News media should beware of corporate green-washing versus facts: Duke remains the dirtiest US power company – and it’s making climate change worse
Durham, NC – Over the past six years, Duke Energy has repeatedly gotten away with major deception by trumpeting its closure of coal-fired power plants while building more coal and fracking gas plants and still claiming – with straight corporate face – that its carbon emissions have trended downward since 2008. In fact, Duke remains the nation’s largest utility polluter, the coal plants it’s closing were barely being used, and its claims of carbon emission reductions ignore well-documented methane leakage during the natural gas life-cycle.
NC WARN urges news outlets to scrutinize the corporate PR more closely. CEO Lynn Good repeated the greenwashing stats yet again at the May 7 stockholder meeting: emissions are down, and we’ve closed more than 20 coal-fired power plants. NC WARN’s analysis shows why that claim is bogus:
1) CLOSING COAL? Duke plans to keep burning its large coal plants for decades.1 The very small, old units being closed across the Carolinas equal about 3,294 megawatts (MW) of available generation capacity. But the units in the Duke Energy Carolinas area generated electricity only 7 percent of the hours during their final year of operation, on average.2
The small units being closed were so old, they no longer added rate-making value for Duke.
Duke replaced those units with the 2012 opening of Cliffside 6, a large, 835 MW “around the clock” coal-fired unit with a $2.4 billion bill for ratepayers. Cliffside 6 spews around 11 billion pounds of carbon into the air annually – far more than the combined emissions during 2010 of all the coal units Duke Energy Carolinas is retiring.3 (2010 is the last year all those units operated; neither the old nor new units control carbon emissions.)
So in exchange for closing tiny, little-used plants, Duke saddled ratepayers with Cliffside 6 … along with 2,785 MW of fracking-gas burning units it has built at four sites for another $3 billion-plus bill to customers.
2) GAS: ONLY “HALF AS DIRTY” AS COAL? In claiming its overall carbon emissions are down, Duke doesn’t count the well-documented leakage of methane during the mining of natural gas. Multiple researchers warn that even ordinary natural gas operations allow 5.4 percent leakage of methane, and that fracking wells can leak up to 10 percent. Even at the lower rate, the leakage makes the use of natural gas even worse than coal in terms of global warming potential (GWP) over the next few decades – a crucial period for the climate crisis.4 The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently determined that the GWP of methane is 86 times higher than that of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.5
So while Duke’s “decommissioning plan” is making climate change worse, it has already allowed the utility to add over $5 billion to the rate base – and to mislead North Carolinians into thinking Duke Energy is decarbonizing its fleet.
It gets worse: Duke plans to build another 6,594 MW in gas-burning capacity – representing billions in rate hikes and more climate-wrecking carbon emissions – by 2029.6
Worst of all, Duke’s continuing fixation on large, central power plants is diverting billions of dollars and precious years from measures that could truly decarbonize the Carolinas. To protect its monopoly control, Duke Energy has chosen to try to limit the growth of solar power instead of joining the rapid national transition toward renewables and energy efficiency.
While CEO Good claims “We’re not in the fracking business,” natural gas is a fungible product, so regardless of the specific sources of Duke’s supply, the increased burning of gas is helping drive the fracking boom that is poisoning local communities and fueling climate change.
DIRTIEST OF THE DIRTY
As cited in a new report by a coalition of environmental groups and power companies, Duke Energy remains the top utility polluter in the nation.7 That Number One ranking didn’t even factor in the methane leakage from the fracking gas process, which would likely distinguish Duke Energy even further due to its rapid building of fracking-gas plants.
Duke also seems to be Number One in greenwashing its corporate image.
Overall, Duke Energy’s coal plant closures are a corporate profit and PR success, while customers and the environment remain on the losing end of the business model: build plants, raise rates, control state government, and distort public debate to get away with it.