News | January 17, 2023

North Carolina’s initial Carbon Plan is bloated with gas, here’s how it can improve

Clean energy advocates say it risks missing the state’s carbon reduction goal and continues reliance on dirty fossil fuels

Days after rolling energy blackouts during recent extreme cold left many in North Carolina unsafe and shivering on Christmas Eve, the state’s utilities commission issued a plan that would allow Duke to double down on new polluting fossil fuel power plants instead of sufficient amounts of new solar and wind energy. The commission’s Order risks missing state requirements for reducing the heat-trapping carbon pollution that causes climate change, including more extreme weather events, and risks locking us into continued reliance on the very kinds of power plants that failed to prevent rolling blackouts.  

Leaving half a million customers without power on Christmas Eve was unfortunate and avoidable.

David Neal, Senior Attorney

According to Duke Energy, a combination of forecasting errors and mechanical failures at gas and coal generation plants caused by the extreme weather were the main culprits for the blackouts

“Leaving half a million customers without power on Christmas Eve was unfortunate and avoidable,” says Senior Attorney David Neal. “It highlights why transitioning to cleaner, more reliable energy is right for North Carolina communities.” 

In comparison, solar energy performed as expected during that time. Duke explained how solar helped provide a low-cost way to recharge pumped hydro storage, providing additional reliable power during peak early morning periods. The utility did not report any problems with the limited battery storage resources it currently has on the grid. 

We’re taking climate action in North Carolina.

“If Duke had more solar plus storage resources, in addition to complementary wind resources, there’s no reason to think that those clean sources of power would have gone offline,” says Neal. “During the Carbon Plan hearing, Duke insisted that its modeling was reliable and yet Duke’s modeling failed North Carolinians on an extremely cold Christmas Eve when people needed it most.”

Adds Neal, “Duke’s forecasting errors before the rolling blackouts — albeit different than the power-sector modeling that informed the carbon plan — nevertheless shows that Duke’s modeling is not inherently superior to the independent modeling that we and other parties introduced to the commission.” 

The Carbon Plan that could 

The recently-released North Carolina Carbon Plan stems from a bipartisan legislative mandate to reduce 70 percent of carbon pollution across the state by 2030. This requirement is achievable at a lower cost than Duke’s proposal, according to experts, by way of increased investments in bill-saving energy efficiency and more renewable energy, such as solar, battery storage, and wind energy — but according to environmental advocates such as Neal, the Commission’s plan falls short. 

Expert analysis shows North Carolina does not need to rely on speculative new technologies or the addition of any new fossil infrastructure, including any new gas.

David Neal, Senior Attorney

The plan, released in late December, risks missing that 2030 target and allows Duke to plan to rely on new polluting, costly gas — which not only failed to maintain reliability during the recent blackouts, but is also the main driver of recent increases to our electric bills. By signing the Inflation Reduction Act into law, President Biden ensured the costs of solar and wind generation and battery storage will continue to drop. A study by the clean energy think tank RMI showed the Inflation Reduction Act makes clean energy cheaper than more than 90 percent of proposed gas plants.  

“Expert analysis shows North Carolina does not need to rely on speculative new technologies or the addition of any new fossil infrastructure, including any new gas, particularly in the short term,” says Neal. 

SELC represented the Natural Resources Defense Council, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and the Sierra Club in partnership with the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, in filing an expert’s plan at the North Carolina Utilities Commission that would reach the carbon mandates without new polluting fossil fuels and at lower cost than Duke Energy’s own plans. 

What do we want? 

The coalition of clean energy groups want the Carbon Plan to be a “no regrets” pathway to clean, cost-effective resources like energy efficiency, solar, wind, and battery storage. 

It should rapidly phase out fossil fuels while not building any new gas at a time when we can’t afford to lock ourselves into decades more of dependence on costly fossil fuels. 

Duke’s prioritization of low-cost renewable energy could make our grid stronger and more reliable, all while costing less on customer bills. A study that Duke Energy commissioned from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory revealed that Duke could most economically meet the carbon reduction targets mandated by the law by tripling the proposed solar on its grid by 2030.

Over the coming days and weeks, our team will evaluate the order to determine how it will impact electricity generation in the state for decades to come and prepare for the next proposed Carbon Plan this September. 

Concludes Neal, “Climate change is expected to bring more weather extremes like we experienced a few weeks ago, reinforcing the need to stop burning polluting fossil fuels as soon as possible and bring more renewable sources of energy on line as soon as possible.”