By John Downey
A coalition of environmental groups have petitioned N.C. regulators to rule Duke Energy and other utilities must get regulatory approval before modifying coal plants to burn natural gas.
Jim Warren, executive director of the Durham-based watchdog group NC WARN, which is one of the petitioners, says it appears Duke is “spending millions on Band-Aids for coal plants instead of retiring them.” Duke utilities have informed the N.C. Utilities Commission in recent years it is modifying several coal-burning units to burn either all natural gas or a combination of gas and coal.
Duke has contended it did not need to file for approval of those plans — called a certificate of public convenience and necessity — because the company was simply changing the fuel mix, not building a new plant.
“From our perspective, adding the fuel flexibility to generate electricity from coal or natural gas allows us to maximize the cost savings for customers,” says Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert. “And, anytime we’re able to use cleaner natural gas in place of coal, that reduces carbon dioxide emissions further and gets us a step closer to our net-zero by 2050 carbon goal.”
But the petition filed Thursday by NC WARN, the national Center for Biological Diversity and North Carolina-based Appalachian Voices, contends N.C. law does not exempt such fuel modifications from commission review.
They quote state statutes that “no public utility or other person shall begin the construction of any steam, water, or other facility for the generation of electricity … without first obtaining from the commission a certificate that the public convenience and necessity requires, or will require, such construction.”
They contend the modifications violate the statute because they “clearly fall within the broad category of any facility, and these modifications self-evidently generate electricity, and therefore, the Public Utilities Act mandates the utilities seek a CPCN before constructing a modification.”
But it is also clear the commission has been aware of such modifications Duke Energy Carolinas has been making since at least 2014 to various coal plants. It has not to date required the utility to make any formal certificate requests, accepting notice the company had given to the commission by informational filings or as part of the long-range Integrated Resource Plans filed by each of its utilities.
Culbert says Duke is “reviewing the filing and will respond to the N.C. Utilities Commission, as appropriate.”
The groups contend the law clearly requires commission approval and there are important public policy considerations. “There are compelling reasons to believe that DEC’s (Duke Carolinas’) modifications were neither orderly nor economical,” the petition says. “A formal CPCN process for DEC’s modifications, or any electric public utility’s modifications, could potentially save ratepayers substantial funds and avoid the proliferation of environmentally harmful emissions.”