Something's got to give on energy
Maybe I shouldn't complain about our high heating bills this winter. If you have the right perspective, learning to live with the thermostat permanently set at just a few degrees above ice-fishing weather can probably be a character building experience.
For me, it just changed my character into that of numb and walking parka.
Others I've talked to had a similarly miserly time of it. One friend said her family's utility bills were running $500, sometimes $600 a month. Our own utility bills never got quite that high, but only because the first floor of our house requires oil for heat. At close to four bucks a gallon, we kept the heat off on that floor most of the time; otherwise we'd have been looking at almost a grand a month to keep the whole house warm.
Why is it that more businesses aren't putting a spotlight on that fact that so many would-be patrons are having to delegate their disposable income to heating their houses and keeping gas in their cars instead? I don't believe it's a coincidence that so many small businesses in Rutherford County, especially restaurants, are having a hard time staying open. Fewer people have the extra money to go out to eat. A break in utility and gas prices would change that.
Even our towns are having to do without less because of rising energy bills. To put this into perspective, imagine what a struggling little town like Spindale, my town, could do with even a quarter of the close to $200,000 a year it pays to Duke Energy to keep the street lights on, run the wastewater plant, and other energy-intensive municipal services.
It could pay the salary and benefits of a police officer, instead of having to let one go. Repave a street or two of the many in town in dire need of it. Or any number of things that an extra $50K a year could pay for.
Spindale town manager Cameron McHargue tells me that in the past three to four years, Duke Energy has gotten particularly aggressive in its planning for rate increases. Our state's Utility Commission regularly approves these increases, too. For a town like Spindale, McHargue says, that means having to sit down and figure out where to extract an additional $15K to $17K a year to pay for the same amount of electricity you were using before.
I believe there is a reason Duke is getting ever more aggressive with the rate increases, even beyond the reality that our elected leadership allows it. I believe the utility monopoly knows that the twilight of fossil fuels will happen in our lifetime, and the company better get what it can while the going's good.
Man, does it have the perfect business model to do so.
Unlike conventional companies, Duke's revenues are earned through what is known as a "cost-of-service, rate-regulated model." This means that, by law, Duke can charge customers the cost of providing service, plus a return on business or profit. In short, the more expensive an investment Duke makes in generating and distributing energy, the more profit it makes.
Thus, the push for adding expensive natural gas-powered plants, the cost of which Duke has cited in its last several rate increases.
Presently none of these profits are going towards creating a better energy model for the next generation. And that is recklessly irresponsible of my own generation, of "Generation X." Without cheap energy - to heat our homes and drive our cars - our children won't inherit the kind of lifestyle that we enjoyed, albeit increasingly less in the past decade or so. (A dismaying observation: I was actually able to keep my thermostat at a higher temperature when I was a waitress living in a third-floor walkup apartment back in the '90s.)
Here is what I propose: if the government can write legislation that guarantees Duke Energy billions of dollars in profit, then it can pass laws that redirect much of that profit to installing solar panels on residential homes and businesses until everyone in North Carolina who wants one has a solar-paneled roof. Additional profits can be used to install electric car stations, powered with, in part, solar energy energy generated from our homes and sold back to Duke.
For the reasons I outlined above, this is likely the only way Duke Energy will ever invest in technology that brings back cheap energy - which our economy depends on to thrive and which we do owe to the next generation. Because if we reach the point where Americans can't spend their money on much else besides energy, the American way of life will be finished.
Stephanie Janard is a mother and writer who lives in Spindale. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.