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Duke Renewables President Talks Solar Prospects

Duke Energy Renewables

Duke Energy is not known for embracing renewable energy in North Carolina. About one percent of the Duke Energy Progress’ and Duke Energy Carolinas’ electric capacities in the state come from renewables—mostly solar, as well as a small amount of wind and biomass. Duke’s favored plan projects that number to rise to just 3 percent, 15 years from now. At the same time, Duke has a subsidiary business solely focused on developing and selling renewable energy across the country. WFAE’s Ben Bradford spoke to the president of Duke Energy Renewables for a businessman’s perspective on the green revolution.

BRADFORD (narrating): In the past three years, Duke Energy Renewables has built about 100 megawatts of solar projects across the U.S., or about a third the amount of your typical coal plant. The company plans another 5 megawatt project in Eastern North Carolina in January. Now, this does not include renewable projects by other Duke companies, for instance the Duke utilities that provide most of us power in North Carolina. Duke Energy Renewables president Greg Wolf says he’s bullish on the right renewables in states that have the right resources.

WOLF: We’re advocates for renewable energy, but we’re not green zealots. We’re really in this business because there’s a tremendous opportunity.

BRADFORD: Yeah so, what do you think are the prospects for solar moving forward?

WOLF: We expect a lot of growth and bright futures for solar going forward. The technology’s going to continue to get better and for us. It’s an interesting business opportunity to invest and earn an attractive return.

BRADFORD: One of the things we’ve seen the cost really lower in the past few years. Tell me a little more about that.

WOLF: Yeah, we’ve been building projects for five years, and during that timeframe, the cost of building a solar project—a utility-scale solar project—has really been cut in half, and even a little more than half. The price that we’re charging today is probably less than half what we were charging three or four years ago, as well. But also you look and the panels themselves, just the fundamental chemistry, has gotten more efficient, able to capture the sunlight better. And, therefore, you’re getting more production throughout the day and at any one given time.

BRADFORD: So, in places like California they’re trying to hit 30 percent by, what is it 2025?

WOLF: Yeah, it’s interesting. They’re saying 33 percent by 2025, and they’ve recently come out and said that that 33 percent to them is a floor, not a goal, and talking about maybe as much as 40 percent.

BRADFORD: Do you feel like that’s doable at this point?

WOLF: It is doable; it’s not riskless, but California is going in with their eyes wide open. They’re trying to learn from other areas of the country and the world that have made significant investments. So, I think folks are aware that it’s not the same as what we’ve done for 100 years, but it’s still very doable.

BRADFORD: What are the risks?

WOLF: In simple terms, solar panels are very cost-effective, getting more so and produce zero-emission, great electricity, same as anything else, all day long. At night, you can’t use solar panels to produce electricity. So the quick answer is you’ve got to have a solution in total for your customers that provides the electricity they’re looking for 24 hours a day.

BRADFORD: How do you do that?

WOLF: I think a balanced portfolio is definitely the first lever, so having other generation sources at a company’s disposal still makes sense, and we believe will make sense for years to come. I think energy storage will be a second tool that will be used more and more. And then, on-site generation is something that’s getting a lot of attention, from natural gas or other sources. Those are still generally higher cost but are areas people are exploring to see if that makes sense.

BRADFORD: If it’s feasible for an enormous state like California to hit a third of its goals through renewables, what does that say to you about North Carolina’s goal?

WOLF: I think each state really needs to have a goal that’s commensurate with its resources. And then in North Carolina, I think we need to be cognizant that we’ve got an embedded set of generation—largely owned by Duke Energy Carolinas—that is fairly low-cost, fairly efficient and really should be utilized. So I think, again, having the renewables grow makes sense, but it still just needs to be a piece of the overall mix.

BRADFORD: When you look at the long-range planning docs for Duke Energy Carolinas, or even the joint plan between Duke Energy Carolinas and Progress, you’re talking about a growth of renewables between 2 and 4 percent—I mean, what do you think of that?

WOLF: I think each state has their process for figuring new technology additions, and the prices on solar have come down so rapidly that even that process has a little bit of a lag in its calculation. So, I think our team will feather more renewable energy into the mix, largely solar.  So, I do expect it to grow. Off of a low base, it’s going to grow rapidly. But still, in the grand scheme of things, it’s going to be less than 10 percent of the mix, I think, for the foreseeable future.

Duke Energy Renewables' map of projects across the country:

CEO Greg Wolf discusses the map and future prospects with WFAE’s Ben Bradford.