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Duke Long-Range Plan Eyes Faster Adoption Of Renewables - At A Price

Sheep from a local farm are grazing to keep grass down beneath the panels at Duke Energy's Monroe solar farm.
David Boraks
Duke Energy spells out how its energy use could change in the future to include more renewables, like its massive Monroe Solar Farm.

Duke Energy has sent North Carolina regulators a new long-range energy plan. This year's plan has something new: scenarios for faster adoption of renewable energy. But they come at a price. 

The North Carolina Utilities Commission requires Duke to submit what's called an Integrated Resource Plan, or IRP, every two years for how it expects to meet the state's energy needs over the next 15 years.  For the first time, this one includes both the most cost-effective "base-case" scenario and five others with different assumptions about how quickly Duke retires old coal plants in favor of new technologies.

"This is going to provide policymakers with some of the trade offs that they were looking for in terms of what's possible and at what cost," said Glen Snider, who oversees resource planning for Duke. 

Gov. Roy Cooper's Clean Energy Plan calls on utilities to reduce carbon emissions by 70% from 2005 levels by 2030.  Duke's own plan has only a 50% target. But the new IRP offers several paths to meeting that 70% goal.  They include retiring coal plants early, halting construction of new gas-fired plants, and adding new technologies such as off-shore wind energy or small nuclear reactors. 

But Snider says those scenarios would come at a cost - adding as much as $50 to the monthly bill of a typical customer using 1,000 kilowatts of electricity. 

"Some of those bill impacts could be ranging from $10 a month by 2035 to, if you go more aggressive, $40 or $50 or even maybe a little more per month to adopt these technologies," Snider said.

And policy makers may not like the sound of that. 

Snider also said the IRP also delves into another area that hasn't gotten as much attention in past plans - the impact on the power grid. He said Duke will need to spend more in the coming years - something it's arguing for in rate increase hearings going on right now at the utilities commission. 

"You need a robust grid to be able to move that electricity to where it needs to go. And as you rely more and more on renewable resources, what you'll see in our IRP is you need more and more energy storage. So depending on the level of wind and solar, you have to take into account the need for the associated storage to go with that," he said.

Energy storage means industrial-scale batteries that can hold energy produced during non-peak hours by wind and solar farms. Duke officials have said that technology is still evolving. 

Meanwhile, environmental groups welcomed Duke's suggestion that it might retire coal plans earlier. 

“It's good that Duke seems to finally be starting to recognize that clean energy resources, including (battery) storage, can deliver low-cost energy for customers today," said Dave Rogers of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. "But any plan to burn coal until 2039 and build a bunch of fracked gas plants is a disaster for both the climate and Duke's customers' budgets. It's time to move away from coal and gas and invest in things like energy efficiency, wind, solar and storage so we can clean up our air and water and save money at the same time.”

Duke submitted separate but largely similar IRPs for its two North Carolina subsidiaries, Duke Energy Carolinas in Charlotte and the Piedmont area, and Duke Energy Progress in eastern North Carolina and parts of western North Carolina. 

Read more 

More about the 2020 Integrated Resource Plans on the Duke Energy website

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David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.