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Large Power Plants Sit Idle in North Carolina while Duke Wants to Raise Rates to Build New Ones – News Release by NC WARN

Duke Energy has a hefty surplus of generation capacity; it should promptly retire at least one newer coal-burning plant and stop trying to build nuclear reactors

Statement by Director Jim Warren:

Durham, NC – Duke Energy is billing customers for billions of dollars worth of workhorse power plants that sit idle much of the time or which spew coal pollution while on standby – without generating electricity. Yet the utility is building another large coal unit and seeking licenses for new nuclear reactors, which would provide huge boosts to revenues and electricity rates.

Duke’s surplus capacity will last indefinitely, and it extends far beyond the small, older units the utility has said it will retire in coming years. Progress Energy also enjoys surplus generation with so-called baseload plants – its nuclear reactors and largest coal units. State regulators should proceed toward closing all under-used coal units, and should cancel licensing efforts for new nuclear reactors.

NC WARN has submitted these findings, based on our analysis of utility data, to the NC Utilities Commission and we’re calling for an evidentiary hearing.*

In this and other dockets, we will ask the Commission to investigate whether customers deserve compensation for unwise investments in under-used power plants. Ratepayers should not be on the hook for expensive facilities that aren’t needed.

A long-running myth is that baseload plants operate around the clock except during periodic maintenance, and that customer demand never falls below the baseload output level. But Duke’s own Base Load Power Plant Performance Reports show that during most of the year, round-the-clock customer demand drops far below the combined output of its baseload units.

Baseload plants are not suited for daily or seasonal fluctuations in electricity demand because they are slow to fire up and power down. Such fluctuations, including peak demand periods, are now handled mostly by gas or hydro units, but they are perfectly suited to solar, wind and cogeneration along with energy efficiency. However, the utilities have structured state law so that it is more lucrative for them to operate giant coal and nuclear plants, even as Duke Energy boasts of its solar and wind development; those projects are almost entirely in states with competitive electricity markets.

Among the findings by NC WARN attorney John Runkle:

  • During daily and seasonal periods of low usage, electricity demand often falls to less than half the generation capacity of Duke’s baseload plants.
  • When all of Duke’s baseload plants are operating, they provide more electricity than is needed for 87% of the hours in a year.
  • For much of the year, several of Duke’s big coal units are either shut down or “spinning” – a standby condition where coal is burning and emissions are going out the smokestack but no power is generated.
  • Duke also regularly uses excess baseload power to store energy – equal to nearly two nuclear plants – in “pumped storage” hydro facilities in northwestern South Carolina. The company is expanding that storage, apparently to handle even more excess capacity.
  • Even in 2025, Duke’s current baseload plants would provide excessive load for more than 50% of the hours in a year, according to Duke’s own projections.

With practical increases in energy efficiency and renewables, less and less baseload would be needed, especially since it is now clear that solar and wind power can work in combination to replace traditional baseload generation.**

State law requires the Utilities Commission to prevent over-building of power plants. We are confident that Duke Energy will fail to prove that a costly and high-risk nuclear facility in South Carolina – with 70% funded by North Carolina customers – compares favorably to expanded energy efficiency, renewable energy and combined heat and power (cogeneration).

If Duke and Progress will stop blocking the way, practical advances in those three prongs of clean, safe energy can allow all statewide coal plants to be phased out within 15 years – without new nuclear plants. Making that transition is crucial for creating a sound state economy, and for North Carolina to fulfill its responsibility in regard to the climate emergency that is already causing serial weather disasters worldwide.

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* Too Much Baseload legal brief.
** Dr. John Blackburn’s solar-wind study.

NC WARN is a member-based nonprofit tackling the accelerating crisis posed by climate change – along with the various risks of nuclear power – by watch-dogging utility practices and working for a swift North Carolina transition to energy efficiency and clean power generation. In partnership with other citizen groups, NC WARN uses sound scientific research to inform and involve the public in key decisions regarding their wellbeing.

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