Hayden’s Hopes: North Carolina’s Renewables Dishonesty

North Carolina is a beautifully wooded state. The green that carpets the rolling Appalachians attracts more visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains than to any other national park. Its most famous golf course, Pinehurst, is beloved for its pine trees. Our own campus is in fact officially an arboretum, because it holds so many different species of trees. Unfortunately, the trees of this state are threatened by recent court rulings allowing energy companies to harvest trees in an unregulated fashion, then permitting them to masquerade this practice as a pathway to ‘renewable’ energy.

North Carolina just passed legislation requiring investor-owned utilities to produce 3% of their energy from renewable sources by 2012, with this number increasing by increments to 12.5% by 2021 (Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard, Senate Bill 3, 2007). One of the reasons North Carolina legislators took this landmark step is to protect the sylvan treasures of the state from environmental change. More importantly, however, they recognize that the welfare of the citizenry is directly connected to the threats posed by continuing on the energy path charted throughout the twentieth century. Reliance on foreign oil complicates our geopolitical stance. Ocean acidification promises to show its nastiness within the next fifty years. And over all this is the uncertain specter of climate change.

This legislation includes provisions for the use of biomass as a sustainable source of energy. In defining biomass, Section 2(a)(8) of the bill provides a definition of ‘renewable’ which includes ‘wood waste.’

Duke Power wants to argue about the definition of ‘wood waste.’ They claim that if they dig up whole trees from the ground and grind them into wood chips (which can be used in their coal plants), that qualifies as “wood waste.” Duke has started burning this wood at their Buck and Lee coal plants in order to fulfill the renewability requirements put in place by the new legislation. Egregiously loose interpretation of the wording of the bill alongside complete disregard for its intent has led Duke Energy to gain permission from the administrating agency to file as ‘renewable’ the burning of whole trees.

The execution of this plan will be ‘renewable’ only in a legal sense. True, trees grow back; but under current law Duke is not obligated to replant the trees it harvests, much less to harvest them sustainably. Forestry for biomass is not inherently renewable, can lead to deforestation and increased greenhouse gas emission, and will set a low precedent for meeting the challenge of sustainability.

The problem is, no government should allow this to go forward: their actions would both constitute a gross misconstruction of the law and an affront to the spirit of sustainability it was passed in. ‘Waste’ clearly refers to something left over from a previous process; one can deduce this easily by looking at the prior term, animal waste. Surely they do not propose throwing pigs into the furnace? Moreover, Duke’s proposed course of action would “declare open season” on the forests of the South, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center (Charlotte Observer:2010). Using whole trees will neither follow the law nor actually bring it any closer to sustainability.

Government is beholden to serve the interests of the people, not the convenience of corporations. Moreover, innovation often arises in the face of difficulty[i]. The loophole in the current version of the bill should be closed by introducing clarifications on the ambiguous ‘wood waste’ by using the same definition previously used by the GreenPower Program[ii]. This definition does not include wood chips from whole trees.

If biomass from forests is to be harvested, it must be done according to a set of strict Best Management Practices, including protection of rare species, maintenance of soil fertility, consideration of erosion and water quality, retention of native ecosystem elements, and provision for regrowth of forested areas. This allows for the use of biomass such as logging slash, tops, limbs, and trees not merchantable. Logging companies may seek certification in order to sell these waste products which are produced in their course of their usual business. Certification of renewable forestry for biomass should be carried out by the Dept. of Environment, Forest Resources Division.

At current consumption of 1.93 trillion Btu[iii], it is understandable that Duke feels pressure to meet the 2018 requirement of 10%  of retail electricity production renewably. With an annual revenue of $13 billion[iv], Duke has political influence which may prove to be a challenge when presenting this legislation. Charging the Dept. of Environment with the review process may require additional funding to their budget. Due to the economy it will be important to emphasize that this change will put no significant additional strain on state economic resources.

Allowing Duke to bend the rules in this case is disastrous, demonstrating once again our subservience to commercial interests and not the commonweal. Instead of giving Duke a free pass, the NCUC (the agency in charge) needs to point them back to the letter of the law. Reforming our energy situation is not going to be easy, but it is necessary, and Duke should not be allowed to shirk its mandated duty. Renewability is about closing the loop of consumption, which Duke’s approach to biomass does not do. It is possible for North Carolina to reach its Renewable Portfolio Standard[v] without compromising its values. It is not in the public interest to allow this definition of ‘renewable wood waste’ to persist.

 


[i] Jenkins, Jesse. “Where Good Technologies Come From: Case Studies in American Innovation.” The Breakthrough Institute: Home. 13 Dec. 2010. Web. 24 Dec. 2010.

[ii] Power Production from Green Resources in North Carolina. Rep. NC GreenPower, Nov. 2010. Web. 24 Dec. 2010.

[iii] “Energy Information Administration (EIA) | State/Territory Energy Profiles | Energy Data, Information, and Maps.” U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis. Energy Information Administration, 23 Dec. 2010. Web. 24 Dec. 2010.

[iv] “Fortune 500 2010: States: North Carolina Companies – FORTUNE on CNNMoney.com.” Business, Financial, Personal Finance News – CNNMoney.com. 3 May 2010. Web. 24 Dec. 2010.

[v] La Capra Associates Team. Analysis of a Renewable Portfolio Standard for North Carolina. P. 94-95. Rep. La Capra Associates, Dec. 2006. Web. 24 Dec. 2010.

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