NC utilities panel hears testimony over Duke Energy CO2 plan
North Carolina's electricity regulators began listening Tuesday to potentially weeks of testimony over proposals by Duke Energy Corp. subsidiaries on how to carry out a state law demanding greenhouse gas reductions in the next decade.
In keeping with the landmark 2021 law, the Charlotte-based utility pitched to the state Utilities Commission earlier this year how it could cut carbon dioxide emissions in the state 70% by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels. Net-zero emissions by 2050 are also required.
The expert testimony comes before the seven-member commission must rule on a formal path forward by Dec. 31. It follows a wave of document filings by environmental and clean energy groups, major corporate electricity users, rank-and-file customers and the Attorney General's Office. About 40 different entities are listed as third-party intervenors in the matter before the commission, giving their lawyers the ability to cross-examine Duke executives and offer their own witnesses.
Duke's carbon plan unveiled in May envisioned four different energy production and efficiency portfolios, three of which didn't reach the 70% mandate until 2032 or 2034. The law gives the commission leeway to push back the 70% reduction deadline to 2032 or even further in some circumstances.
Duke Energy has said it wants the commission to approve multiple options to give it flexibility and time to evaluate emerging electricity sources. A slower reduction roll-out also would result in lower rate increases on customers and more assurance of reliable energy supplies, the utility said. The law says the panel can examine "the latest technological breakthroughs to achieve the least cost path," among other considerations.
"We're not asking the commission to go ahead and utilize that discretion to delay. What we're asking for is a suite of near-term procurement and development actions that need to take place," said Tuesday's first witness, Kendal Bowman, vice president of regulatory affairs for Duke's North and South Carolina subsidiaries. Those near-term actions would include retiring more coal-fired plants, boosting solar and battery supplies and creating natural gas-powered plants, which can provide energy on cloudy or high-demand days.
Duke's critics say the proposals rely too much on natural gas or make customer bills too costly. Some have offered their own carbon-reduction plan that reaches the 70% reduction mandate by 2030 while relying more on solar and wind power and battery storage use.
"Do you think it would be appropriate for the commission given that Duke has only got one 2030 compliance portfolio to consider 2030 compliance portfolios put forth by other parties?" Benjamin Snowden, an attorney representing independent solar generating facilities, asked Bowman. She replied the commission can consider anything brought before it.
Duke Energy and the commission's Public Staff — representing customers — developed two additional portfolios this summer.
Catherine Cralle Jones, an attorney for Appalachian Voices, questioned how much was being done to address affordability. Nearly 1 million customers of Duke Energy Progress or Duke Energy Carolinas — almost a third of their North Carolina customer base — qualify as low-income through federal poverty guidelines.
"If we cannot address affordability in the carbon plan itself for the customers, then we are missing an opportunity here for these investments, for these priorities," Jones said.
Bowman said the company believes transitioning to clean energy will help keep affordable rates that are historically below the national average, and that efficiency efforts to reduce electricity use will help as well.
The commission held six public hearings in July and August on the plan. All commission members are appointees of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who signed the 2021 bill into law and is a strong clean-energy advocate. The panel sits as a quasi-judicial body; Chair Charlotte Mitchell refereed objections by Duke's attorney about specific questions for Bowman.