Round 1 victory in North Carolina

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By Steve Norris
Did you ever think protest was ineffective? In Asheville, even the threat of a small protest by a few people has derailed an important event that mammoth Duke Energy was planning in the coming week. We still have much work to do to stop Duke’s implementation of Obama’s Clean Power plan. But in Round One, we who have just begun to create the fledgling NC Power Forward declare victory.
Here’s the scoop.
Duke Energy is the largest utility in the United States with assets of over $100 billion. It is the largest single emitter of greenhouse gases. It emits 1.84 percent of all GHG’s in the US. It is the 12th largest emitter of toxic water pollution. Although it is good at providing reliable electricity, it is a dangerous monster juggernaut corporation.

In North Carolina, it has rigged our political system. Our governor, Pat McCrory worked for Duke for 28 years. Ed Finley, who leads the NC Utilities Commission, did legal work for Duke before being appointed to the commission. Duke is a “regulated” monopoly, which means it is guaranteed a profit on all its operations, including construction of new facilities. It also means that in NC third parties can sell electricity to no one other than Duke. Some in Asheville would like the city to become its own municipal utility and sell power. (Boulder, Colorado, has done this). But in NC, that is illegal. This past January North Carolina, under pressure from ALEC and the Koch Brothers, among others, put an end to tax credits on home solar installations, which some in the power industry fear will challenge the utilities’ monopolies..

Even though it refuses to and probably cannot provide documentation proving need, Duke has recently proposed what it calls an Energy Modernization Plan, which centers on building a 752 MW gas fired power plant in Asheville. It has also proposed building a total of about 11,000 MW of new gas fired power in the rest of the state. Of course, whether this power is needed or not is of no concern to Duke. It is guaranteed a 10 percent profit on construction. And of course, Duke is not concerned that the price of gas, now very low, may increase 10 times in the next 10 years. It is guaranteed a 10 percent profit on operations. The higher the price of gas goes, the more money Duke makes. (And of course, the more the people of NC will be impoverished).

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RECENT PROTESTS

Many people think it is futile to take on a monster corporation. But this being Asheville,  and with the train wreck that is climate change coming at us so unremittingly, challenge it we must. A couple of weeks ago, about 200 people showed up in Asheville for a Public Utilities Commission hearing about Duke’s proposal for a new 752 MW gas-fired power plant. Only one person spoke in favor of Duke’s proposal.  About 60 others spoke against it. Some of us staged a protest for two hours at the hearing, standing prominently with t-shirts that read “NO GAS.”

Then last Saturday, Feb. 20,  25 of us , including an Asheville City councilor, rallied at Asheville City Hall at 9 a.m. From there, we started a 10-mile walk that ended six hours later at Lake Julian in Skyland, the site of Duke’s existing coal-fired power plant and the proposed site of its new 752 MW facility. After that, on Monday, nine of us from different parts of the state descended on a NC Public Utilities Commission meeting in Raleigh where Duke’s proposals were being considered. A 16-year-old led off our protest by interrupting the commissioners’ staff in mid-sentence, taking over the meeting. Anna Farlessyost forcefully argued that her generation’s future will likely be endangered if the Utilities Commission permits Duke’s new facility. After police forced her out of that meeting, the rest of  us repeatedly disrupted the hearing over the next three hours. Here’s a short video of Anna’s interruption and the police response:
ROUND ONE VICTORY

And then, an even more interesting thing happened. Word leaked out on Tuesday that Duke’s NC President David Fountain was hosting a public meeting with Asheville’s leaders and officials to talk about and celebrate Duke’s plans and role in the local community.   Thinking this might be a very good time to act again, some of us from NC Power Forward registered with Duke to get tickets. But within a day we were informed that  “This is an invitation-only meeting and we can’t accommodate any additional guests at this time.” (We scouted the room where the event was to take place and there  was space for at least 500 people).  So immediately we began to organize what would likely have been a small picket and protest outside the event.

And then, almost immediately, VICTORY! Even before we had been able to schedule a meeting to discuss plan our protest, Duke canceled its celebration. For some reason, Duke assumed someone might disrupt the party and scuttled the event.

A $100 billion corporation, which to some extent runs the state of North Carolina, which  gets away with being the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the country, cancels a meeting because a few people talk about protesting a speech by its president? This shows that we have more power than we know, and that Duke, in spite of all its enormous wealth and control over state officials, is terrified that we may bring this company down.

So let’s do it. If we can stop Duke’s party, we can stop its “Energy Modernization Plan.”