San Diego engineer offers proven plan that would avoid billions in transmission costs and disruption of communities, boost resilience and avoid Duke Energy’s huge gas expansion
A prominent clean energy engineer has proposed a “distributed generation” approach for meeting state carbon reduction goals, but it has received little attention because his voice has been muted and his message runs counter to the dominant narrative about adding gas-fired generation and building large solar farms in rural areas.
In testimony filed on behalf of NC WARN and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP, San Diego-based Bill Powers detailed an approach that would reduce the size of new large-scale solar farms, move them closer to where the power is most used, and add on-site battery storage. He would also add solar-plus-storage on commercial, industrial and residential buildings and parking areas.
A similar distributed generation approach was actually predicted by Duke Energy’s prior CEO. A decade ago, Jim Rogers, considered a US utility visionary, vowed that Duke Energy’s system would become dominated by distributed solar plus storage, which would supplant the need for central power stations.
Instead, Duke Energy executives have dug in with a carbon plan proposal that involves building up to 11,700 MW of new fracked gas-burning power plants (scores of units) and misses a 2030 interim target by up to four years.
When carbon plan hearings conclude at the end of this month, it will be up to NC Utilities Commissioners to decide if Duke Energy’s plan actually achieves carbon neutrality by 2050. They will also weigh plans submitted by other parties, such as one by Synapse Energy Economics that achieves the 2030 and 2050 targets with no new gas; significantly more solar, storage, wind and energy efficiency; and a lower price tag.
NC WARN generally supports the Synapse plan but we contend that much of the rural solar should be shifted to distributed solar plus storage as Bill Powers proposes. The solar farms favored by Duke Energy and some intervenors would likely be built in a so-called “Red Zone” in the southeastern part of the state. Duke Energy favors this approach because it requires billions in additional transmission lines and towers, but it would disrupt dozens of communities in areas that are disproportionately low-wealth and people of color.
After being denied the opportunity to offer an oral summary of their testimonies on the witness stand – breaking a decades-long commission practice – Powers and other expert witnesses who were not cross-examined in person were belatedly invited to file written summaries of their full testimonies. Powers’ summary was filed Tuesday.
In his summary, Powers writes:
[Duke Energy claims] that building large-scale solar in the “Red Zone” would be the least-cost solar energy alternative. This is not correct. … To the contrary, reliance on wholesale rooftop and parking lot solar plus storage in the Carbon Plan would largely eliminate transmission upgrades that would otherwise be necessary to interconnect utility-scale solar proposed in areas of the state with inadequate transmission capacity. … [T]here are far less transmission cost impacts with smaller (< 5 MW) arrays connected at the distribution level, where … over 95 percent of North Carolina’s 4,350 MW of solar has been interconnected to date.*
Powers calculates that his approach – which also includes immediate retirement of coal and addition of storage at existing large-scale solar farms – could produce a carbon-free electricity system in the state by 2035.
Since smaller solar arrays can also be built more quickly than the larger-than-ever solar farms Duke Energy now proposes – Powers’ approach yields a quicker transition off fossil fuels, providing the world with an extra cushion to help avert total climate catastrophe. Generating and storing power at or near where it’s used also provides more resilience against widespread power outages.
Meanwhile, additional voices continue to weigh in against Duke Energy’s plan. This week, the NC Department of Commerce wrote a letter to the NCUC urging the body to adopt a plan that maximizes economic development from renewables, especially wind, and minimizes the state’s exposure to volatile natural gas prices.