Thursday, July 04, 2013

Ground zero for climate change? Corporate culprits in Charlotte

A rally in Charlotte last week against a corporation driving climate change. Photo: Sally Kneidel
Last year during the DNC, I heard activist leaders refer to Charlotte as "ground zero for climate change." I was startled by that.  I grew up in Charlotte and the city has seldom surprised me.  But that made me curious. So I decided to get more active in Greenpeace-Charlotte, and started reading the websites of NC WARN and Rainforest Action Network (RAN). Turns out, the culprits are very specific.  Climate activists are focused primarily on two corporate giants.

Duke Energy and Bank of America are both headquartered in Charlotte, and they’re both major players in climate change, as in driving climate change, through coal.  The tipping point where climate change will accelerate regardless of what we do is getting very close. And coal is a major cause – a cause that we could eliminate. According to Greenpeace, coal is the largest single source of climate-changing pollution in the world.

Activists in Charlotte. Photo: Sally Kneidel
What’s Bank of America's role in the coal debacle?  This Charlotte-based bank is the biggest bank in the U.S. and the country's top financier of the coal industry.  RAN reports that BofA has invested more than $6.4 billion in coal in just the last couple of years, ranging from coal mining to the construction of coal plants.  RAN is running a major campaign against Bank of America’s involvement in coal. For more info about BofA's link to climate change, see

And then there’s Duke Energy, the other culprit and the focus of this post.  

Activists in Charlotte "Duke Energy: Make Charlotte a CLEAN energy hub" Photo: Sally Kneidel
 Across the planet, anxious eyes are on Duke Energy…because it is the world’s largest corporate utility. Duke’s stature in the energy sector is formidable.  As we approach the climate’s tipping point, will Duke use its influence to lead the world away from the economic and social chaos of a disintegrating climate?  The answer appears to be simple, and definitive.  No.  Duke’s “2012 Sustainability Report” blithely admits to “an upward trend in our CO2 emissions in the years ahead.”  Duke’s CO2 emissions will keep rising because their 20-year plan (the “IRP”) calls for continued heavy reliance on coal, bolstered by nuclear and natural gas. With this plan, Charlotte’s electric company is likely to maintain its distinction as our nation’s second-largest utility emitter of CO2.

So, surely Duke has some clean renewables in the mix.  Maybe elsewhere, but not here. While other utilities across the country are turning to wind and solar, Duke Energy Carolinas plans to derive only 2.2% of its generating capacity from wind and solar, and only 2.2% from energy-efficiency programs for at least the next 20 years.  Shocking but not that surprising, when you understand the corporate mindset that made Duke the biggest in the world.  You see, the more power plants Duke builds, the more profit they make.  Duke is guaranteed by the state to receive a 10.7% rate of return on equity (ROE), which includes construction projects.  Solar threatens this business model. For one thing, solar panels can allow families to generate on-site power, rather than buying electricity from a huge utility.  With such a decentralized power source, Duke would lose considerable control over ratepayers. 

Ever wonder who pays for all the construction of expensive power plants with Duke’s current plan?  Ratepayers like you and me. Not North Carolina’s new energy-hogging data centers (server farms). They and many giant corporations get special deals and much lower rates.  (Google “Duke’s rate rigging scheme” for a great explanation of that; it’s on the website of NC WARN.)  No, you and I will pay for the new plants we don’t want, or at least, that's Duke's plan for us, as captive ratepayers. Since Duke's a monopoly in NC, we have no other electric utility to choose.

But we do have a voice, and we have a responsibility to use it.  

Demonstration against rate-hikes in Charlotte. Photo: Sally Kneidel
Duke is right now seeking approval from the Utilities Commission for an almost 14% rate increase for the average residence and 10% for small to medium-sized businesses.  (The already low rates for many industrial customers and data centers will increase only 3%.)  The rate-hike request will be Duke's third in just four years. They’re also requesting to increase their guaranteed rate of return (ROE) to 11.25% -- a very high profit margin compared to most other businesses. One frustrating aspect of this rate-hike request, for us ratepayers, is that Duke wouldn’t need these new power plants if they aggressively promoted conservation, energy-efficiency, and solar rooftops instead.

If the idea of paying for more than your share of unnecessary plants makes you mad, you have a chance to show your opposition. The N.C. Utilities Commission regulates Duke and must approve their rate-hike requests.

On July 8, there will be an Evidentiary Hearing at the N.C. Utilities Commission in Raleigh NC, with expert witnesses testifying.  Those of us who are fighting the rate-hike will hold a press conference and ratepayers' assembly before the hearing, in front of the building, and everyone is welcome. The address is Dobbs Building, 430 North Salisbury St., Raleigh.  The hearing itself is not a public hearing, the Utilities Commission will not hear comments from the public, but we can sit inside the room where evidence is presented and let our presence be known.

If you don’t make it to the Evidentiary Hearing, you can still submit your comments on the rate hike by emailing or mailing a letter to:
Public Staff — N.C. Utilities Commission
Consumer Services Division
4326 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, NC 27699-4326

To clarify that you’re writing about the Duke rate hike, mention “NCUC Docket E-7, Sub 1026″ in your letter or the subject line of your email.

The Utilities Commission is our best opportunity right now to influence Duke’s future actions. This is the time to email them. Without rate hikes, Duke can’t continue its current plan for the future. If you care about the world your grandchildren will live in, if you care about your pocketbook, please let them know.  Tell them you object to paying for more dirty and dangerous plants.  

For more info, check out this eye-opening fact sheet from NC WARN explaining Duke's secret rate-rigging scheme.  Also, visit the websites of NC WARN and Consumers Against Rate Hikes.

U.S. corporations spread fast-food, meat, and obesity around the globe

Photo: Sally Kneidel

American men gained an average of 19 lbs between 1980 and 2010; American women, 18 lbs. Those are among the fastest weight gains in the world, writes Leslie Patton of Bloomberg News. Much of that weight gain can be attributed to aggressive marketing by fast-food companies such as McDonald's, Domino's Pizza, and Yum Brands (KFC). Heavy sales of processed and packaged foods are also to blame, as described in Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Moss's new expose, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.

Food activists in the U.S. have worked hard to educate the public on the dangers of fast-food, and have made some progress in persuading fast-food restaurants to carry a few less-fatty alternatives.

Plunder abroad

Having saturated the American market, fast-food corporations are now exploiting more vulnerable and less-wary territories abroad. According to the Waistline Index compiled by Bloomberg, men in Mexico, Brazil and Chile are gaining weight these days on a diet high in fast-food, processed food, and sugary drinks.

Likened to smallpox

Tim Lobstein, director of policy and programs at the International Association for the Study of Obesity in London, compares the globalization of the American diet and its health effects to the transmission of smallpox and measles when Europeans entered Central and South America 300 years ago. "The parallel now is the big transnational corporations also setting foot in these remote areas and bringing non-communicable diseases," such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Domino's now has more international locations than U.S. locations.

China a prime target

These efforts to expand markets into un-plundered territory is not entirely new. In my 2008 book Going Green, I and my co-author reported that Tyson Foods entered an agreement with a Hong Kong-based group in 1997 to begin locating poultry complexes throughout China, each designed to process half a million birds per week. At a 2005 food summit in Chicago, a Tyson executive said that Tyson saw its investments in China as laying the "foundation for profits in the coming years."
China's meat consumption per capita doubled in the 20 years between 1985 and 2005, and is still rising today. Yum (KFC) now has 5200 locations in China; the Chinese rate of diabetes is expected to pass that of the U.S. by 2030.

What to do?

Avoid supporting exploitive companies that blatantly value profits over all else, and that target especially vulnerable populations (including American children). Give your food dollars to someone else. Take care of your own family's health by eating plant-based foods. In doing so, you'll also be cutting down on the vast greenhouse-gas emissions associated with the livestock sector, and you'll be choosing a more humane lifestyle.