Public weighs in on Duke Energy’s plans to increase capacity and cut emissions

CHARLOTTE — In the second of five North Carolina Utilities Commission public hearings, more than two dozen Duke customers and environmental activists criticized Duke Energy’s plans to reach state energy goals by dramatically increasing the state’s reliance on natural gas.

By the end of the year, the NCUC will determine how Duke Energy should increase it’s energy output to meet growing demand and meet state-mandated carbon emission goals without putting the grid’s stability in jeopardy or passing on unreasonable cost-burdens to ratepayers. Under North Carolina law, Duke Energy must submit a plan every two years laying out the utility’s strategy to meet those standards, including a 70 percent reduction in CO2 emissions from 2005 levels by 2030, and net neutral emissions by 2050.

The current plan details efforts to add nearly 6500 MW of utility scale solar and significantly expand battery storage over the next five years. It also includes plans to add offshore wind and advanced nuclear (a small modular reactor) to the grid by the mid 2030s. At the same time, it includes adding five new combined cycle natural gas plants and five additional natural gas turbines at other locations, by 2033.

In a rally before Wednesday’s hearing at the Mecklenburg County courthouse, environmental groups said Duke’s gas-reliant plan will have massive costs both to ratepayers and to the climate.

“They get to charge me,” Angela James, from the North Carolina Black Leadership Organizing Collective said. “I’m a customer you know, to build a plant, make a profit, return on that investment, and then charge me for every penny it costs to fuel those unnecessary gas plants that threaten our health and our climate.”

Power plants are large, expensive investments built to last decades, so new natural gas power plants built in the next 10 years would likely run until at least the 2060s. Bill Norton, a spokesman for Duke Energy, said these new plants are intended to transition to hydrogen fuel, which doesn’t emit CO2 when burned, but in the meantime, the grid needs a reliable source of energy that can work when renewables like solar and wind are unavailable.

“Solar doesn’t help you on cold, winter mornings before the sun rises, also if you think about the jobs and industries that are coming to north Carolina, manufacturing, technology, these are industries that are running more than 90 percent of the time,” he said.

Many of the speakers were skeptical of a hydrogen fuel transition, however, and instead called on Duke to try to come up with a version of their plan that didn’t include any fossil fuels. Jessica Finkel of Sunrise Movement Charlotte said she wants the plan to consider the comparatively inexpensive costs of building renewables like solar and wind to the unstable costs associated with sourcing and fueling a natural gas plant. She believes a more renewable-reliant plan, that focuses on behind the meter strategies like encouraging residential solar and storage would come out better for customers and the climate.

“Duke Energy’s Carbon Plan risks imposing significant costs and risks on electricity customers, particularly residential ratepayers, while minimizing the potential benefits of energy efficiency and demand-side investments.”

She and many other speakers also criticized Duke Energy’s most recent supplement to its carbon plan, which claims their preferred target date for a 70 percent emissions reduction is 2035. By law, the NCUC can allow Duke Energy to miss its 2030 deadline if it’s pursuing offshore wind or advanced nuclear as the projects require longer permitting processes, development timelines and therefore risk delays outside of Duke’s control.

“We see that happening between supply chains and just technology evolution, it’s going to take until the mid-2030s until those technologies are feasible but we have them in our plan and we intend to use them,” Norton said.

As for the 2030 deadline, Norton said Duke has not ruled it out, but when it comes to meeting the current demands of the rapidly growing population and economy in the Carolinas, it’s looking more and more challenging.

“We think hitting it by 2035 would be more cost-effective for customers,” he said.

After the public hearings the NCUC will hear from expert witnesses and intervenors who can suggest their own alternatives to Duke’s plan. Ultimately, the NCUC will make a decision on the strategy the state believes it should follow before the end of the year.


Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini, wsoctv.com

Michelle is a climate reporter for Channel 9.

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