Op-ed by Jean Su and Jim Warren
Energy giant must halt planned fossil fuel expansion, aggressively embrace renewable energy, storage, conservation
North Carolina—and the world—are well into the climate emergency. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently stated that the world “is on the verge of the abyss” if we do not move at lightning pace to decarbonize our economies by 2030. President Biden has pledged to slash emissions by at least 50% below 2005 levels, committing to a zero-carbon electricity grid by 2035.
Yet amid top-down policy mandates to stop the planet’s plummet off the climate cliff, Duke Energy, which ranks as the worst climate offender among U.S. power providers, is aggressively driving us all toward that cliff even as climate disasters increasingly devastate communities in the Carolinas.
Duke is pressing for the North Carolina Utilities Commission to approve a 15-year plan that vastly expands the Charlotte-based corporation’s addiction to fossil fuels. Specifically, Duke is seeking to build 9,600 megawatts of gas-fired generation—over 50 units—at an unspecified number of new or existing sites in the Carolinas. And Duke would build more than twice as much new gas as any other U.S. power provider is planning over the next 10 years.
The plan also shows Duke burning coal for decades while continuing to slow-walk solar, wind and energy-saving programs which, when matched with energy storage technologies, are vital to the country’s just transition to affordable and disaster-resilient renewable energy.
This story gets worse. Data from our joint legal challenge to the 15-year plan show that Duke wants the new, climate-wrecking gas units, although dozens of similar Duke units sit unused even during the worst winter and summer weather.
In fact, our engineer’s analysis shows that Duke leaders provided misleading data to the Utilities Commission and public. The false implication is that we’re all going to somehow freeze in the dark if Duke doesn’t keep building billion-dollar power plants that will constantly raise our power bills.
North Carolinians must demand a major course correction.
Our organizations are among a solid front of energy justice advocates calling for Duke Energy to abandon its massive gas expansion and help North Carolina move to renewables paired with storage and energy-saving programs. Business groups and Attorney General Josh Stein are also calling to prioritize the renewable approach.
Increasingly, the nation’s electric utilities are choosing renewables-plus-storage because it beats new gas on economics, affordability, climate resilience, and job creation. We have shown the Commission that it would be less expensive to add battery storage at existing solar farms than for Duke to build its proposed 50-plus fracked-gas units and keep coal-burning plants open.
Renewables with storage are key to phasing out dirty power. But our best chance to avert runaway climate chaos, protect power bills and minimize the impacts of raw material extraction comes by also ramping up proven, energy-saving programs. Here, too, Duke has been weak for years.
A foundational duty of the Commission is to protect the public interest by preventing monopoly utilities from over-building power plants and unnecessarily charging ratepayers. That’s particularly critical because greenhouse gas regulation and Duke’s own climate pledge would require most of those gas units to close years ahead of schedule, leaving the public to pay billions for stranded assets.
In urging Gov. Cooper to issue a moratorium against new “natural” gas infrastructure, Duke University climate expert Drew Shindell rightly notes that expanding gas clashes with global climate goals. In a recent oped, the globally prominent scientist wrote that “cutting methane is the strongest lever we have to slow climate change over the next 25 years.”
Despite the odds, public voices sometimes prevail over corporate money. Regulators in Virginia and South Carolina recently rejected utilities’ dirty power plans. Polls show that North Carolinians, right and left, want more renewable power and fewer rate hikes. Now is the time to use our voices to offset Duke Energy’s corporate clout.
As Duke Energy’s 15-year plan is under consideration, we encourage North Carolinians to urge the Utilities Commission and Gov. Cooper to avoid constant rate hikes for unneeded gas-fired plants and help slow the climate crisis that’s devastating the most vulnerable North Carolinians.
Jean Su is the energy justice director and an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity
Jim Warren is executive director of NC WARN, a Durham-based nonprofit.