By Scott Davis
In 2015, Duke Energy’s state-sanctioned monopoly in North Carolina faced a pair of very different challenges from two vastly different communities. In western North Carolina, thousands of people – mostly White, middle-class, with little organizing experience–turned out in droves to attack Duke Energy’s plans for their beloved mountains. Two hundred miles away in Greensboro, a Piedmont church – serving a mostly Black, low-income community with a history of activism and advocacy stretching back decades – simply put solar panels on its roof. The outcomes of these community challenges – the former a victory, the latter (at least currently) a defeat – raise critical questions about the future of renewable energy in North Carolina, and the power of grassroots campaigns to determine its fate.
“Can they really do this?” Phoebe Blackwell remembers thinking when she first got her letter. “I mean, this is America…right?”
Last summer, my mother called me in a frantic panic. She’d gotten the same letter that Blackwell had. The letter announced that Duke Energy would be considering our land as a site for their new transmission line. If this occurred, my parents would sell their home – they’d move. I couldn’t imagine my parents living somewhere else, or imagine not being able to truly go home again. So, like thousands of others in western North Carolina, I began to organize.
Even though I didn’t really know where to start.
This planned transmission line constituted part of Duke Energy’s Western Carolinas Modernization Project. Their plan involved replacing a coal plant in Asheville with a natural gas facility, which at first seemed like a victory for Duke Energy’s opponents. Environmental activists had long railed against the filthy Asheville coal plant and, finally, it was going offline. However, to accompany the natural gas facility, Duke Energy proposed a new power line, a 40-mile monster that would stretch from Asheville to Campobello, South Carolina. In order to meet federal reliability standards, the company said, the transmission line had to be built.
Nettie Fisher—White, mid-twenties, fresh out of college—also faced the prospect of losing her parents’ home. She does not consider herself an activist. “The extent of my activism previously was limited to signing petitions—you know, very passive involvement,” she said. Yet when Duke Energy’s proposal reached her and her family, she became a passionate organizer. “We all did not rest,” she said, “until it was stopped.”
Stopping Duke Energy has become something of a Herculean task in North Carolina. With a state-sanctioned energy monopoly, a former employee of 28 years in the governor’s mansion, and millions in political donations flowing into the pockets of decision makers, the utility company has enmeshed the state in its corporate interests. While the state government has the duty to rein in Duke Energy when its plans do not serve the interests of the people, that duty has not been fulfilled in recent years.
All told, Duke Energy outlined forty-four potential routes for their new transmission line. At first, no one seemed to know what to do. But people talk, and as they talked, they realized they had to do something. “We banded with some of our neighbors,” Fisher said, “and the best way to make sure our concerns were being heard was to form a sort of grassroots campaign—the Carolina Land Coalition.”
Organizations like the Carolina Land Coalition (CLC) quickly materialized across the region. Homeowners’ associations formed networks, linking together previously unconnected neighborhoods.
But almost immediately, the burgeoning movement faced a potential existential crisis. “I’m a classic NIMBY—not in my backyard,” Baird Blake told me. Blake began to organize his neighborhood almost immediately, concerned that the lines would crater his property value.
As more and more people joined the movement against Duke Energy, the possibility became very real that their efforts would splinter, pitting neighborhoods against each other as much as against Duke itself. “There was some feeling of inevitability,” Fisher said, “that the transmission lines would be built one way or another. And that makes people feel like it’s best for them to just fight for their own land.” Duke Energy’s own employees believed this, too. According to Tom Williams, a Duke Energy spokesperson, if the company had just picked one route, instead of selecting various routes to study, “we wouldn’t have bothered eighty percent of the people that were mad.”
But the company had bothered all those people. And even as the movement threatened to fragment (Blake found many of the environmental groups organizing against Duke simply “too tree-huggerish” and impractical for his taste), organizations and local individuals became more and more active, more and more vocal.
“These aren’t people who are just protesting something to be protesting,” said Joan Walker of Mountain True, a western North Carolina environmental non-profit. Though their politics are disparate, their interests converged for multiple reasons and across multiple spaces. Much to its chagrin, Duke Energy had mobilized a mass of mostly White, property-owning people into the streets, parading and protesting its plans.
That same summer, half the state away in Greensboro, a climate justice non-profit called NC WARN partnered with Faith Community Church and its sister organization, Beloved Community Center, to install twenty solar panels on the church’s roof.
In 2015, one would not expect this to be newsworthy. Solar power has become prevalent across much of the United States, and in North Carolina, solar has grown quite rapidly in recent years—in many aspects, because of Duke Energy. North Carolina is one of the top five states in the nation in terms of currently installed solar. As recently as 2014, North Carolina added nearly 400MW of solar capacity, the second most in America during that year.
Yet, this one small church installing a few solar panels triggered a legal fight that could greatly improve access to solar energy in North Carolina. This is due to the nature of the third-party Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) reached between NC WARN and Faith Community Church. This type of agreement involves a residence or business simply paying the owners of solar panels (in this case, NC WARN) for the power the units generate, rather than buying the panels outright. This helps churches, schools, and homeowners avoid the prohibitively high upfront costs of solar power. Yet, North Carolina is one of only four U.S. states that currently does not allow third-party sales. The Faith Community Church “test case,” as NC WARN Director Jim Warren calls it, has the potential to change that.