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Environmental advocates say Duke Energy carbon reduction plan doesn’t go far enough

Community members attend a hearing at the Buncombe County Courthouse on Duke Energy's carbon plan Tuesday, April 9, 2024.
Felicia Sonmez
Community members attend a hearing at the Buncombe County Courthouse on Duke Energy's carbon plan Tuesday, April 9, 2024.

More than 50 people turned out this week for a public hearing on Duke Energy’s plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The hearing at the Buncombe County Courthouse was the first of several to be held this month by the North Carolina Utilities Commission.

A state law calls for Duke to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 levels by 70% by 2030. Duke has offered proposals that would meet that goal by either 2030, 2033 or 2035.

The law, House Bill 951, also requires that Duke achieve net carbon neutrality by 2050.

At a hearing that lasted nearly two hours, environmental advocates on Tuesday night voiced concern about Duke’s proposal to build more methane gas and nuclear power plants rather than relying more heavily on solar and wind power generation.

Cathy Buckley, an organizer with the North Carolina Alliance to Protect Our People and the Places We Live, told BPR Duke’s plan is the “exact opposite of what we need.”

“I’m very upset that we have the tools to actually make a clean energy transition now, and in North Carolina, we’re going to be building more gas plants than anyplace else in the country,” Buckley said. “And those gas plants are so bad for the climate.”

Gray Jernigan, deputy director and general counsel for the environmental advocacy group MountainTrue, called natural gas “dangerous.”

The North Carolina Utilities Commission, he argued, should tell Duke to instead expand its use of renewables such as wind and solar.

Some speakers, such as Rosemary Robinson, a retired public school teacher from Candler, said they are concerned about the well-being of future generations. She called Duke’s plan “shortsighted” and “motivated by profit.”

“We want an alternative reduction plan – one that meets the moment, one that puts clean, renewable energy at the forefront. … We need y’all to get real and do your job,” Robinson told the commissioners.

A representative for Duke was present at Tuesday’s hearing but, as is typical at such hearings, was there to listen and did not publicly respond to criticisms from the nearly two dozen residents who spoke out against the plan.

In a recent interview with WFAE’s Zachary Turner, Duke Energy’s North Carolina state president Kendal Bowman defended Duke’s carbon plan. She described natural gas as “much cleaner” than coal, which the company plans to phase out by 2035.

“We do need resources that will be available 24 hours a day when the sun's not shining, when the wind’s not blowing, those sorts of things,” Bowman told WFAE.

“But if you look at the portfolio, while we are increasing the natural gas, it's a lot less natural gas than if you looked at solar resources that we're putting on the system. And so, we need to continue to be focused on reliability, and natural gas is going to allow us to retire coal.”

She added that Duke remains “committed to achieving carbon neutrality for all of our customers by 2050.”

The hearing came as Duke is also facing outrage from customers over rising electricity costs. Some Asheville residents told BPR they have seen a steep increase in their monthly bills.

State Sen. Julie Mayfield, a Democrat who was part of the team that negotiated House Bill 951 in 2021, urged the commission Tuesday night to be aggressive in pushing energy efficiency and protecting low-income residents from Duke’s rising rates.

She related the story of a friend who recently called her in a “flat-out panic” over her latest electricity bill. The friend, Mayfield said, is disabled, lives in affordable housing and has “no other way” to generate additional income apart from her monthly disability income.

“Use the full scope of your authority under 951 or any other bill that gives you authority to take care of our low-income customers,” Mayfield told the members of the utilities commission.

The panel will hold its upcoming public hearings in Wilmington and Durham; it will also host an online session on April 23. The panel is expected to decide by the end of the year whether to approve Duke’s plan.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify the role of the Duke Energy representative during Utilities Commission hearings.

Felicia Sonmez is a reporter covering growth and development for Blue Ridge Public Radio.