For Immediate Release, March 2, 2021

Contact:

Jim Warren, NC WARN, (919) 416-5077, jim@ncwarn.org
Jean Su, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 770-3187, jsu@biologicaldiversity.org

Legal Challenge: Duke Energy Plan Would Supersize Climate Pollution, Waste Billions on Unused Power Plants

Justice Groups Say Carolinas Plan Would Add More Than 50 Gas-fired Units, Even As Dozens Sit Idle During Peak Demand

DURHAM, N.C.— NC WARN and the Center for Biological Diversity have filed a legal challenge to Duke Energy’s plan to build scores of gas-fired power plants in the Carolinas even though huge amounts of excess generation already sit unused during the worst winter weather.

The challenge, filed yesterday with the North Carolina Utilities Commission, points out that Duke Energy remains a national laggard on cheaper, renewable power. It also notes that Duke’s plans clash with global climate goals. It would be less expensive to add battery storage at existing solar farms than build more than 50 fracked-gas units and continue to burn coal.

The climate justice groups also say Duke presented misleading information to the commission in two crucial ways in its annual Integrated Resource Plan. They say Duke provided grossly inflated cost estimates for solar-with-storage, while using estimates of the cost of new gas plants that are half of what Duke actually paid for recent construction. The effect was to make gas look cheaper than solar with batteries, although the latter approach is beating new gas on economics and reliability in many states — a trend that is surging as storage prices keep falling.

The second distortion, according to the groups, is that the plan’s data allege a shortage of available power during winter peaks, which, if true, would bolster Duke’s case to keep building gas-fired plants. When challenged, Duke corrected the numbers, which now reflect that Duke Energy Carolinas actually had available up to 40% more power than needed even on the coldest days in 2019, according to an analysis by engineer Bill Powers, a consultant for the groups.

Powers also discovered that just after Duke’s highest usage in years — during a deep freeze in 2015 — corporate officials assured the commission they had plenty of reserve power.

“It appears that Duke Energy rigged data to make the commission and public think we’re all going to freeze in the dark if Duke doesn’t keep building billion-dollar power plants,” said NC WARN’s Jim Warren. He said a primary commission role is to prevent monopolies from over-building power plants.

“Duke Energy is claiming poverty while sitting on bags of gold,” Warren said of the plan.

Powers, the engineer, found that during periods of highest usage it is standard and appropriate practice for Duke to import electricity from neighboring utilities. But this leaves Duke ratepayers being charged for both the imported power and dozens of idle power units.

In addition, Duke’s plan alleges the need for more than 50 additional gas-fired units, even though greenhouse gas regulation and Duke’s own climate goal would require most of them to close years ahead of schedule, leaving ratepayers to pay billions for those stranded assets.

The groups’ submission details the devastating risks that climate change poses to North Carolina and explains that Duke’s plan fails to provide the substantial greenhouse gas emission reductions urgently needed to address the climate crisis.

“It’s unacceptable that Duke Energy, one of the world’s largest climate-polluting utilities, refuses to develop a resource plan that meets the moment of the climate emergency,” said Jean Su, the Center’s energy justice director. “Building out dirty gas plants and locking the Carolinas into decades of climate pollution is backwards, especially after the Texas energy tragedy. The commission should send Duke back to the drawing board to develop a plan that provides the rapid transition to a clean and just energy economy that climate science demands and the Biden administration has directed.”

A new presidential executive order calls for utilities to stop burning coal and gas by 2035.

The justice groups say that, despite prodigious advertising, Duke now gets only 5% of its electricity in the Carolinas from renewables; the national average was 18% in 2019.

“Electric utilities operating alongside Duke Energy are finding that battery storage is a less expensive alternative to new gas turbines,” Warren said. “But Duke leaders told the commission that battery storage is four times the cost of gas. The regulators need to penalize Duke leaders for rigging the numbers — especially with so much at stake.”

Su explained that the NC Commission must join Virginia and South Carolina regulators, who recently rejected utility resource plans. “The commission bears the legal duty of protecting the public interest,” said Su. “That means protecting customers against relentless rate hikes for unneeded gas-fired plants and combatting the climate emergency by regulating in pursuit of clean and distributed energy that ultimately serves North Carolinians, not Duke profits.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.