Top Climate-polluting Utility’s Gas Burners Worsen Pollution, Climate Crisis
Climate-justice groups filed a legal petition with the North Carolina Utilities Commission today asserting that Duke Energy — one of the top polluting U.S. utilities — is violating state law by quietly building large amounts of inefficient gas-burning capacity without commission approval.
Duke Energy has 24 more efficient gas units sitting idle, but is building new gas capacity at many of its coal-burning plants. The utility is seeking $278 million, plus a roughly 10% profit from ratepayers, for some of the gas expansions in an ongoing rate case.
“Duke Energy leaders are thumbing their noses at the world’s climatologists, who insist we must be closing down fossil fuel use instead of building more plants,” said Jim Warren, executive director of NC WARN. “Duke ranks annually among the top U.S. carbon dioxide emitters, and its plan to build 60 fracked-gas power plants adds to its notoriety by expanding the emissions of unburned methane and locking in fossil fuels.”
Today’s legal petition, filed by NC WARN, the Center for Biological Diversity and Appalachian Voices, argues that North Carolina law requires Duke Energy to seek prior approval before building gas-burning units as an add-on to coal-fired power plants. The groups want commissioners to require Duke to undergo an open review process to acquire a permit before spending millions of dollars building the new units.
“It’s outrageous that one of the world’s most climate-damaging utility corporations is furtively adding dirty fracked gas units at dirty coal plants,” said Jean Su, energy justice director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Duke is disturbingly determined to profit off fracked gas that’s fueling the climate catastrophe. This corporate behemoth is not above the law, and North Carolina law requires Duke to comply with the permitting process.”
The group’s petition explains how the expensive new units, and others Duke plans to build, create higher electricity costs and produce more greenhouse emissions than modern gas-burning units. The utility is adding the gas power even as 24 nearby and more efficient Duke gas units went entirely unused last year.
“There is simply no way that spending hundreds of millions of ratepayer dollars to burn gas at Duke’s inefficient old coal-fired power plants is in the public interest. Only a monopoly could be so reckless with other people’s money,” said Matt Wasson, director of programs at Appalachian Voices. “Duke’s stockholders might benefit from these investments by increasing the profitability of their dirty old coal plants, but ratepayers will pay a steep price.”
In building the gas units, Duke is ignoring the need for prior regulatory approval. In the permitting process, the corporation would have to address the kind of objections the three groups are now raising. In a rate case, by contrast, while regulators can deny any expenditures, building the gas units without prior approval can create pressure for utilities commissioners to go along with the already-incurred investment.
In February NC WARN filed testimony from engineer Bill Powers challenging Duke’s move. Since that time research has uncovered deeper problems with such “dual-fuel” modifications, where gas-burning equipment is connected to the steam boiler at a coal-fired power plant.
The group’s analysis shows that Duke Energy Carolinas has so much unused generation capacity — twice the reserve levels needed to cover annual peak usage — that several of its large coal units could be shut down immediately. Instead, the groups believe, the gas modifications may be an excuse for Duke to avoid closing coal plants that are near the end of their operating lives.
Despite all the unused generation, Duke’s two Carolinas utilities plan to build nearly 12,000 megawatts of conventional gas-fired generation in the Carolinas over the next 14 years, as shown in its latest Integrated Resource Plan. Including the units recently built without approval, Duke’s dual-fuel projects — which aren’t explained in the utility’s resource plan — add another 5,686 megawatts. Altogether Duke is adding up to 60 gas-burning units between 2019 and 2034 in the Carolinas.