 to the Republican State Leadership Committee, which its website says promotes “the election of state Republican candidates.”

Hall pointed out that Duke may be donating significant amounts of money to other electioneering committees that do not file disclosure reports – including Renew North Carolina, a nonprofit set up by Pat McCrory’s supporters to help his political career, and NC House Legislative Partners, which supports Republican General Assembly candidates.

“The public has a right to know who is donating to our lawmakers and their reelection efforts, directly and through shadow committees,” Hall said. “Duke Energy should lead the way by voluntarily disclosing its contributions to these committees.”

Do New Solar Rules for NC Allow for Slow-Walking Contracts?

 Rules for solar power in North Carolina remain intact under an order the state Utilities Commission recently released. Photo courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Rules for solar power in North Carolina remain intact under an order the state Utilities Commission recently released. Photo courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency.

As North Carolinians rang in the New Year, state regulators released long-anticipated rules for solar power in the state. Solar developers wanted expanded eligibility for contracts, and utilities proposed measures that would limit access. The state Utilities Commission rejected both proposals and kept the basic framework for solar the same.

egal counsel with NC WARN, John Runkle, says the issue at hand is that the real value of solar is not being recognized, and the rules allow Duke Energy to slow-walk contract and interconnection negotiations, “A contract might take six months, eight months, nine months. Rather than, I mean it’s a pretty well understood technology. As much money as you want to spend on solar, there’s someone willing to put up a good solid solar system for you.”

Runkle says the price of solar has gone down considerably, and there is great potential to expand it around the state. But he adds that without timely contracts and consistent rates, investors can become discouraged and turn away from profitable solar projects.

Duke has been cited as saying it does support solar development, and a spokesman recently pointed to the 278 megawatts of solar capacity the utility has contracted to build or buy power from this year. But Runkle says just four percent of Duke’s projected total sales are solar, and he adds that much more solar power would be available if the company would offer standard contracts in a timely fashion, “Last year NC WARN and some other organizations put solar panels on 250 rooftops. If there were a way to do that more efficiently we could easily double that, triple that, and the big companies could put on a considerable more amount of solar.”

According to a recent report from Environment North Carolina, solar grew 127% between 2010 and 2013. It also found that the state has the potential to produce more than 30 times as much electricity from solar power as the state consumes each year.

Duke Energy $75,000 gift supports WCU engineering program

Western Carolina University’s Kimmel School of Construction Management and Technology will expand hands-on learning experiences for engineering students and boost efforts to recruit and retain engineering students with a $75,000 gift from the Duke Energy Foundation.

The gift, announced at WCU on Monday, Nov. 17, will fund the purchase of new power systems laboratory equipment and provide student scholarships, faculty development and programming to encourage more students across Western North Carolina to explore engineering as a profession.

Jeffrey L. Ray, dean of the Kimmel School, said WCU is excited to collaborate with Duke Energy to help grow the number of engineering and technology professionals who can help meet the manufacturing and energy needs across Western North Carolina.

“As someone who has worked with multitudes of electric cooperatives around the South, I know firsthand how important and essential electric power is to the economic growth of this region of North Carolina, and we really appreciate Duke Energy’s support,” said Ray.

The Duke Energy Foundation provides philanthropic support to address needs vital to the health of the communities Duke Energy serves, and the gift to WCU fits with the foundation’s commitment to supporting economic and workforce development, said Lisa Leatherman, Duke Energy’s district manager for Jackson County.

“Engaging the future engineering students in hands-on learning experiences ignites excitement for the profession. Duke Energy is proud to partner with Western Carolina to help support and inspire students at Western Carolina,” said Leatherman.

WCU is dedicating $45,000 of the amount awarded to purchase power electronics lab stations and electric drives lab stations. Wes Stone, interim head of the school’s Department of Engineering and Technology, said the equipment for faculty and student research and hands-on lab experiences adds a new dimension to WCU’s engineering programs.

Jordan Chaires, a graduate student from Raleigh pursuing a master’s degree in technology, said he is excited to be able to use the new equipment to measure the efficiency of the solar power equipment and circuitry he will be working with for his thesis project. Chaires said the project fits in with his interest in working in a field in which he can help increase the efficiency and potential for using renewable energy and power sources.

“I know it sounds cliche, but I just want to help the world and the planet,” he said. “If we have the sun and the wind, why not use it?”

Another $15,000 from the gift will support new Duke Energy Scholars Program merit-based scholarships to be awarded in 2015-16 and 2016-17. The first five Duke Energy scholars, announced Nov. 17, are Milton Canupp, a junior from Minneapolis majoring in electrical engineering; Kaleb Frizzell, a junior from Sylva majoring in electrical and computer engineering technology; Adam Gropp, a junior from Enka majoring in electrical engineering; Dylan Shook, a junior from Claremont majoring in engineering technology; and Jacob Spurling, a junior from Boiling Springs majoring in electrical engineering.

The final $15,000 of the gift will support faculty development and initiatives designed to encourage more students from across the region to consider studying engineering.

WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher thanked Duke Energy for its generous support, which he said is helping to fuel the momentum of WCU’s Kimmel School in driving innovation and economic development in Western North Carolina. Kimmel School faculty and students, through a range of partnerships and collaborations, are helping sustain, maintain and grow businesses and industries across the region, Belcher said.

Enrollment in the school’s engineering programs soared after the University of North Carolina system Board of Governors approved a stand-alone engineering program for WCU in 2012, said Belcher. In addition, the university recently expanded general engineering program offerings to its Asheville location at Biltmore Park to meet demand among existing and prospective businesses along the Interstate-26 growth corridor. That program expansion was made possible with funding from the N.C. General Assembly through the leadership of N.C. Sen. Tom Apodaca (R-Henderson) in 2013. WCU was the only UNC institution in the state that year to receive program expansion funding, Belcher said.

“The General Assembly thought Western Carolina’s engineering program and what we need to do for this region was so important they found money to support it,” said Belcher. “The work our faculty, staff and students are doing to support businesses and industries in our area is incredible and strengthens the overall economic health of all of Western North Carolina.”

Coal Ash Clean Up Debate Continues

North Carolina regulators have ordered Duke Energy to resubmit its proposal for assessing theextent of groundwater contamination leaking from 33 coal ash dumps across the state after deeming the company’s current plans “inadequate.”

The N.C. Division of Water Resources has given Duke 30 days to resubmit the plans with a list of proposed changes. Duke is required to perform the assessments by a new state law passed in response to the massive Feb. 2 spill at a plant in Eden that coated 70 miles of the Dan River with gray sludge.

Coal ash contains numerous toxic heavy metals, including lead, arsenic and mercury. State regulators have said all of Duke’s unlined waste pits are contaminating groundwater. Duke had submitted its required monitoring plans to the state in September.

Sun Shines on NC Power Bills with $500 Million Investment

North Carolina could come closer to living up to its solar power potential with a $500 million dollar investment from Duke Energy. The corporation said this week it will construct three solar farms to generate 128 megawatts of electricity – in Elm City, Fayetteville and Warsaw.

John Wilson with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy says greater availability of solar could ultimately stabilize consumer electric bills,”The price for these projects doesn’t go up. There’s no fuel cost increase with the sun shining, then if prices of other fuels go up, the customers will be insulated from price hikes.”

Duke Energy also announced it would purchase 150 megawatts of solar power from independent developers. Last year, 335 megawatts of solar capacity was installed in North Carolina, ranking it third in the nation and generating enough electricity for more than 31-thousand homes.

Stephen Smith, executive director of “SACE,” agrees with Wilson’s assertion that solar growth could impact the bottom line for utility customers, “They will serve as a stabilizing effect on fuel prices for North Carolina. So, the benefits will come more and more into the future, as we see these solar facilities run just any time the sun shines.”

State law dictates that North Carolina’s electric power suppliers meet an increasing amount of their customers’ energy needs with a combination of renewable energy resources. The law was passed in 2008, and Wilson says Duke’s announcement is a testament to its success,”This action by Duke is also the culmination of many years of implementation of North Carolina’s energy law, which was a far-sighted effort by the North Carolina Legislature.”

Today, North Carolina has a total of 627 megawatts of solar energy installed, powering the equivalent of more than 68,000 homes. Last year, a total of 787 million public and private dollars was invested in solar power for home and business use.

Coal Ash Bill Leaves Questions

A bill (SB-729) that would close all coal-ash ponds in the state by 2029 is now in the hands of the North Carolina House. Among the provisions, it requires Duke Energy to remove the ash from four of its plants and place it into lined landfills.

While it sounds like the solution citizens and environmental groups have been asking for, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper – Kemp Burdette – says he’s concerned that the coal-ash ponds near him and others are left off the list. “There’s no real detail about what cleanup means for these other 10 sites. These ponds are frequently built on top of existing streams, frequently built on wetland areas.”

The Duke plant on the Cape Fear River is not among the four scheduled for immediate cleanup in the bill, but in recent years there’s been evidence of toxic coal ash leaking into the ground water supply of area residents. Duke recently partnered with the local water department to create a new water source for the families effected. On the list to be immediately cleaned up are the Asheville, Sutton, Dan River and Riverbend sites. Duke says it continues to cooperate with the state.

Supporters say the Senate bill expands on the proposal to clean up the coal ash by Governor Pat McCrory – who retired from Duke Energy.

However, Burdette and others are concerned that it will allow Duke to reclassify illegal discharges of coal ash under permits already approved by the state. “What this bill does is basically say that, with the stroke of a pen, we’re going to take what has been illegal discharges, un-permitted discharges, and we’re just going to kind of wrap them under existing permits.”

The legislation also does not require Duke or other companies to use liner systems in any new storage of toxic coal ash, but it does require the company to monitor groundwater for the next 30 years.

DENR Duke Energy Lawsuit

de_logoInternal emails between staff at North Carolina’s environmental agency show state regulators were coordinating with Duke Energy before intervening in efforts by citizens groups trying to sue the company over pollution leeching from its coal ash dumps. In February, DENR Secretary John Skvarla refuted reports the department intervened. The emails show a Duke lobbyist contacted the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, where staff exchanged messages discussing “how Duke wants to be sued.” The emails were provided Thursday to The Associated Press by the Southern Environmental Law Center, which had filed notice in January 2013 of its intent to sue Duke under the Clean Water Act. The agency used its authority to intervene in the lawsuit, quickly negotiating a proposed settlement where the billion company would pay a ,100 fine but be under no requirement to stop its pollution. This information comes on the same day Democrats at the North Carolina legislature say Duke Energy should be forced to move all of its coal ash to lined landfills away from water and make shareholders – not customers – pay for the cleanup. House and Senate Democrats unveiled Thursday the framework of a bill they intend to introduce when the General Assembly reconvenes in May. They want Republicans in charge of the legislature to join them given last month’s coal ash pond rupture along the Dan River. Durham Democratic Representative Paul Luebke says the spill is Duke’s responsibility.

Duke Energy Coal Ash Ruling

de_logoA North Carolina judge says Duke Energy must take immediate action to eliminate the source of groundwater pollution at its coal ash dumps. The ruling stems from legal action taken by the Southern Environmental Law Center in 2012. Frank Holleman, with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said “there is no way the current status will protect the environment”. A statement issued from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources said “these interpretations were made under the Perdue administration”. Wake County Judge Paul Ridgeway says state regulators failed to properly apply the law.  The group asked the Environmental Management Commission to force Duke to take immediate corrective action when groundwater problems were discovered at the state’s 32 ash dumps. But the commission ruled against the environmental group in December 2012 and they appealed the ruling. The judge’s ruling comes a month after a massive coal ash spill from a Duke facility in Eden coated 70 miles of the Dan River in toxic gray sludge.