NC doesn't pick electric mix to lower carbon levels
North Carolina utility regulators told Duke Energy Corp. on Friday to carry out a series of activities to generate electricity that they say will help ensure greenhouse gas reductions set in a new state law are met.
But the Utilities Commission's order involving solar, wind, nuclear and other sources for electricity doesn't endorse any particular mix of energy sources to meet the mandates currently required for 2030. The order does tell Duke Energy's subsidiaries in North Carolina to optimally retire its remaining coal-fired plants by 2035, in keeping with a previous announcement by the company.
The bipartisan 2021 state law said the panel needed by Saturday to approve a plan for the state’s electric public utilities — essentially Duke Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Progress — to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 70% by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels. Net-zero emissions by 2050 also are ultimately necessary, according to the law.
Duke Energy, the state's dominant electric provider, had offered last spring four different portfolio options, three of which actually delayed meeting the 70% reduction until 2032 or 2034. The law provides for wiggle room on the deadline.
Critics of Duke’s plans said they relied too much on natural gas or unproven technologies and would make customer bills too costly. Some environmental and clean-energy groups offered in July their own carbon-reduction plan that reached the 70% reduction mandate by 2030 while relying more on solar and wind power and battery storage use.
But the seven-member commission, chosen by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, declined to pick any specific portfolios Friday and said it is “not appropriate" now to determine whether to delay the 70% reduction deadline beyond 2030. The 137 pages produced by the panel said it was adopting “all reasonable steps" that the state law ordered to achieve the reduction and directed near-term actions “that support many of the portfolios the parties to this proceeding present.”
The commission held 13 days of hearings to receive expert witness testimony and five public hearings. It also received hundreds of statements from consumers. Carbon reductions are expected to result in higher customer bills.
“As the record amply demonstrates, there is no single, unique resource portfolio that satisfies the required emissions reduction goals,” Commissioner Dan Clodfelter wrote in a separate opinion to the main order, with which he fully agreed. “I believe this is the most responsible way, and indeed the only responsible way, to proceed on a journey that starts today and will span the next 28 years until 2050.”
The commission is already required to review the plan every two years, and it can make adjustments. Friday's order told Duke to file a new proposal by September — which reflect the new directives and recent federal legislation — and prepare for hearings in May 2024. Still, the order could be challenged at the state Court of Appeals.
The same coalition that presented a portfolio in the summer warned Friday night that the commission risks missing the 70% reduction by 2030 with its order, while allowing Charlotte-based Duke to use more natural gas.
“North Carolina can meet state carbon-reduction goals on time and in a cleaner and more affordable way than suggested by Duke Energy and endorsed by the commission," said David Neal, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is involved in the coalition.
But Duke Energy called the order a “constructive outcome that advances our clean energy transition, supporting a diverse, ‘all of the above’ approach that is essential for long-term resource planning.”
The law says the panel could examine “the latest technological breakthroughs to achieve the least cost path” and other considerations in determining a way forward. The commission ultimately can delay the date for reaching the 70% target if, for example, the electric grid’s performance is questioned.
A commission news release announcing the order said that last weekend's power outages caused by the extreme cold and high demand “particularly underscore the need for an orderly transition away from fossil fuels to low and zero-carbon dioxide emitting generating resources while maintaining or improving the reliability of the electric grid.”
Friday's order directed Duke Energy to conduct by 2024 two more competitive procurements for solar generation that will come online by 2028. The utility also authorizes Duke to procure battery storage to contain the solar-generated electricity; study the acquisition of wind-lease areas off the North Carolina coast; extend the licenses of its current nuclear power fleet and consider new nuclear generation; and plan for additional natural gas-fired turbines.
The two Duke Energy subsidiaries serve 4.4 million customers in North Carolina and South Carolina. The utility said it intends to incorporate Friday's order into its filing with South Carolina regulators next year.