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Clean energy advocates push Duke Energy to pump the brakes on new fracked gas

A Duke Energy substation.
Duke Energy
State regulators will decide what form Duke Energy’s updated Carbon Plan will take later this year.

Duke Energy's updated plan to meet state emissions goals and future energy demands was under scrutiny this week. State regulators heard Monday from consumer, environmental and business groups about their takes on Duke's plan and whether the utility is making enough progress on becoming carbon neutral. WFAE’s climate reporter Zachary Turner spoke with WFAE’s Nick de la Canal about their recommendations.

Nick de la Canal: First of all, why has Duke Energy updated its carbon plan? And how much of a change is it?

Zachary Turner: It's a pretty big change. This is something that Duke Energy has to do every two years as part of House Bill 951, passed back in 2021. And it mandates that Duke Energy [come] up with this plan for how it's going to power the state and also reach these emission reduction targets.

Now, this plan has changed quite a bit since its last iteration back in 2022. And this is due to some modeling that Duke Energy has done which projects a lot of economic and population growth in North Carolina, mainly [in the form of] these large data centers and industrial manufacturing sites that are going to require a lot of power 24/7.

The utility says that in order to meet that increased energy demand, they're gonna try [an] “all of the above approach,” which relies on both renewables and new fracked gas infrastructure, as well as new nuclear power plants.

A major concern for environmental groups is Duke wanting to delay compliance with state emission goals, aiming for 2035 instead of 2030 to reduce the majority of state emissions.

De la Canal: Right and so what did consumer advocates say about that?

Turner: [The] public staff, which is the independent state consumer advocacy group, presented its own findings based on their own modeling.

What they found is that Duke's modeling was largely correct. There is going to be a lot of economic and population growth on the horizon. They also did recommend that Duke could delay compliance on these interim targets until 2034 — one year sooner than what Duke was trying to push.

They also had some changes to the approach that Duke wanted to take in terms of meeting these targets. They advised maybe pumping the brakes a little on building out fracked gas infrastructure, especially in light of new federal standards that could potentially risk these new generators becoming so-called stranded assets, meaning they don't live out the entirety of their planned life cycle prior to retirement.

They also wanted to see more movement on renewables and advanced nuclear, better, more concrete plans for offshore wind development, and greater interconnectivity and development of solar plus battery projects.

De la Canal: So how did the public staff's recommendations sit with environmental groups?

Turner: Well, there are some things that they really liked. There was a lot of optimism surrounding the advancement of renewables.

As far as the public staff recommendation to delay compliance on emission targets, I caught up with David Neal, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, after the technical conference. He said it's something Duke shouldn't plan to do.

David Neal: If Duke is building offshore wind or nuclear projects, and encounters certain delays, that's what allows the commission to extend it further. We just haven't gotten there yet.

De la Canal: Okay so, what recommendations did environmental groups have for Duke's plan?

Turner: Environmental groups really wanted to see Duke Energy move a little quicker on wind energy. If we want to have wind by the 2030s — around the time that Duke Energy is planning to retire a lot of its coal power plants — we need to start making deals with wind companies around this year or next year to get those projects off the ground.

Environmental Groups also highlighted some of the ways in which Duke's forecast didn't account for advancements in the way we draw power from the grid, such as smartly timing EV charging and leveraging on-site battery storage. These technologies could bring down the total amount of energy Duke needs to generate in the first place.

De la Canal: What about business groups? What kind of feedback did they have for Duke's plan?

Turner: Business groups expressed some concern over rates and Duke's plan to mitigate rate increases in the future. They pointed to past examples of gas supply volatility due to geopolitical or environmental factors and asked Duke to file more regular status updates on its progress on the carbon plan.

They also wanted the company to come up with a more detailed contingency plan for mitigating future rate increases. Basically, they wanted a little bit less uncertainty in the future.

De la Canal: So far, state regulators have held public hearings, also this week's expert testimony, what comes next?

Turner: Next month, Duke Energy and these various interested parties are going to have an opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses that presented at this week's technical conference. After that, it'll be up to state regulators to decide how to proceed with the carbon plan.

One way or another, Duke Energy is going to have a new carbon plan that will inform what [it does] in the near term and [how] it plans for the future.

Then in two years, they'll begin the process all over again.

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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.