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Is Duke Energy on a path to carbon neutrality? State regulators to review emission, generation plans

Duke Energy’s supplemental planning analysis added 460 MW to the August Carbon Plan filing for a total of 6460 MW solar added by 2031.
Roger Ball

Duke Energy
Duke Energy’s supplemental planning analysis added 460 MW to the August Carbon Plan filing for a total of 6460 MW solar added by 2031.

State regulators will preside over public hearings on Duke Energy’s Carbon Plan and Integrated Resource Plan starting in Asheville next week. The public will have an opportunity to weigh in on Duke’s plan to reduce carbon emissions, electrify the grid, and meet the energy needs of a rapidly growing state.

While the titles sound wonky, the plans’ effects — on rates, carbon emissions and electricity reliability — could be big. WFAE’s climate reporter Zachary Turner spoke with Duke Energy’s North Carolina state president Kendal Bowman in advance of the hearings to learn more.

Zachary Turner: House Bill 951 set an emissions reduction target for North Carolina. This bill authorized the Utilities Commission to “take all reasonable steps to achieve a seventy percent reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide” from 2005 levels by 2030. Are we on track to meet that target?

Kendal Bowman: Our carbon emissions from electric generation are down 44% since 2005. Looking ahead, we're going to need an all-of-the-above approach to meet these carbon reduction goals. Our core portfolios that we filed with North Carolina Utilities Commission, our updated resource plan, continue to offer paths to 70% carbon reduction by 2030, 2033 and 2035, with [the 2035 path] remaining Duke Energy's recommendation is the most reasonable least-costs and least-risk portfolio. But we do remain committed to achieving carbon neutrality for all of our customers by 2050.

Headshot of Kendal Bowman
Duke Energy
Kendal Bowman is Duke Energy’s North Carolina State President

Turner: Duke Energy’s fall load forecast, which is a biennial prediction of North Carolina’s energy supply needs for the coming years, saw expected growth increase eightfold since the 2022 prediction. That is a pretty drastic shift in expectations for North Carolina’s energy landscape — what changed?

Kendal Bowman: It's driven by great economic development. A lot of that's being driven by federal policy. You're seeing the onshoring: we’ve got battery manufacturing plants, the CHIPS and Science Act that passed, you know, it's coming to North Carolina, and then all of the other development that goes along with supporting those industries. We're also seeing tremendous population growth. North Carolina is a great place to live and work. But we're also seeing technology wanting to come to this area. So, you're thinking about artificial intelligence, and those require a lot of energy.

Turner: I know in a November interview with my predecessor, David Boraks, Duke Energy’s Chief Financial Officer did not seem optimistic about wind energy in NC’s immediate future, saying it was not a resource Duke Energy was going to build. However, this timeline has been moved up. Tell me a little more about this change.

Bowman: It's the offshore wind moving up into the mid-2030s because it is a carbon-free resource. We still need to gather more information. We need to get more up-to-date pricing information. We've requested the North Carolina Utilities Commission to approve us going out for — we're calling it — an acceleration of request for information to get more pricing, timing, transmission, that sort of thing. And so you will see that denoted as a request in the resource plan that we just filed.

Turner: Already Duke Energy has filed to build four natural gas combustion generators: two at Lake Norman, two in Roxboro. While some new natural gas infrastructure is likely necessary, I think people are wondering, why so much natural gas in the Carbon Plan and Integrated Resource Plan?

Bowman: We do need resources that will be available 24 hours a day when the sun's not shining, when the winds not blowing, those sorts of things. But if you look at the portfolio, while we are increasing the natural gas, it's a lot less natural gas than if you looked at solar resources that we're putting on the system. And so, we need to continue to be focused on reliability, and natural gas is going to allow us to retire coal.

We're still on the path to get out of all coal by 2035. And natural gas is much cleaner. We view it as a bridge until we can get to carbon-free hydrogen. All of these natural gas plants that we're proposing will be hydrogen-capable. We're also looking at carbon sequestration, carbon capture, all of those other things, but we believe that [natural gas is] needed to ensure the reliability of the system as we're working on all these new carbon-free technologies.

Turner: Natural gas, like you mentioned, does offer some benefits over its coal counterpart. But it's by no means a clean energy source; it still releases carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, albeit at much lower levels. So how does Duke Energy plan to work with communities impacted by air pollution [from] these new natural gas generators?

Bowman: Our natural gas business unit has a focus on really looking at methane detection, reduction of emissions, minimizing upstream emissions and downstream carbon emissions related to customer consumption of natural gas. So, we're focused on working with customers and communities along any kind of emissions in that regard, as well. So, we're working with the communities.

I do just want to reiterate: We are committed to carbon neutrality by 2050. So, you focus on the natural gas, but we're definitely committed to getting to that [by] 2050.

Turner: Power purchase agreements, solar energy, wind energy, etc.… All these are ways of reducing emissions on the supply side. But I'm curious about how Duke Energy is working with ratepayers to reduce emissions on the demand side.

Bowman: We're always looking at new ways to promote energy efficiency, and demand side management to really offset people's usage. Our plan targets a peak demand reduction of nearly 2.8 gigawatts by 2038. To put that in perspective, this would be like three times the capacity of what the Harris nuclear plant produces. So, that's a very aggressive amount of energy efficiency and demand-side management programs.

We just recently launched a program called Improve and Save. It’s a program that incentivizes customers to replace inefficient HVAC systems or water heaters in a way that can help them reduce their energy usage and see more savings. These energy-efficient devices, we can actually help customers' finance and their bills. It can be cost-prohibitive without allowing for that kind of financing on the bill, them reducing their energy usage, which reduces their overall energy bill as a way to help reduce their total energy costs.

This is something that was put forward in House Bill 951. We've worked through the Utilities Commission to make this happen. We're excited about it. But we've got all sorts of other energy efficiency — think about air-condition load control programs — but we're really trying to get innovative and creative to promote those types of programs.

Turner: Is there anything in the new carbon plan that you’re particularly excited about in terms of future projects and programs that Duke Energy is going to be rolling out and working on over the next few years?

Bowman: I'm excited about all of it. There is so much in this Carbon Plan. One of the things that we haven't really talked about is new nuclear. I think we’re proposing some new nuclear early site permit in Stokes County. Again, it's kind of that retire and replace mentality, but [I’m] excited about the development of new technologies. It's a fascinating time, and I believe North Carolina is kind of leading the way, because we do have that bipartisan legislation of 951. So, I think there's lots to be excited about in the carbon plan.

Turner: The small modular reactor, it’s very new, it's something that I don't think has been done before. Like that kind of project hasn't been completed in the US before. Is that something that Duke is looking at doing for the first time in North Carolina?

Bowman: So, it would be the first one in North Carolina. I think there are obviously other utilities out there looking at doing small modular reactors. There's various different technologies out there. We're monitoring them all. I think up in Canada, there's work being done now to build out small modular nuclear reactors up there. So, it's something that we're monitoring. It's kind of exciting. We hope it can come to fruition.

More information about the Carbon Plan and Integrated Resource Plan, as well as the public hearings, may be found on the North Carolina Utilities Commission website.

Zachary Turner is a climate reporter and author of the WFAE Climate News newsletter. He freelanced for radio and digital print, reporting on environmental issues in North Carolina.
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