By Elizabeth Ouzts
Activists hope the changing economics of clean energy might help prompt more scrutiny of the utility’s long-range plan.
Every two years, critics blast Duke Energy’s long-term generation plan in North Carolina, decrying it for containing too much coal and gas and too little renewable power. Each time, regulators approve the company’s blueprint with few if any changes.
Could this year be different?
Duke’s latest proposed 15-year plan is similar to its last: the company projects building more than a dozen new fossil gas units, deriving 8 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, and keeping several of its coal plants running past 2033.
But some clean energy advocates and activists believe the state utilities commission will look more skeptically on this proposal than on past versions.
They point out the panel’s members have changed since the utility’s last plan was adopted. They say the rapidly falling cost of clean energy technologies make them a better deal for ratepayers than fossil fuels. And they’re joined by more than a dozen state legislators in asking for statewide public hearings and an expert witness hearing to scrutinize Duke’s plan.
How the commission rules on those requests could be the first indication of whether it will break with recent precedent. And for the activists — especially young people — who packed the only public meeting held so far on the utility’s projections, the underlying threat of climate change makes regulators’ decision more important than ever.
“We’re living in a dangerous and scary time,” said Colson Combs, a 15-year-old who also testified against Duke’s plans two years ago. “You don’t have the power to solve the problem of climate change,” he told commissioners. “You do have the power to hold Duke accountable.”
More than just a plan
Serving nearly every major city in North Carolina and more than 7 million people, Duke Energy is the state’s largest electric company by far. It’s comprised of Duke Energy Carolinas, covering the central part of the state from parts of the Triangle to the foothills; and Duke Energy Progress, covering much of southeastern North Carolina and parts of the state’s most western counties.
Duke’s long-range blueprints (one for Duke Energy Progress and one for Duke Energy Carolinas) are not binding. The company must still win state approval for new power plants on an individual basis, and it needs federal permission for interstate projects like the contentious Atlantic Coast Pipeline. But those case-by-case decisions are informed by Duke’s planning documents, called integrated resource plans.
The North Carolina Utilities Commission, a quasi-judicial body appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state’s General Assembly, has final say over these IRPs, which are updated annually and revamped every two years. Through formal legal interventions in the past, clean energy advocates have repeatedly sought changes to the plans, and growing numbers of residential customers have filled public hearing rooms to do the same.