Energy Corporations Must Change, Die, or (at the Very Least) Get Out of the Way

“The truth is that we have a planetary emergency.” — NASA climatologist James Hansen (October 2012)

North Carolina has a unique opportunity and duty to help avert runaway climate change and repair our wounded democracy.

Most Americans realize global warming is serious but aren’t clear about the urgency. Hansen and others say if global emissions continue rising for even a few more years, carbon and warming already “in the pipeline” will push this crisis past a point of no return, toward a hellish reality for us all.

We don’t have to entirely solve the emergency by 2015, but we must begin to dramatically reduce emissions. Because the world’s second-largest electricity generator, Duke Energy, is headquartered here, North Carolina can make a huge difference — one that also makes economic sense.

For several years, NC WARN and allies have been urging Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers to use his clout to become a climate game-changer. We want Duke to join the clean energy revolution by phasing out fossil-fueled electricity while ramping up energy-saving programs, solar and wind — proven technologies that are abundant and cheaper than nuclear power.

Because of Duke’s size, the mere announcement of such a shift could impact energy markets, attitudes and regulations worldwide and become a positive tipping point toward climate stabilization.

This isn’t pie in the sky.

Duke has invested $2.5 billion in solar and wind out West. In the monopoly-captive Southeast, however, Duke is actually suppressing renewables while holding out hopes of building $20 billion nuclear plants — by forcing customers to pay for them years in advance.

But potholes are filling that road. The corporations building two new U.S. nuclear plants are already countersuing each other over massive cost overruns and delays; both projects could collapse before foundations are poured.

Also, Duke has South Carolina pump-hydro facilities that store energy equal to two nuclear plants, energy that’s readily dispatched to smooth the variability of widespread solar and wind generation.

Duke claims natural gas-fired plants emit less carbon. But Cornell researchers found that methane leakage during the fracking process makes global warming worse — plus, it pollutes our water.

Duke’s plans to build giant, unneeded plants would double our power bills through a long series of rate hikes. This would further reduce demand and increase criticism as ratepayers watch other states develop clean-energy solutions that are cheaper, cleaner and better job-creators.

Rogers is clearly torn between Duke employees and customers wanting to advance clean energy and an old guard whose careers were built on coal and nuclear power.

Duke is hampering the transition by using ratepayer money to buy pervasive financial influence over our governmental and civic leaders. Such undemocratic influence is a factor in NC WARN’s lawsuit against the N.C. Utilities Commission over the Duke-Progress merger.

During the merger proceedings, Duke withheld information regarding five different billion-dollar boondoggles that will drive rates even higher.

Not only did regulators not require Duke to explain those problems once we exposed them, they cut a closed-door settlement that resumed Duke’s march toward serial rate hikes for families and businesses.

We’re urging the N.C. Court of Appeals to revoke or modify the merger because Duke’s management and stockholders — not its customers — should bear the costs of its corporate mistakes and secret deal-making.

Another obstacle is the sweeping societal denial about climate change. I’m not talking about the “climate deniers,” but the public majority who realize chaotic weather is already devastating millions of people — and wildlife — and hammering our economy, but can’t bear to talk about it.

Climate change is terrifying. Ferocious storms, repeated droughts and bizarre temperature patterns are rapidly changing North Carolina. Arctic sea ice — Earth’s air conditioner — has lost 75 percent of its summer volume since 1980, driving up sea levels and storm surges that are swallowing our beautiful beaches.

Yes, it’s hard to know how to help, beyond reducing energy usage and hoping our dysfunctional government will somehow solve this crisis. We’re eager to work with Duke to help avert cascading collapses of climate and social systems.

Meanwhile, we’ll vigorously work to weaken Duke’s monopoly control over society’s most vital decisions and to change its business plan that is so disastrous for our climate, our economy and our democracy.

Whether Duke leads or impedes, the climate challenge requires much greater civic engagement — promoting solutions, cleaning up politics and demanding that leaders serve the public.

North Carolina can be a climate game-changer. Now’s the time.

© 2012 News & Observer