Richard Fireman, AED’s Public Policy Director, Intervenes in NC Utility Commission Docket on Asheville Gas Plants

Chairman Finely, Commissioners and Members of the Public Staff:

I am a party to this Docket not as an expert witness, because as you know, experts are not allowed to present testimony under rules that the Commission established under the “expedited” requirements of SESSION LAW 2015-110, SENATE BILL 716. If I were to have presented expert testimony, I would have called several experts such as:

Dr. Drew Shindell of Duke University and formerly of NASA’s Goddard Space Institute. Dr Shindell has published widely on issues related to climate change and costs of fuels. I ask you to read this short article, as summary of his most recent work, NEW MODELS YIELD CLEARER PICTURE OF EMISSIONS’ TRUE COSTS.
Dr. Mark Jacobson of Stanford University. His most recent work outlines the current feasibility using existing technologies of reaching a fossil fuel free electric energy sector by 2050. Dr. Jacobson is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. His recent paper is outlined in this short article Stanford engineers develop state-by-state plan to convert U.S. to 100% clean, renewable energy by 2050. For North Carolina, when we transition off of fossil fuels, the number of construction and operation jobs where a person is employed for 40 or more years is over 160,000 individuals. Savings on electricity, health and climate costs are over $6600 per year per individual as depicted in this astonishing graphic.
Dr. James Hansen, American’s foremost climate scientist, has been warning us since 1988 about the dangers of climate change. Dr. Hansen is credited with developing the science that tells us the we must keep the vast majority of fossil fuel reserves in the ground in order to preserve the health and ecological integrity of our planet. A recent summary report of Keep it in the Ground can be read here. Dr. Hansen has testified under oath before Congress ….”IF we push the climate system hard enough if can obtain a momentum, it can pass tipping points, such that climate changes continue, out of control….There is the danger that we will create a different planet, one far outside the range that has existed in the course of human history”1

The reason I bring this important scientific information to your attention is because you and I have experienced a few things in common and are challenged in a similar fashion in our professional roles.

I committed to the study of Medicine in 1963, the same year that the NC General Assembly established the NC Utilities Commission.
At that time the science of climate change was in its infancy at best. The first actual recording of atmospheric CO2 began in 1958. The first reports showed levels of 315 parts per million (now 400 ppm).  Medical science had also begun to accelerate, but things we now take for granted such as CT, MRI, and genetic microbiological pharmaceuticals, open heart and joint replacement surgery had not been invented.
Therefore, responsible decision-making by the NC Utilities Commission and Medical Doctors had a very different context in 1963 versus 2016.
The underlying moral and philosophical precepts have remained constant however. In medicine, we are taught to Do No Harm.  For the Utilities Commission and the Public Staff, the NC Constitution and GS 62-2 provide clear legal and moral guidance.
Section 2 of the Constitution reads
62-2 2(1) To provide fair regulation of public utilities in the interest of the public
62-2 (5) To encourage and promote harmony between public utilities, their users and the environment;
62-2 (10) To promote the development of renewable energy and energy efficiency through the implementation of a Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard (REPS) that will do all of the following:
a. Diversify the resources used to reliably meet the energy needs of consumers in the State.
b. Provide greater energy security through the use of indigenous energy resources available within the State.
c.  Encourage private investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency.
d.  Provide improved air quality and other benefits to energy consumers and citizens of the State.

It is crystal clear to me, that the medical dictum to do no harm and your legal duty to work in the interest of the public are the same clear message, one framed in the negative, one in the positive – just like the two versions of the Golden Rule (Do unto others as your would have them do unto you. – and, Don’t do to others what you would not want them to do to you.) Or even better, For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

In medicine, the goal is clear. We work to preserve and protect life. It is rare in medicine, even in emergencies, that decisions have to be made instantaneously. In well over 99 % of cases in my experience, it is necessary to take time to assess deliberately, gather evidence, then make a treatment plan. That is true even when the patient is critically ill, and it is even more important in that context, because as the person responsible, the doctor, does not want to make the incorrect decision and will resist expedience and haste at the expense of clarity and accurancy.

While the Public Staff and the Commissioners have a long history of making CPCN decisions, weighing evidence, and taking and evaluating testimony from interveners and their experts, you have never had to make such a critical decisionas this CPCN in such a short time from. I am writing these comments on February 9, 2016, and I see that NO COMMENTs from the Interveners have been filed to date. That means that the Public Staff has not had the time to examine any evidence that DOES NOT support DEP’s application. While SESSION LAW 2015-110, SENATE BILL 716 requires that the Public Staff report to Commission at the regular staff meeting on February 22, 2016, there is nothing in Senate Bill 716 that requires the Commission to approve of the CPCN.

Let’s go back to the medical metaphor. Suppose that you have a loved one in extremely ill in your local hospital. It may be a parent, spouse, child or grandchild. Many of his (her) life systems are failing, – the respiratory system, the circulatory system, the kidneys, liver, and immune system. The specialists are good, but there are better world class experts that could be called in to help or to give a “second opinion”.

I can’t imagine that you would not want the experts to help. This is where we are with this distorted rush to make a decision that will affect all people in North Carolina now and for all generations to come. We need the experts for the CPNC.
To consider a 752 MW natural gas fueled electric generation facility, we must recognize a year 2016 context. The guidelines of reliable, adequate and least cost must be examined within the framework of rapidly accelerating climate change.

Certainly the best evidence is that natural gas is not the best choice on which to base an electricity sector. As other comments to this proceeding will make clear, natural gas is a highly potent greenhouse gas. The global warming potential of methane is 72x that of CO2 over a 5 year period. This a good summary article for you to read Methane vs. Carbon Dioxide: A Greenhouse Gas Showdown.
The bottom line is that it is bad idea to replace coal with natural gas. It is like telling your patient with lung cancer to stop smoking a pack of cigarettes per day, but advise that he could replace them with unlimited cigar smoking. Switching from one addictive substance for another.

Jim Rogers, former CEO of Duke Energy, was absolutely correct when he stated that natural gas was the crack cocaine of the fossil fuel industry – both addictive and deadly.

If you replace coal plants in North Carolina with natural gas, we will be doomed to a world 11 degrees warmer sometime by the end of this century. If you green light natural gas electric generation as Duke Energy proposes in its latest IRP, in the next 15 years,
You can almost guarantee that the NC coast will be unrecognizable because of sea level rise, with billions of dollars in property loss and permanent migration of N.C residents from underwater coastal properties.
The coastal fishing industry will be practically non-existent because of changes in ocean ecology caused by acidification and increase in ocean temperature
Eastern N.C. farming will be less productive because of extreme weather events such as droughts and floods. Just this year eastern NC farmers lost harvests due to the heavy rains that caused billions of dollars of damage to the Columbia, SC area.
Public health with be harmed because of heat waves and new forms of infectious disease (think West Nile virus, Dengue Fever, the Zika virus and new forms yet undiscovered or mutations)

As our gatekeeper, the Doctor who makes the decision for all the people in NC, now and into the indefinite future, you must make a wise decision. The odds are against us if you approve of the CPCN as written. What are those odds?

The International Panel on Climate Change says business as usual, (more natural gas infrastructure), will HIGHLY LIKELY result in an 11-degree warmer world by 2100. HIGHLY LIKELY means a 95% or greater chance. In other words, there is a just a one in 20 chance that things will be better than the worst case. Just a 5% chance that we will live in a world as healthy, stable, secure, productive and beautiful that the one into which you were born.

I have read your biographies on the NCUC website. You all are highly educated and accomplished people who are familiar with making difficult decisions. Duke Energy is a huge and powerful corporation that has primary obligation to increasing shareholder value for its stockholders. They are addicted to an old paradigm of boiling water to generate electricity, because it is what they know how to do, and it always makes them a guaranteed profit. They will not change unless forced to do so by the Commission.

You have the authority under GS 62-2 to reject the application as written. As good stewards (the Doctors) of our collective future, you should not rush into the VERY LIKELY risky scenario by approving DEP’s CPCN before instituting a wise, deliberate process, in a time frame that is not constrained by a Senate Session Law that limits your ability to act with due diligence for the general welfare of the people of North Carolina. There is no reasonable way that the Public Staff can review all of the relevant information in this artificially abbreviated time frame.

There are national experts that are ready and willing to add their expertise to full and open examination of DEP’s CPCN.  If you stick with this artificial time frame that serves Duke Energy only, you will set a precedent that will allow friends of Duke Energy in the General Assembly and Governors office to write ad hoc legislation supervening your authority to fairly regulate Duke Energy for the benefit of the people each time Duke Energy wishes to build a dangerous natural gas power plant.

At Duke University’s Nicholas Institute of Environmental Policy Solutions, members of their faculty published a paper about the inadequacies of traditional “least cost” analysis”. They came up with a very detailed and complicated mathematical analysis and better language. Instead of “least” cost, regulators should be analyzing “least risk” and ‘’least regrets” Least Risk Planning for Public Utilities” can be read here.

If you in fact do read this paper, or have witnessed presentations of this form of “least risk” and “least regrets” analysis, you may quickly realize that while these experts are working within a do no harm paradigm, they add several layers of formal mathematical complexity to a very simple problem.

We want to save the patient’s life. This is the clear, simple and straightforward goal. To reach this goal, we MUST transform our electric sector to nearly 100% fossil fuel free electric generation by 2050. All planning and infrastructure must support this goal. After all, we recognize deep in our bones that nature bats last, and in this case of rapidly accelerating global warming, to not pay attention to what our best scientists are telling us to do will certainly end in disasters too dire to contemplate and a sure pathway to maximize regrets.

The people of North Carolina (patients in this metaphor) are relying on you to protect them. You not only have the authority to reject this CPCN, you have the moral, legal and fiduciary responsibility to do so. For our collective future and for the health and welfare of all the ones you love, please deny DEP’s application as written.


Richard Fireman

2 Responses to Richard Fireman, AED’s Public Policy Director, Intervenes in NC Utility Commission Docket on Asheville Gas Plants

  1. Maureen Linneman says:

    Dear Richard,
    Your wise words are welcomed by, We The People, who indeed care for our health and well being and that of our future generations. Thank you for making clear the moral dimension of the NC Utilities Commission’s responsibility.
    To each Commissioner: As our representative, in light of all the science and knowledge that has been brought to you,we must be assured that your decisions will not be shortsighted or neglectful so as to cause harm to us or our relations.
    Maureen Linneman

  2. Paul Smith says:

    Dear Richard,
    Thank you for your thoughtful and provocative message. As a retired educator and human service professional I continue to be an avid follower of news and developments within the utility industry as the path to a clean energy future is under discussion. I personally regard this issue as crucial — requiring research and rapid response as if our house is on fire. Given what we now know about the pace of climate change and implications for the future, it is past time to commit to clean energy. We already know that climate has changed due to human impact. We also know that the time for corrective action is now.

    Challenges are steep for the utility industry. The business model that organizes industry structure, the design of energy transmission, and how to integrate clean distributed into energy supplies for large cities as well as rural areas are examples of parts of this challenge. Knowledge and brain power are certainly present to think through, plan, and take rapid action. My question though is is there sufficient to change current behavior in order to avert future crisis?

    We know that this is a moral issue. Quality of life as well as health of future generations are at stake.

    Again I am grateful for your message.

    Paul Smith

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