NCUC Hearings on IRPs Raise Concerns on Utility’s Slow Plan for Energy Transition
Ben Goldberg, a 13-year-old from Durham, N.C., took time on a school night to tell the North Carolina Utilities Commission about why he is worried about climate change and what his utility, Duke Energy, is — and isn’t — doing about it.
“We’re in the middle of an existential climate crisis, and we can’t continue to build new fossil fuel infrastructure,” Goldberg told the NCUC during a recent virtual public hearing on Duke’s integrated resource plans, which include adding thousands of megawatts of new natural gas generation. “But none of the integrated resource plan scenarios have no coal and no gas by 2035.”
Goldberg was one of 17 people who spoke at that hearing on April 14, one of two that the NCUC has hosted so far on the IRPs submitted by North Carolina’s two investor-owned utilities, Duke and Dominion Energy. The commission’s original announcement of a single hearing resulted in 211 people registering to speak, forcing the NCUC to split the speakers over six sessions. About 70 people signed up to testify during the first two sessions, but only 40 showed.
The NCUC is not under a deadline for reaching a decision about the IRPs but has said all submitted testimonies will be considered before doing so. The next hearing is scheduled for May 5.
“The next decade is the absolute most important one in the fight against climate change,” said Eliza Stokes, the energy organizer for MountainTrue, an environmental advocacy organization in Western North Carolina. “We simply cannot continue business as usual by bringing on any more gas plants in North Carolina.”
Six Paths to Net Zero
Every two years Duke and Dominion are required to submit updated IRPs to the NCUC, detailing their plans for meeting customers’ long-term energy demands. With two utilities in the state — Duke Energy Progress and Duke Energy Carolinas — Duke submitted its plans in 2020, and, for the first time, included six potential pathways with different carbon reduction strategies. The options ranged from a base case with significant coal retirements by 2030, but up to 9,600 MW of new natural gas generation, to one accelerated plan with no coal or gas.
Duke has said it intends to cut its carbon emissions in half by 2030 and is “striving” for net zero by 2050, but earlier written comments on the IRP had voiced opposition about the utility’s coal retirement plan, natural gas buildout and undervaluing of renewable sources.
Many saw these pathways as incompatible with North Carolina’s own goal of reducing carbon emissions 70% below 2005 levels by 2030 and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, as laid out in the state’s Clean Energy Plan. (See NC Net-zero Goals Could Hinge on Duke IRPs).
The speakers at the virtual hearings so far have represented a wide range of backgrounds, including representatives of environmental organizations, parents, former energy developers, students, children and environmental justice advocates. Almost all were Duke customers and exclusively discussed the Duke IRPs. All the speakers said that Duke should retire its existing coal plants as fast as possible, avoid building new natural gas plants and invest in renewable energy and storage.
Stokes stressed the costs the state is already paying for its slow response to climate change. “Between 2004 and 2016, the [North Carolina] Department of Transportation spent an average of $66 million per year on climate-related road repairs,” she said. “In 2018, the cost was over $300 million. We are already paying for the disastrous effects of only 1 degree [Celsius] of warming, and the cost of climate change will only get much higher if we stay on a fossil fuel path.”
Jennifer Roberts, a former mayor of Charlotte and currently program director for ecoAmerica, a non-profit focused on climate policy, agreed. “There are currently 90 towns that are in fear of having to unincorporate because they can no longer repair their infrastructure that is repeatedly damaged by storms and flooding,” she said.
Roberts also discussed Duke’s lagging investment in renewable energy, especially battery storage, which the IRP describes as still “emergent.” Other utilities around the country have already committed to battery storage, she said. “Florida Power and Light is currently building the world’s largest battery storage facility, 409 MW, that will open later this year, which it will use to retire two gas power plants and save ratepayers $100 million,” Roberts said.
‘Electric Sector Needs to Lead’
Other speakers raised concerns about the environmental justice implications in the plans. Daniel Tipps, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, is worried about proposed rate hikes and their impact on electric bills and affordable housing in Asheville. “A rate hike would make housing even more inaccessible and may contribute to the rising houseless population,” he said.
Roberts also pointed out that communities of color and low-income communities are the ones that suffer most from the climate crisis. “Neighborhoods that were historically redlined can be 10 to 15 degrees hotter in the summer,” she said. “These are the same households who cannot afford to turn their air conditioning on high.”
Brad Rouse, an energy consultant, was one of the only people to see “the current IRP as representing a lot of progress versus earlier IRPs.”
However, Rouse said, Duke should be focusing on IRP pathways that target higher carbon emission reductions. “I think the 70% carbon reduction pathway is the minimum we should be doing,” he said. “Duke needs to gear up for the transition to clean energy.”
“We’ve got to decarbonize not only the electric grid, but also transportation, industrial use of fossil fuels and residential and commercial use,” he said. “The electric sector needs to lead because that’s what we know how to do.”