Environmental groups push back against Duke Energy’s plan to build more natural gas plants

CHARLOTTE — It’s no secret, the Carolinas are growing and quickly. According to the U.S. Census, South Carolina is the fastest-growing state in the country and North Carolina is number five.

All of that growth means we’re demanding more and more electricity, not just to power our homes, but also for our growing manufacturing sector. That’s why Duke Energy says it wants to add a lot more power to the grid as quickly as the utility company can, but renewable energy advocates are skeptical about how claiming the plan relies too much on carbon-emitting natural gas and unproven developing technology.

Duke Energy submits a plan every two years, in compliance with North Carolina law, explaining how the utility plans to meet future energy needs and work toward the state’s mandated carbon-reduction guidelines. Duke Energy must work toward a 70% reduction in CO2 emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050. The law allows some leeway for Duke’s deadlines should it need extra time to meet the goals due to factors outside the utility’s control or in the event necessary to maintain the reliability of the existing power grid.

“The growth that North Carolina and South Carolina together are experiencing is eight times the load growth that we projected just two years ago,” spokesperson Bill Norton said. “Every plant that we built and contracted with over the last 60 years, we have to build half that again in the next decade just to meet the demand that is coming our way.”

Duke Energy filed its latest update to its plan at the end of January. To meet a new, even higher energy demand than they predicted just six months ago, the utility plans to retire its coal plants and build more solar, fast-track wind farms, both on and offshore, build more battery and pumped storage, and build 10 more natural gas units over the next 11 years.

“Our growth is heavily dominated with manufacturing and technology like data centers. Those are industries that don’t shut down when the sun sets,” Norton said. “Those industries need energy sources that are 24/7-365 no matter the weather conditions.”

Of all our current technologies, Norton said natural gas can best meet that need, and allow the company to retire its coal-burning plants, which emit far more CO2, faster, but clean energy advocates, including Justin Somelofske, are skeptical, especially given the plan includes a provision to build a natural gas plant in South Carolina.

The plan argues emissions from that plant should not count against Duke Energy’s effort to meet North Carolina’s carbon reduction targets as the plant will not contribute to carbon emissions in the state.

“State law applies to North Carolina facilities and we’re going to meet state law here while also meeting the needs of our customers in South Carolina,” Norton said.

Somelofske argues that the interpretation of the law is inconsistent with Duke’s plan. Electricity produced on the Duke Energy grid is consistently shared across state lines and Duke’s carbon reduction plans count South Carolina’s nuclear plants and the Bad Creek facility in Oconee County towards its avoided emissions counts yet, therefore out-of-state generation that produces emissions should count as well.

“It’s something that stakeholders have been vigorously advocating not to happen,” Somelofske said. “That is a promise that stakeholders were earnest on and that Duke agreed to and there seems to be some backtracking there.”

Somelofske is also concerned with Duke Energy’s claim that these will be “hydrogen-capable natural gas” plants. Hydrogen-capable means the plants intend to mix hydrogen, which does not produce CO2 when it burns, into the natural gas fuel to reduce emissions. The theory is that, as technology develops, the plants can replace more and more of that natural gas with hydrogen further reducing emissions. Supporters of the technology believe retrofitting these natural gas plants to burn hydrogen could take advantage of existing infrastructure to ease the transition to green energy. Some scientists and energy advocates are skeptical.

“Duke is building all these new [natural gas plants] with the expectation that they’ll be able to burn hydrogen fuel in the near future,” he said. “That is a speculative technology. It is not cheap or as simple as Duke seems to be glossing over.”

Somelofske said the commitment to unproven technology, such as hydrogen-capable natural gas, could have a high-cost burden not only on the planet but also on energy bills.

“We’re talking about building all these new gas plants that need natural gas to burn in the interim and then they’ll be transitioning over to a fuel that we do not have at scale,” he said. “It is gonna be expensive, there is gonna be competition and it is not as proven as some of the other resources.”

Norton pushed back on the claim that hydrogen technology is unproven, pointing to Duke Energy’s pilot hydrogen plant in Florida, set to come online later this year. While the plant will start producing a relatively small amount of energy, Norton is confident it will scale as technology advances.

“The technology is there it’s just a matter of implementing it,” he said.

Somelofske said there is a silver lining in Duke’s new plan. The company plans to increase its investment in solar, wind and storage and is not delaying its coal plant retirements. By committing to a more aggressive strategy to build those resources, Somelofske believes Duke can reach its carbon goals faster and with less expense to ratepayers.

“If we go about this the right way and that is investing in technologies we already know and that would be wind, solar and battery storage,” he said. “There’s less execution risk cause there’s familiarity with those technologies.”

The North Carolina Utilities Commission will hold a public hearing on the plan in April and make a final decision on how Duke Energy should move forward by the end of December.

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Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini, wsoctv.com

Michelle is a climate reporter for Channel 9.