At the July 4 Independence From Fossil Fuels gathering at Lake Julian, many T-shirts and signs will ask “Who decides?” Who determines what kind of energy will power our city?
Right now, the answer is “Duke Energy decides.” Duke (the largest electric utility in the U.S.) is a monopoly, so even if Asheville residents want solar, wind and other renewables, the company can build plants that burn fracked gas and raise our electric rates to pay for them. This would lock us into years of dependence on fossil fuel when environmental leaders worldwide are calling for giant steps toward renewable energy to stave off climate disaster.
Community Roots, the nonprofit organizing the July 4 event, has joined the We the People coalition, whose legislative members filed the We the People Act, challenging corporate personhood, in the N.C. General Assembly.
Taking back power
“People need to see the power they really have, especially the power to prevent Duke Energy from making all the decisions,” says Asheville Community Rights co-founder Kat Houghton. “Corporations should not have more rights than people. That is not a democracy.”
The group, which is sponsored by Community Roots, wants Asheville to achieve 100 percent renewable power, serving as a model for other cities and counties. Through outreach, education and a petition campaign, group members are building support for a city ordinance establishing local sovereignty.
“Asheville can pass a community bill of rights that claims our right to a sustainable energy future and frees us from legal agreements that force continued reliance on fossil fuels,” says Houghton, who also serves on the board of Community Roots. “That would effectively break Duke’s monopoly, and the state will have to sue to challenge the ordinance.” She believes such a legal challenge could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Grant Township, Pa., notes Houghton, passed a community bill of rights in 2014 in response to a planned dumpsite for fracking wastewater. A judge overturned the ordinance the following year, but legal maneuvering (including a home rule charter the township approved in 2015) has kept the dumpsite stalled.
The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund has been promoting community rights and the rights of nature since the 1990s, offering “democracy schools” where people can learn how to get ordinances passed. Over 200 cities and towns in six U.S. states have created such laws. Some of these small, rural, conservative towns have even legalized civil disobedience to protect their water and land.
In a legal system designed to protect corporate interests, communities have limited rights, the nonprofit maintains. Corporations claim rights to “free speech,” meaning unlimited campaign contributions to politicians. Regulatory agencies set “allowable levels” of toxins and carcinogens in air and water emissions, shielding permit holders from liability. Under Dillon’s Rule, state legislatures pre-empt the rights of municipalities. And anyone owning property has the legal right to destroy it, allowing the actions of a few to impact a community’s entire ecosystem.
Consider climate change
The N.C. Climate Solutions Coalition is working with local communities to promote fossil fuel independence. Boone and Sylva, says Houghton, have already approved local versions of N.C. House Resolution 401, which calls for 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. Asheville City Council just approved a similar resolution.
But Council member Cecil Bothwell doesn’t believe Duke Energy will honor those local pledges unless it’s forced to do so. “Given that we don’t control the utility, our influence will be slim,” he predicts. In home rule states, Bothwell points out, it’s much easier for cities that own utilities “to actually follow through with that goal.”
Setting a lofty goal is great, but in order to get us there we’ll need yearly steps and benchmarks, such as those in the Energy Descent Action Plans proposed by the transition town movement.
And in the meantime, Bothwell remains committed to renewable energy. “I live in a net-zero, all-electric solar home as an investment in our common future. More and more home and business owners are making a similar investment. The city continues to explore ways to use our building rooftops for solar, and the county will make a big contribution with the project at the old landfill.”
Climate change, he says, “must be considered in every decision we make as a community. It’s an existential threat to modern civilization and possibly all higher life forms on this planet.”
Do not drink
Natural gas “is actually worse than coal in its immediate effect on climate,” notes Houghton. There are also significant health concerns. Arden residents and people living near compressor stations, where methane gas is routinely vented, will feel the most direct effects of the planned natural gas-powered plants, she says, adding that people in such areas have more health problems.
Jeri Cruz-Segarra lives across the French Broad River from the coal-fired Lake Julian plant. Six years ago, tests of neighborhood residents’ wells revealed high levels of hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen, and boron, a precursor of the substance. Residents, backed up by the nonprofit Clean Water for North Carolina, say that coal ash stored in unlined ponds on Duke’s property is the likeliest source.
“Mark Sumner, his wife, Sissy, and another person on this street died of cancer, as well as five dogs,” says Cruz-Segarra somberly. “Two of those dogs were mine.” Another couple, whose well was condemned, have cancer and lost their son to cancer. In 2015, everyone living on that street received “do not drink” letters from the state health director. “Dr. Williams, health director under Gov. McCrory, reversed that letter in August 2016,” Cruz-Segarra explains, “but Dr. Rudo, the state’s toxicologist, told us the well water was still unsafe to drink. Duke has provided bottled water, but they say it’s safe to shower and wash clothes in well water.”
Residents have asked Duke to connect them to city water; the utility has instead offered much cheaper whole-house water filters. “If Duke had moral fiber, they would clean up their coal ash and provide city water, and not raise ratepayers’ costs to pay for their mistakes,” Cruz-Segarra maintains. Duke’s shareholders, she continues, made billions last year, and the company just requested a 16.7 percent rate increase for residential customers.
Who owns the sun?
NC WARN, a Durham nonprofit, supports the community rights movement and opposes House Bill 589, which passed the House and is now awaiting Senate consideration. Fast-tracked with little time for input from constituents, the bill could hinder the growth of solar power, the group maintains, by allowing Duke to change rates for net metering (rooftop solar). It would prohibit third parties from selling solar power directly to customers while allowing Duke Energy to be involved in all aspects: solar leasing, solar farms and community solar.
Dave Hollister, the CEO of Sundance Power Systems in Weaverville, agrees. Hollister, who’s also a member of the Alliance for Energy Democracy, says Duke “is acting against the public good by protecting and expanding centralized dirty energy systems over wide-scale adoption of solar, wind and other technologies which do not destroy our planet.”
Longtime environmental activist Cathy Holt (email@example.com) is part of the Asheville community rights movement. Besides coaching in communication and personal resilience (HeartMath), she teaches the Connection Practice.