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Energy bill amended

State legislators added new environmental protections yesterday to a major energy bill, but they left intact a provision that would make it easier for power companies to build coal and nuclear power plants.

The bill would require power companies to begin energy-conservation programs and increase their use of renewable-energy resources. Renewable energy includes solar power, wind power and power generated from the burning of animal waste.

Environmentalists have tried for years to get North Carolina to adopt renewable-energy standards, which they say would cut down on air pollution that leads to global warming. But many of the state’s environmental groups oppose the current version of the energy bill because of a provision that was inserted into the bill at the urging of the state’s two major power companies, Duke Energy Corp. and Progress Energy.

The provision would ease the construction of coal and nuclear power plants by allowing power companies to charge customers to pay for those plants before the plants are finished being built.

The N.C. Senate overwhelmingly approved the bill, and the N.C. House is studying it. The House energy committee inserted a section that would make it more difficult for power companies to get approval for new coal or nuclear plants.

Before they could get approval, the companies would have to show that they cannot meet increased demand for electricity through renewable resources.

“That’s a significant change,” said Elizabeth Ouzts, the state director of Environment North Carolina. “However, the rest of the bill is still a big giveaway to the utilities to build more coal and nuclear power plants.”

Duke Energy and Progress Energy said that the financing provision is necessary because of North Carolina’s rapid population growth and its rising demand for more electricity. The state is going to need more coal and nuclear plants, and they should be used in tandem with renewable sources, the companies say.

Environmental groups said that the financing provision, which shifts the financial risk of new power-plant construction from Wall Street investors to customers, may cause power companies to build larger coal and nuclear plants – or to build more of them – than they otherwise would have built.

Legislators have no estimates about how much customers’ bills could increase under the financing provision, and that’s one reason that critics said that it needs further study. Power companies said that the provision actually could save customers money, because the cost of building plants would decrease.

During the meeting of the energy committee, state Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, offered an amendment to eliminate the financing provision. But the amendment quickly died, with everyone on the committee except Fisher voting against it.

Environmental groups have also raised concerns about the bill’s provisions that would encourage the use of animal waste as a renewable-energy resource. The burning of animal waste for energy can pollute the air and have other harmful environmental effects.

The committee voted yesterday to amend the bill so that plants that produce energy from animal waste and other so-called “biomass” would have to meet state-regulated air-quality standards.

The committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, is a strong advocate for renewable energy and said she has concerns about some provisions in the current version of the bill, including the one that would ease financing of power plants.

“I feel a lot better about the bill now” after yesterday’s amendments, Harrison said.

But she is still deciding whether she will support it when it comes up for a vote in the full House, she said.

That could happen soon. The bill is expected to move quickly through two more House committees and then come up on the floor of the House.

If the House approves it, legislators will have to reconcile the differences between the version that was approved by the Senate and the amended House version.

By James Romoser
Journal Raleigh Bureau

Winston-Salem Journal

24 July 2007