Duke Energy’s carbon plan criticized by environmentalists


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Duke Energy’s proposal to cut carbon emissions will be the subject of a series of public hearings which began Monday evening in Durham. Here, a network operator is pictured at Duke’s Distribution Control Center.

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Over the next six weeks, the NC Utilities Commission will travel across North Carolina, hearing public input on a proposal that will guide how the state reduces emissions from the electricity sector.

Last year’s House Bill 951 required the Public Utilities Commission to approve a plan by the end of 2022 that will determine how Duke Energy will achieve a 70% reduction in carbon emissions from baseline levels. 2005 by 2030. The legislation offers some leniency if the commission decides that greater reductions can be achieved by certain projects that might take longer to complete.

Duke filed a draft version of the plan in May, effectively asking the commission to approve the steps that leave four pathways available that include various mixes of renewable power generation, gas-fired power plants and some new technologies like small reactors. modular nuclear.

This initial plan has met with opposition from environmental groups, who note that three of Duke’s four pathways include measures that allow it to achieve the 70% reduction after 2030 and are concerned about emissions from new gasworks. These and other concerns are likely to be raised at the hearings, which started Monday evening in Durham.

Forest Bradley-Wright, director of energy efficiency for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said Duke should focus its resources on renewable energy and energy efficiency efforts rather than gas-fired power plants.

“It’s pretty simple: if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging,” Bradley-Wright said.

Recent research, including a 2021 report from the United Nations Environment Programme, found that reducing methane emissions could play a key role in slowing climate change. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas that persists in the environment for about a decade, while carbon dioxide can last for hundreds of years.

House Bill 951 only requires Duke to reduce carbon emissions. Environmental advocates would like the Public Utilities Commission to give more consideration to methane and other greenhouse gases when developing the reduction plan.

Lindsey Hallock, Vote Solar’s senior southeast regional manager, said she hopes the commission and Duke will take methane emissions into account.

“We felt like this was an obvious loophole built into the law when it was passed and we hoped Duke would do the right thing,” Hallock said, “but so far in this plan, unfortunately, it seems that methane is not taken into account at all.”

Duke officials argue that House Bill 951 requires them to consider reliability in addition to carbon reductions and affordability. The company sees natural gas plants as a key tool to achieve this.

Glen Snider, Duke’s general manager of resource planning and analytics, said the company is “going from the Ford F-150 to a hybrid SUV and then eventually we’ll become Tesla down the road, but there are still room for gas in your path as a vital transition tool to maintain reliability and affordability.”

Snider added that the portfolios offered by Duke include 3.2 or 3.5 gigawatts of natural gas while the other new generations range from 8.9 to 13.1 gigawatts.

Duke has also committed to achieving a goal of net-zero methane emissions from its natural gas business by 2030, which it plans to achieve by monitoring for leaks and using plastic or coated steel pipes. , among other measures. Earlier this year, Duke said it was aiming for net-zero emissions by 2050 from where it buys the gas and from the customers who use it.

New technology or “unnecessary risk? »

Snider also raised the possibility that natural gas infrastructure could eventually be used to transport a mixture of gas and hydrogen. Although the technology has not been widely used in the United States, the US Department of Energy invested $9.5 billion in hydrogen in the Infrastructure Act last year.

“We can further decarbonize these new plants as hydrogen becomes a more readily available fuel source in the coming decades,” Snider said.

But talk of hydrogen and small modular nuclear reactors is alarming to some groups, who argue that pricing a technology that is not yet available is difficult and risky to consider it key. emissions reductions, even as the window to avoid the worst impacts of climate change shrinks.

A small modular reactor, for example, is about one-third the size of a traditional nuclear reactor and, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, can be built cheaper and faster than its larger counterparts. But none are currently operating in the United States, and all four of Duke’s portfolios include new small modular reactors by 2035.

Joel Porter, Policy Manager for CleanAIRE NC, said, “This adds unnecessary risk and I suspect that renewable energy prices will continue to steadily decline, which would likely contradict some of the numbers Duke used in their modeling.

If models show the price of solar power continuing to fall, Porter said, it would make more sense to model a plan around even more panels instead of small modular nuclear reactors or new gas infrastructure.

Bradley-Wright also expressed concern that Duke is pushing back the 70% cut to 2032 in one scenario and 2034 in two others. The 2032 instance allows the construction or purchase of additional offshore wind power while the 2034 timeframe allows the construction of a small modular nuclear reactor.

Conservationists like Bradley-Wright say solar panels, battery storage and other readily available technologies could meet the goal by 2030.

“There’s plenty of time between now and then the focus will be on how to get to the goal, without moving the goal post before you’ve even started,” he said.

Another major concern is how the emissions reduction plan could impact low-income North Carolina customers and those who live near potential new power plants.

“I think they have a lot more to do in terms of energy affordability, energy equity, making sure the transition from fossil fuels is fair,” Porter said.

Kendal Bowman, Duke’s vice president of regulatory affairs and policy, acknowledged that regardless of the path taken, the company will build an enormous amount of new infrastructure over the next 30 years.

As the company decides where to install new solar farms and potentially new gas-fired power plants or small modular nuclear reactors, officials will use environmental justice screening tools from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department energy to determine whether the proposed facilities are built in places where they exacerbate social inequalities. Duke, Bowman said, will also check with local staff to see if there are any concerns.

“You have to look on a case-by-case basis: are there any mitigation measures needed? Is there anything that needs to change? Are there more analyzes to be done? But it’s a new process that we’re still trying to understand and implement across the business,” Bowman said.

What happens after

Following the Monday evening hearing in Durham, the NC Utilities Commission will hold hearings at the following times and locations:

  • July 12, 7 p.m., New Hanover County Courthouse, 317 Princess St., Wilmington
  • July 27, 7 p.m., Buncombe County Courthouse, 60 Court Plaza, Asheville
  • July 28, 7 p.m., Mecklenburg County Courthouse, 832 E. 4th St., Charlotte
  • August 23, 1:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. virtually. Only the first 20 speakers who register will be able to speak at these events. Those wishing to speak can register by calling 919-733-0837 or emailing [email protected] Those wishing to speak will be asked to provide their name, E-100 Sub 179 case number, phone number they will be calling from and the topic they will be discussing.

The Public Utilities Commission must approve a carbon plan by the end of the year.

Although Duke’s proposal is one version the commission will consider, the Southern Environmental Law Center said it would propose an alternative plan on behalf of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club. Friday is the deadline for organizations intervening in the case to file alternative plans or technical comments.

This story was produced with the financial support of 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of a freelance journalism fellowship program. The N&O retains full editorial control of the work.

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Adam Wagner covers climate change and other environmental issues in North Carolina. Her work is produced with the financial support of 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of a freelance journalism fellowship program. Wagner’s previous work at The News & Observer included coverage of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and North Carolina’s recovery from recent hurricanes. He previously worked at the Wilmington StarNews.

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