What the EPA’s new power plant rules could mean for Duke Energy

CHARLOTTE — Thursday, the EPA announced new rules aimed at reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from coal and natural gas power plants. The EPA also plans to tighten federal standards for how utilities dispose of and store coal ash.

According to EPA Administrator Michael Regan, the rules aim to reduce the public health and climate impacts of new natural gas and existing coal power plants that are planned to run in the long term.

Duke Energy plans to retire all of its coal units by 2036, though, it’s currently requesting the North Carolina Utilities Commission to approve a plan that adds 10 new natural gas units over the next 11 years.

In a statement to Channel 9, Duke Energy spokesperson Jeff Brooks said the utility is still analyzing the final rules, but the company believes it will not change their path forward.

“We [will] continue retiring our coal plants and supporting the state’s unprecedented growth with an all-of-the-above approach that is designed to deliver affordability and reliability for customers,” he said. “Natural gas remains an essential resource in that mix that can be dispatched to meet demand 24/7.”

Natural gas rules

Given Duke’s efforts to expand natural gas, complying with the new gas plant rule will likely be the utility’s biggest challenge. The new regulations require new natural gas plants to cut or capture 90 percent of their greenhouse gas emissions by 2032.

The rules allow for power plants to use carbon capture technology, which is currently considered expensive and energy-intensive or to switch to hydrogen fuel, an option Duke Energy has said it is pursuing for its new plants, though environmental advocates are also skeptical the country could build up a large enough hydrogen supply chain to accommodate its use at that scale.

North Carolina relies on natural gas for roughly 42 percent of its electricity generation.

Coal rules

The new rules will require coal plants slated to operate through or after 2039 to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent by 2032. Plants set to close before 2039 need to reduce their emissions by 16 percent before 2030, unless they retire before 2032.

According to Duke Energy’s Integrated Resource Plan, only one coal unit, Cliffside unit six, is set to operate after 2039. However, it is planned to operate on 100 percent natural gas beyond 2035.

Six other units are set to retire after 2032 and would be subject to the 16 percent near-term emissions reductions, Marshall units three and four (set to retire in 2032), Belews Creek units one and two (set to retire in 2036) and Roxboro units three and four (set to retire in 2034).

North Carolina currently gets about 11 percent of its electricity from coal-fired power plants.

Coal ash rules

The EPA is also finalizing new rules Coal ash, the solid byproduct of burning coal, will also get its own rule tightening current requirements for storage and disposal to prevent basins from leaking into water supplies or leaching into the groundwater through soil.

North Carolina has its own state coal ash regulations, written in the wake of the 2014 Dan River disaster.

Duke Energy is now required to store ash in lined pits at active coal-fired plants and is currently excavating 20 million tons of coal ash currently sitting in unlined pits at sites across the state. The process is expected to last until 2038.

Duke Energy has requested the new EPA rule grandfather in the excavation work already completed so that closed basins do not need to be re-opened and re-excavated.

(WATCH: 10 years ago, one of the largest coal ash disasters changed NC environmental history)

Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini, wsoctv.com

Michelle is a climate reporter for Channel 9.