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Scientists oppose Duke Energy plans for more gas-fired plants

 Duke Energy has already replaced its coal-fired Buck Steam Station near Salisbury with a gas-fired plant.
Duke Energy
Duke Energy has already replaced its coal-fired Buck Steam Station near Salisbury with a gas-fired plant.

A group of 45 scientists, including some who formerly worked for the EPA, is urging North Carolina officials not to approve Duke Energy's plan to build more gas-fired power plants. Duke wants to expand its use of natural gas as part of a plan to reduce and eventually eliminate carbon emissions by 2050.

In a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper and Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good Monday, the scientists say Duke should "begin winding down" its use of natural gas - not increase it. They want to see more solar and wind power, and battery storage.

The North Carolina Utilities Commission has until Dec. 31 to approve a carbon plan that meets the state's climate goals. They include reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 70% from 2005 levels by 2030, and to net zero by 2050.

 Drew Shindell
Duke University
Drew Shindell

Duke University professor Drew Shindell coordinated the letter, which was signed by scientists from North Carolina and other states. Seventeen of the scientists formerly worked for the Environmental Protection Agency. The letter was circulated by the environmental group NC WARN.

"We would like to see Duke follow the path of some of the most progressive utilities," Shindell said in an interview. He pointed to other states such as Indiana and New Mexico where he said companies "are really going all out for renewables with storage, and pushing to retire coal as early as possible, but also not not continuing to expand the use of natural gas."

The price of renewable energy now is low enough that it doesn't make sense to keep building gas plants, Shindell said.

"Natural gas has been a nice thing, over the last 20 years or so, in that it's helped facilitate this transition away from coal that we've seen in the U.S. But we've come to the point where renewables have progressed so much, and their costs have declined so greatly that customers really deserve the least expensive source of power and cleanest source of power," Shindell said.

Shindell said North Carolina's existing energy regulations incentivize power producers to build large, expensive plants.

"They do not make more money by selling customers cheaper power from solar and wind. That doesn't help them at all. It helps customers," Shindell said.

Read the full letter online here

A Duke Energy spokesman compared using some gas now to switching to a hybrid car.

"Replacing about 40% of our coal capacity with more efficient natural gas is the equivalent of driving a hybrid – it has some emissions, but it’s a far cleaner option than the gasoline-powered vehicle you had been driving," spokesman Bill Norton said.

Norton said some natural gas is needed to ensure reliability.

"Our Carbon Plan proposes more storage than natural gas. Given the large amount of weather-dependent renewables (solar and wind) in the plan, a small amount of natural gas is critical to ensure reliability for our customers," he said.

State regulators could approve some version of Duke's carbon plan, which the company filed in May. Or they could incorporate ideas from alternative plans submitted by environmental and business groups.

Whatever they approve will be in effect for two years, when they have a chance to revise the plan, under a process laid out in last year's energy reform bill, House Bill 951.

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Copyright 2022 WFAE. To see more, visit WFAE.

David Boraks is a WFAE weekend host and a producer for "Charlotte Talks." He's a veteran Charlotte-area journalist who has worked part-time at WFAE since 2007 and for other outlets including DavidsonNews.net and The Charlotte Observer.