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Ratepayers plead with NC Utilities Commission to reject Duke Energy’s carbon plan

Critics say proposal is too little and too late in responding to the climate crisis

BY:  – MAY 1, 2024 12:14 PM
protesters gathered outside the Durham County Courthouse

 A member of the Ragin’ Grannies, an environmental advocacy group, sings “No Frackin’ Way,” outside the Durham County Courthouse, where the NC Utilities Commission was holding a public hearing about Duke Energy’s carbon plan. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Bobby Jones, a founder of the Down East Coal Ash Environmental and Social Justice Coalition in Goldsboro, had been seated for less than five minutes when he bolted from his bench.

“This hearing is a farce!” Jones said, as a Durham County Sheriff’s deputy led him from the seventh-floor courtroom. “You’re in cahoots with Duke Energy.”

Jones was among several people who walked out in protest of the N.C. Utilities Commission, which held its final public hearing yesterday in Durham on Duke Energy’s updated carbon plan – a plan that few people like, except for Duke Energy.

While the Duke plan would add more renewable sources, like solar, those efforts would be dwarfed by a massive build-out of natural gas infrastructure: as many as five new plants, including one in Person County and another in Catawba County, plus the pipelines and compressor stations to transmit and distribute the gas.

Across the state line, in South Carolina, Duke plans to build another large natural gas plant, which, with the North Carolina facilities, will meet what the utility calls “unprecedented demand.”

Yet natural gas is a major source of methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas and significant driver of climate change. Just last month, average global carbon dioxide levels reached an all-time high, while sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic have also broken historical records.

Other components of the plan include:

  • the development of small nuclear reactors, as well as hydrogen power, whose nascent technology has yet to be commercially deployed in the U.S.,
  • the possibility of higher energy bills for ratepayers, as much as 73% by 2033, and
  • the possibility that Duke could delay meeting its decarbonization requirements by five years.

A state law (House Bill 951) enacted in 2021 mandates that the utility cut its carbon emissions by 70% over 2005 levels by 2030. The Utilities Commission has the discretion to extend that target date, but as several ratepayers testified, the climate crisis is nearly out of runway.

“These deadlines are not arbitrary,” said Rebecca Maselli of Raleigh. “They are crucial to help stave off the worst effects of climate change. We know that the extraction and use of fossil fuel is what has caused our climate crisis. We should be doing everything within our power to stem this tide as soon as possible. The reality is we do not need more fossil fuel plants. We should be prioritizing renewables.”

“The two main issues I have with [Duke’s] plan are one, the lack of urgency. It seems as if you don’t think climate change is actually real,” David Balletta of Durham said. “The second is the lack of innovative thinking. The plan is traditional and conservative, and has a bias in favor of gas and nuclear and against renewables.”

Balletta encouraged the commission to emphasize stronger energy efficiency measures in the plan. “The benefits of energy conservation are well known; the reduction in demand is immediate.”

What’s next? 

The N.C. Utilities Commission is scheduled to hold another hearing Monday, July 22, at 2 p.m., in which it will receive testimony from Duke Energy and other intervenors in the case. The Commission will decide whether to approve, amend or deny the plan by the end of the year.

Melissa McCullough of Chapel Hill is the EPA’s former assistant national program director of sustainable and healthy communities research. “Duke’s counterproductive proposal” fails to choose the most cost-effective option, McCullough testified before the commission. “That is renewable energy.”

Natural gas will result in higher and unpredictable energy rates, said McCullough, also a Chapel Hill Town Council member. And the plan will probably fail to meet decarbonization goals, “because Duke is proposing to rely on a wildly expensive if not infeasible technology, hydrogen.”

The EPA recently finalized carbon pollution standards that would affect not just existing coal plants but new natural gas facilities – like the ones planned for North and South Carolina.

New gas plants that run the most, Newsline previously reported, will have to capture 90% of their carbon emissions by 2032. That’s just three years after the Roxboro plant is scheduled to come online.

The cost of these upgrades would be passed along to customers. The current plan already projects significantly higher rates. Based on monthly usage of 1,000 kilowatt hours, a household would pay $52-$57 a month in 2033 — far higher than original carbon plan estimates of $30 to $41.

José Saucedo lives in Winston-Salem with three people and can’t afford to adequately heat their house in the winter. “We use kerosene and space heaters,” Saucedo said. “We use the furnace only on the coldest of nights.”

He asked the commission to hold Duke accountable to the clean energy goals established in House Bill 951. “Failure to do so means that our testimony has fallen on deaf ears.”

As the hearing wound down, people ambled through the courthouse hallway, whose windows overlook a half dozen new apartment buildings. On the roofs were mounted hundreds of air conditioners. The high temperature had reached 85 degrees that afternoon – well above average – and many of them were already running.

The view of hundreds of rooftop air conditioners, as seen from the seventh floor of the Durham County Courthouse
 The view of hundreds of air conditioners, as seen from the seventh floor of the Durham County Courthouse, where the N.C. Utilities Commission held a public hearing about Duke Energy’s amended carbon plan. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)