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Climate advocates urge state to reject Duke Energy's plans for gas-fired power plants, extension

Activists holding climate signs
Zachary Turner
A crowd of about 35 people gathered in front of the Mecklenburg County Courthouse to encourage state regulators to reject Duke Energy’s deadline extension request.

State regulators began hearings on Duke Energy’s Carbon Plan this week. The biennial plan is meant to provide a roadmap to achieving 70% emissions reductions in the state by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050. But the latest plan pushes for a five-year extension on the 2030 deadline.

NC Climate Action field organizer Rachael Rader joined a crowd of about 35 people, holding signs and banners, in advance of the public hearing in Charlotte. Rader, 27, held a sign that read “Environmental Justice for All.”

It was Rader’s first time speaking at a similar event. The public hearings across the state are hosted by the North Carolina Utilities Commission, but many speakers, like Rader, have a message for the privately-owned utility Duke Energy.

“They can either say, ‘OK, we're gonna help. We're gonna provide clean energy,’” Rader said. “We know that there’s federal money out there that they can use to make that transition. So when they choose not to, it's completely because they know they can make a higher profit.”

Don't miss WFAE's 2024 Carolinas Climate Summit on April 18. We have an exciting lineup of speakers who will address the impact of climate change on the Carolinas; climate and environmental justice; solutions; individual action; and other key issues that are shaping our region.

One of the major points of contention in Duke’s Carbon Plan is the utility’s decision to build new gas-fired plants. The company says it will retire coal plants and provide a bridge to carbon neutrality, but activists say Duke should focus on renewables that don’t emit planet-warming carbon, instead of spending billions on natural gas plants that will be around for decades.

The attendees in Charlotte included climate activists, politicians and ratepayers.

“I want my daughters and grandkids to know I did and said something while the human-made ongoing climate disaster continues to happen,” said Angela James, an organizer with NC Black Leadership and Organizing Collective.

Woman speaking at a rally holding fossil fuel opposition sign
Zachary Turner
Angela James is an organizer with the NC Black Leadership and Organizing Collective.

“I witnessed the 2014 Duke Energy coal ash spill and toured the North Carolina Dan River first hand. I saw how the spill destroyed ecosystems, polluted our waterways and put people's health at risk,” said Vermanno Bowman, founder of the Charlotte Progressive Caucus.

“For my family, this decision will directly impact my son's health in a serious way,” said Billie Anderson, mother of two. “As a child who suffers from asthma, he is already acutely feeling the physical toll of air pollution.”

Tina Katsanos, chair of the Environmental Justice Committee at the NAACP and a member of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Climate Leaders coalition, raised concerns about the company’s rate of return on fossil fuel infrastructure projects. Duke Energy earns back money on infrastructure construction projects, plus interest. It’s part of how the utility makes its money.

“Energy is a need. It's a basic human need,” Katsanos said.

“It should be treated the same as water. Charlotte-Mecklenburg [Water] — they don't make some big profit, right? They charge enough so they can keep the operations running and pay their employees a decent wage.”

Duke Energy spokesperson Bill Norton attended the public hearing on behalf of the company to listen to the public. Already having attended Monday’s Asheville hearing, Norton said a major concern the company’s heard from folks is a desire for more renewables.

“They wish we weren’t building natural gas. But if you think about the companies that are coming to North Carolina — the jobs that are coming here, technology companies, manufacturing companies — they don’t shut off when the sun sets. So, we need cleaner natural gas to bridge the gap until advanced nuclear or hydrogen are online,” Norton said.

He also said speakers had positive comments about the company’s new PowerPair program, which connects residential solar installations to battery storage.

Duke Energy filed its plan in August 2023 and updated it in January 2024. Norton’s comments point to a challenge the utility says it’s facing … how to provide reliable electricity in a state where the amount of additional energy Duke will need to provide by 2030 increased eight-fold since the utility’s last prediction. Electric cars, heat pumps, large data centers and factories are all contributing to that demand.

Katsanos, for her part, had other thoughts about how the private utility could provide power when the sun is not out.

“It’s called batteries. Battery storage,” Katsanos said. “But even if they’re going to make this argument that they need a diverse energy portfolio, I get that. But the majority of the portfolio should be renewables. It should not be natural gas.”

State regulators will hold three more public hearings, two in-person and one virtual hearing on April 23. Then, the North Carolina Utilities Commission will decide what version of Duke Energy’s Carbon Plan it will adopt.

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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.