By Lisa Sorg
Since Colson Combs was born just over 15 years ago, the planet Earth has recorded more than 10 of its hottest years on record. If humans have not dialed back greenhouse gas emissions by the time Combs reaches his late 20s, the world will likely be headed toward a climate crisis that will stalk him for his entire life.
This dystopian prospect compelled Combs to speak for the third time before the North Carolina Utilities Commission Monday night, on this occasion to plead with the board to reject Duke Energy’s Integrated Resource Plan. The plan details the utility’s proposed energy mix for the next 15 years, at which point, the planet’s climate could pass the point of no return.
“I’m here fighting for renewable energy,” Combs said. “I’m fighting for our future. It’s a scary time. Our world is changing for the worse.”
Combs was among the 100-plus people who turned out for the public hearing. All of the speakers lambasted what they view as Duke Energy’s lack of urgency and its tepid embrace of renewable energy – an increase of just 8 percent by 2033. (By comparison, California has passed a law calling for 60 percent of its electricity to be generated from zero-emissions sources by 2030; that mix does include nuclear energy.)
Duke Energy claims that its proposal will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by at least 40 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, which aligns with the benchmarks established by Gov. Roy Cooper in his recent executive order. Those reductions are possible because Duke plans to further wean itself off coal.
But the plan also could mislead readers into thinking the energy gap would be filled by solar and wind energy. When Duke says “approximately 60 percent of electricity” will come from “carbon- free, clean energy sources,” it omits the fact that it will rely more heavily on natural gas. A third of the utility’s capacity currently comes from natural gas, but that proportion is forecast to increase to 50 percent by 2033. And natural gas emits an even more potent greenhouse gas – methane – whose emissions can send climate change into overdrive.
“Increasing natural gas infrastructure ignores this,” said Martha Girolami. “This IRP is not smart. It doesn’t address climate change. Duke Energy’s commitment to renewable energy is trivial. It’s self-serving and unjust. This IRP is insane.”
Although the IRP doesn’t specifically mention the Atlantic Coast Pipeline – banished to legal purgatory because of successful court challenges – the controversial project nonetheless loomed over much of the 271-page document. In the past week, environmental advocates have emailed and hand-delivered a letter to all Department of Environmental Quality employees asking them to publicly or privately disclose any internal discussions about the pipeline’s permitting.
State Rep. Nasif Majeed, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, asked the commission to conduct evidentiary hearings regarding the IRP. Similar to those held when Duke Energy requested a rate increase, these hearings include expert and scientific testimony. “My constituents are seriously troubled by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and fracked gas,” Majeed said, adding that renewable energy could create more jobs than the ACP. In North Carolina, the ACP would create only about 50 permanent jobs after construction. The state’s solar industry employs more than 7,600 people.
North Carolina ranks second to California in solar energy capacity. Because of both market forces and state law that requires the utility to provide up to 12.5 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, Duke Energy had more than 2,000 megawatts of utility-scale solar on its system as of late 2017. Last year, another 1,000 megawatts of third-party solar was under construction and more than 6,000 megawatts were in the interconnection queue.
More than a half-million homes are powered by solar, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Even though the use of electronic devices – computers, mobile phones, tablets – has proliferated, energy usage has not proportionally increased. Because of energy efficiency and other programs, including those sponsored by Duke Energy, power usage per customer “is essentially flat,” the IRP read. “Most of the growth is primarily due to increases in the number of customers being added to the system.”
Meanwhile, commercial energy sales are expected to grow 0.6 percent per year through 2033. And industrial energy sales are expected to grow 0.2 percent annually.
Clean energy advocates argue that a concerted expansion and commitment to solar and wind – and battery storage – could meet power demand. In its IRP, Duke disagreed, saying that solar would not be “dispatchable” – i.e. readily usable – particularly in the winter. The utility is “assessing the integration of battery storage technology” and “storage costs are expected to continue to decline which may make this resource a viable option for grid support services.”
Orange County Commissioner Marc Marcoplos powers his home mostly through its own solar energy system, which is supplemented by Duke Energy power. “There are no economic or technical barriers to using 100 percent clean energy,” he said, “The only barrier is local will. I urge the commission to reject the IRP and demand that it reflect the trends in renewable energy.”
Since the commission hearing, the weather has also commented on the IRP. Tomorrow’s high in Raleigh is forecast to be 77 degrees. That would break the previous record of 76 – set last year.