By Elizabeth Ouzts
The 47-page bill would close Duke Energy coal plants but require new gas-fired ones, drawing quick opposition from clean energy advocates. The Republican author said he is “guardedly optimistic” ahead of a committee discussion Thursday.
After months of secret negotiations between Duke Energy, House Republican leaders, and other select stakeholders in North Carolina, sweeping energy legislation has been unveiled at last.
But the 47-page bill (pdf) is no grand compromise. Duke and other groups involved in the closed-door talks were seeing the proposal for the first time Tuesday afternoon, and one — the state’s leading clean energy nonprofit — announced its opposition hours later.
The North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association took particular issue with the bill’s initial pages, which call for shuttering five of Duke’s coal-fired power plants but ushering mostly new gas plants in their place. While only 900 megawatts of new gas infrastructure is spelled out in one provision, another section requires state regulators to approve coal-replacement units that meet criteria only natural gas could satisfy. This “mandate to replace costly coal with risky natural gas” must be “eliminated,” the association said.
Environmental advocates, excluded from the last several months of talks, agreed.
“This legislation appears to bind the hands of the commission by mandating new fossil-fuel power plant construction, irrespective of how those projects stack up against alternatives,” David Kelly, director of North Carolina political affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement. As a result, the measure would push the state “perilously close to trading one fossil-fueled future for another.”
Duke is also limited to retiring only $200 million of its coal assets using securitization, a tool that allows it to repay its debt to investors using ratepayer-backed bonds that bring a lower interest rate.
“Duke has control over what they propose to securitize, so why do we need a cap?” asked David Rogers, Southeast deputy campaign director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “They’ve got $6 billion in plant balances remaining.”
The legislation curbs utility-sector carbon emissions by 61% from 2005 levels by 2030, while the administration of Gov. Roy Cooper has set a 70% reduction target in the same time frame. By mandating new gas and leaving several coal units online, the bill could actually prevent further pollution cuts, Rogers said. “This bill will make it harder to hit the governor’s 70% goal,” he said, “not easier.”