By Travis Fain
State regulators will take a closer look at Duke Energy’s long-term energy plans, they said Tuesday, delaying required approvals on keystone documents.
The North Carolina Utilities Commission’s announcement comes after regulators in South Carolina this month rejected Duke’s plans in that state, adding more uncertainty to energy giant’s future construction plans.
The Integrated Resource Plans, or IRPs, lay out more than a decade’s worth of projects and billions of dollars in investment. The overriding questions in Duke’s most recent filings have been how much to lean on natural gas and nuclear power generation as the company moves away from coal.
That North Carolina regulators are asking for a deeper dive, after six public hearings and a back and forth the commission itself called “extensive,” is potentially a big deal, Gudrun Thompson, an environmental attorney who argues issues before the Utilities Commission, said.
“It shows the NCUC is taking a hard look at the Duke IRPs, as utility regulators should,” Thompson, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said via text message. “Even though the IRPs are not binding, they serve as the road map for the utility for the next 15 years, and there are billions of dollars on the line, not to mention the need for Duke to do its part to cut carbon pollution if we are going to confront climate change.”
The SELC and other environmental groups have pressed the utility to rely less on natural gas as it closes coal-fired plants. Duke has argued that it needs the reliability of natural gas in the near and medium term. It has backed legislation in the General Assembly that calls for a natural gas conversion at its Roxboro plant, one of the nation’s largest coal-fired plants.
The bill’s fate is uncertain. Manufacturing groups have said it will increase costs and lock in profits for the utility. Environmentalists say the bill focuses too much on natural gas.
The company has said the measure, House Bill 951, will incentivize clean energy investments, provide needed regulatory reforms and help “ensure the continued affordability and reliability our customers depend on.”
Duke spokesman Bill Norton said Friday that the company welcomes the commission’s continued work on the IRP, “which is focused on a cleaner energy mix while maintaining affordability and reliability.”
A number of entities asked the Utilities Commission to hold off on approving Duke’s plans in North Carolina, including Attorney General Josh Stein and environmental groups NC WARN and the Center for Biological Diversity. NC WARN Director Jim Warren called the commission’s decision this week a “major blow” for the company’s “plans to build over 50 gas-fired units while slow-walking the growth of cheaper, renewable power matched with battery storage.”
Warren accused Duke of misleading the Utilities Commission “by alleging a shortage of available power during winter peaks,” saying the company had more power than it needed even on the coldest days.
“We applaud the Utilities Commission for digging deeper into Duke Energy’s scheme to keep soaking the public with unneeded power plants and rate hikes,” Warren said in his release.