Attorney General, regulators’ Public Staff among skeptics of Duke’s inflated cost projections and failure to consider cheaper alternatives that can help immediately with climate crisis
It’s no wonder that Duke Energy hid plans to waste billions on new and expanded power line corridors, but forces are already aligning against the first leg of the scheme that would target vulnerable communities while blocking the growth of local and large-scale solar for years to come.
Two veteran engineers have filed testimony for NC WARN showing that Duke apparently seeks to set a precedent by vastly over-pricing modest-sized, grid upgrades where the case for a big jump in capacity has not been made. Nor did Duke even consider a cheaper option to its gold-plated request of the NC Utilities Commission.
NC WARN filed the joint testimony by Bill Powers and Rao Konidena with the NCUC in a mostly unrelated rate-hike case where Duke seeks a short-cut approval, with essentially up-front billing, of high-voltage grid upgrades worth over $170 million – a mere down-payment on Duke’s dream of billions.
Also questioning Duke’s scheme are Attorney General Josh Stein, the utilities commission’s Public Staff, and the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of National Resources Defense Council, NC Justice Center, NC Housing Coalition, Vote Solar and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
Two weeks ago, NC WARN openly called on Stein and Governor Roy Cooper to investigate Duke Energy’s plans for some 900 miles of new and upgraded or expanded transmission corridors, mostly crisscrossing southeastern NC, and up to 200 feet wide. We cited sweeping discrepancies in what Duke told regulators and investors about the price tag.
We’re also calling for a new type of open debate over the state’s energy-climate path, particularly involving the communities – many of them low-income or communities of color – that Duke leaders are quietly targeting for new and expanded transmission corridors.* From the written testimonies filed in the case:
- NC WARN’s engineers show that Duke Energy is seeking approval of over $80 million for one grid upgrade that other US utilities usually estimate at half the cost on a per-mile basis. And for another upgrade, the cost Duke says would be added to specific solar projects that might someday use that line is ten times higher than estimates shown in Duke documents obtained by NC WARN during the discovery phase of the case.
- The two experts on local solar-plus-storage (SPS) also show that net-metered solar, along with wholesale commercial rooftop and parking lot solar, largely located in urban and suburban areas of Duke Energy’s territory, should be evaluated. Using data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, they say this approach would be more beneficial to ratepayers than the gold-plated grid upgrades Duke might someday use to connect with four proposed solar farms near Clinton, SC.
- Attorney General Stein’s expert witness suggests Duke’s grid request is misleading and “severely underestimates” the eventual cost to customers of the first leg of the long-term grid scheme (pg. 11). He agreed that the NCUC should require Duke to evaluate the benefits of “non-wires solutions” (such as SPS) “to reflect cost reductions enabled by the IRA” (pg. 37), President Biden’s new program that will provide a major boost to solar and energy saving at the local level.
- The NCUC’s Public Staff cites lower cost alternatives (pg. 8) and lack of project justification while explaining that Duke Energy could be double-billing customers by charging for individual upgrades without accounting for potential efficiencies across projects during construction.
- The SELC alliance relies in part on an expert witness from the famed Rocky Mountain Institute. Collectively, they note that the Duke monopoly is incentivized to invest as much money as possible into infrastructure regardless of alternatives that are more affordable and better for the environment. They say Duke continues to completely disregard valuable non-wires alternatives such as a “planned combination of customer-sited solar paired with storage” and energy efficiency.
Duke has impressed investors with dreams of tens of billions in new and expanded corridors, claiming all will be needed for new solar farms years from now. NC WARN remains skeptical because the investor-driven grid scheme would drive up the cost of those same large-scale solar projects; then Duke will argue the high cost of solar means it must keep building dozens of new fracked gas-fired generation units.
NC WARN’s new report, Moving North Carolina Forward: The Case for Local Solar-Plus-Storage, shows our continuing support for large-scale solar at the facility size where it’s been successful for years. But changing economics – and the urgent need to replace fossil fuels now, not after Duke builds transmission towers for 15 years – mean large-scale solar usually can and should be cited closer to users.
Duke Energy’s investors should beware another high-flying scheme, particularly one relying on land seizures in many of the same communities that helped lead the six-year victory against the $8 billion Atlantic Coast (fracked gas) Pipeline that Duke and Dominion Energy aimed at them.
*See Duke’s blurred map of transmission corridors made legible by NC WARN.