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Local governments are pointing out issues with Duke Energy’s carbon plan; Wilmington may join them

Solar energy is one of key renewable energy sources in the North Carolina Sustainability Association's carbon reduction plan.
Southeast Sustainability Directors Network
Southeast Sustainability Directors Network
Solar energy is one of key renewable energy sources in the North Carolina Sustainability Association's carbon reduction plan.

Wilmington city council may join other North Carolina local governments in signing a letter commenting on Duke Energy’s carbon reduction plan.

To understand why Wilmington is considering weighing in on Duke's carbon reduction plan you have to back up to last year, when North Carolina House Bill 951 became law, requiring the state to reduce carbon emissions from electricity by seventy percent by 2030, and to reach net zero by 2050. It’s the job of the North Carolina Utilities Commission to come up with a plan on how to make this happen, and they asked Duke Energy to submit a proposal.

Duke’s recommendations include using a mix of energy sources, like wind, solar, natural gas and nuclear, and retiring coal plants in the state by 2035. But the proposal has been met with criticism from environmental groups.

Matt Abele works for the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, which submitted a proposal of its own to the utilities commission. He said Duke’s plan, which includes four possible scenarios, had a few issues.

“Only one of the four actually reached a 2030 70% carbon reduction,” Abele said. “So three out of the four proposed plans do not actually adhere to the laws written in House Bill 951.”

Abele said the plan also doesn’t retire coal plants fast enough and favors building new natural gas plants, which he said doesn’t go far enough to reduce emissions. Finally, he said the plan relies too much on what he called “unproven technologies”: primarily hydrogen and small modular nuclear reactors, which he said aren’t widely used yet in the commercial market.

He also emphasized price stability, especially in a time with serious inflation.

“Right now with natural gas, and even coal…there's been quite a bit of price volatility,” Abele said. “If you can continue to provide that price stability for customers and ratepayers so that you're not adding an additional expense to their monthly budget, you know, that's huge. And solar and wind can do that.”

The North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association’s proposal focuses more on renewable energy and improving energy efficiency. Abele said renewables don’t actually cost more; in fact, the association’s plan came up with cost savings of two percent by 2030 compared to Duke, and fifteen percent by 2050 — and that’s on the low end.

Duke's plan

Bill Norton is a spokesperson for Duke Energy. He said House Bill 951 has flexibility, and that all of Duke’s scenarios do meet the 2050 goal. In response to worries about natural gas, Norton said the law requires that replacement energy sources be reliable.

“Energy diversity is really what keeps the lights on when the sun's not shining, and the winds not blowing, which can happen for very extended periods in the Carolinas for far, far [longer] than our battery storage can overcome,” Norton said.

Norton said that focus on reliability goes for retiring coal plants as well — and that Duke’s plan is proposing to rely more on energy storage than natural gas.

As for the newer technologies in Duke’s plan, Norton said they aren’t exactly unproven, noting that the Navy has used small nuclear modular reactors for decades.

“The Department of Energy, the federal government are investing large sums of money into both new nuclear technology and hydrogen,” he said. “They feel very strongly that they are going to play a critical role in decarbonisation across the United States.”

The utilities commission will be considering both Duke’s and the sustainable energy association’s proposal along with others in the next couple months. They have to make a final plan by the end of the year, but until then, other communities are also providing feedback.

Will Wilmington weigh in?

That’s where the joint comment letter being considered by Wilmington comes in. The letter echoes some of the issues Abele talked about, and also emphasizes programs that encourage consumers to self-regulate their energy usage.

Note: You can find a copy of the city's proposed resolution — and the comment letter — here.

But city council isn’t sold on the letter yet — they recently postponed signing on, saying they needed more information about the impacts of the agreement. Councilman Neil Anderson said he supported the letter’s goal but was worried about the cost of adopting more renewable energy.

“Wealthy people that can afford a Tesla, that doesn't cause any issues,” Anderson said. “You take somebody who’s already stretched with a power bill, and it goes up exponentially; that's a problem.”

He said the letter felt one-sided and he would want to hear from Duke Energy or an expert on the topic first.

David Ingram is the city sustainability program manager who presented the letter to the council. He said he’ll provide a more detailed explanation of the letter for the next meeting, including affordability programs it outlines for parts of the community who may be paying higher energy rates.

Ingram said having the city’s support may give the letter greater weight with the utilities commission. The city council will reconsider signing the letter at its September 20 meeting.

Grace Vitaglione is a multimedia journalist, recently graduated from American University. I’m attracted to issues of inequity and my reporting has spanned racial disparities in healthcare, immigration detention and college culture. In the past, I’ve investigated ICE detainee deaths at the Investigative Reporting Workshop, worked on an award-winning investigative podcast and produced student-led video stories.