Duke Energy plans gas plants as it moves away from coal, but critics see higher cost and emissions
Three years ago, Duke Energy opened its newest natural gas-fired power plant in Asheville, on the site of an old coal-fired plant. Duke wants to build more gas plants around North Carolina as part of its plan to reduce the heat-trapping pollution that comes from electricity generation. But the idea has plenty of critics.
Steam billows from Duke Energy's natural gas-fired power plant just south of Asheville on a chilly, windy day. The old coal plant operated here for 56 years.
"That coal plant was replaced by a new combined-cycle natural gas facility, which is 75% more efficient than the old coal plant it replaced," Duke spokesman Bill Norton said while leading a tour of the site.
A 2015 state law ordered Duke to close the coal plant and replace it with the $893 million natural gas plant. It's a sign of things to come in North Carolina, where another law — the 2021 energy reform law known as House Bill 951 — cleared the way for a new generation of gas plants.
"We're going to see more investments like this one, as well as new nuclear, storage and renewables," Norton said.
Meeting NC carbon goals
The energy reform law calls for reducing energy sector emissions 70% from 2005 levels by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050. Duke Energy submitted a proposed carbon plan to reach those goals with state regulators in May. Business and environmental groups also proposed plans, with more renewables and battery storage. In December, regulators largely endorsed Duke's plan.
CEO Lynn Good told investors last week: "As part of an orderly transition out of coal by 2035 the commission supported planning for approximately 2,000 megawatts of new natural gas generation to maintain reliability."
Duke plans to close all six of its remaining North Carolina coal plants by 2035. To make up for the lost generating capacity, it wants to add up to three more gas plants like Asheville, Norton said. These plants also would be able to burn hydrogen, which could be an important future zero-carbon fuel — as long as it's produced using renewable energy.
State regulators have a mandate
More than 20 states have similar climate goals, said Warren Leon of the Clean Energy States Alliance. But North Carolina is one of only a few that has ordered regulators to draft or approve utilities' plans to meet those goals.
"I think they hold promise of actually achieving deep decarbonization. There's no reason why a plan in which the regulators are playing a leading role can't work," Leon said.
The question is whether regulators will challenge Duke Energy in any way, such as requiring more renewables or cutting the plan's cost. North Carolina's energy reform law requires regulators to consider both reliability and cost as they figure out how to reduce carbon pollution. Duke says its plans could push energy prices up as much as 35% over the next 13 years.
The utility's critics argue that more renewable energy and battery storage would be both cleaner and cheaper.
"Industry groups, clean energy groups, environmental groups submitted alternative modeling that showed that you could make a least cost case for building out wind, solar and storage rather than gas over the next decade to hit the 2030 target, retain the same level of reliability, and also save money," said Will Scott of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Adding renewable energy
Duke recently asked regulators to approve a 9.5-megawatt solar farm on the former Asheville coal plant site — another requirement of the 2015 law that ordered the gas plant. And Duke's carbon plan includes new targets for solar, wind, battery storage and energy efficiency. Joel Porter of CleanAIRE NC likes those parts of the plan.
"I think the addition of solar, around 3,000 some-odd megawatts of new solar, between now and 2024 was a step in the right direction. It could have been a heck of a lot more," Porter said.
"But all of those good things were negated by the potential addition of natural gas, of more natural gas," he added.
Even though natural gas burns cleaner than coal, critics say building more gas plants would tie North Carolinians to a more expensive and still-polluting energy source for decades.
Under North Carolina's carbon plan process, regulators have to revisit the plan every two years. That means Duke Energy has to submit a revised plan in September. And this battle will begin all over again.
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