Can a long-planned Duke Energy gas plant in North Carolina be defeated?

Can a long-planned Duke Energy gas plant in North Carolina be defeated?

Duke Energy has been laying the groundwork for a new gas power plant in North Carolina’s Person County for years, touting it as the “next generation” of electricity production and lining up support from local politicians eager to hold on to the utility’s tax dollars. 

With acknowledgement from regulators and even some clean energy experts that new gas infrastructure may be needed as Duke shutters its coal fleet, the long-planned gas turbines once seemed like an inevitability.

But now, the 1,360 megawatt combined-cycle facility poised to replace the company’s aging coal smokestacks on Hyco Lake has become a major point of contention. And while the odds still favor Duke, community members and advocates alike say they have cause for hope.

First, there’s the reality of new Biden Administration rules on fossil fuel power plants. Beginning in 2032, any new large, combined-cycle plant like that proposed in Person County must either cut its carbon emissions drastically or run 40% of the time or less. 

Because North Carolina’s geology isn’t suited to carbon sequestration and emissions-free hydrogen fuel isn’t yet viable, the company would have to limit the plant’s operations – either making it unavailable at key times or requiring costly startups and shutdowns, said Ridge Graham, the North Carolina program manager for Appalachian Voices.

“Either of these options make this combined cycle plant a bad investment and a much more expensive form of electricity generation than clean or renewable energy sources,” Graham told commissioners at a public hearing in Roxboro last month. “This is especially true for Duke customers as the purchase of gas fuel is passed on and has led to multiple rate increases through riders on electricity bills since 2017.”

Bolstering that concern, Public Staff, the state’s ratepayer advocate, notes that Duke lists a proposed new pipeline to transport gas to the plant as an operating cost that would “presumably” be recovered through the fuel rider.

Even if the actual fuel costs were cut in half, engineers for the agency said, “total transportation charges would mostly be unchanged within the ‘Fuel’ category because of the significant pipeline costs that would be necessary to provide natural gas service to the Roxboro site.”

In addition to these charges, ratepayers would also have to pay the full cost of the plant, amortized over 35 years, plus Duke’s regulator-approved profit margin, energy analyst Elizabeth Stanton said in written testimony on behalf of Sierra Club, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.  

What’s more, she noted, ratepayers would cover whatever “replacement resources” were needed to meet demand “after the facility’s expected generation was decreased.”

In contrast, Stanton says, Duke’s estimated costs for ratepayers assume the plant will run at over 40% capacity through 2042 – a scenario squarely at odds with the new Biden administration regulation. 

“Duke needs to account for the rule in their planning, and they have not done that,” Mikaela Curry, a North Carolina-based campaign manager at the Sierra Club, said in an interview. “Who pays for a gas plant that can only run 40% of the time?”

While Public Staff supports the new plant, it also asserts in testimony that Duke hasn’t developed a plan for how it will comply with the new federal rule.

“We have concerns about the impact and implementation of the recently issued [Clean Air Act] Rule,” engineers Dustin Metz and Evan Lawrence wrote. “We cannot yet identify how [the] proposed Roxboro facility may be impacted and to what extent.”

‘That modeling … was flawed’ 

The agency also hasn’t seen a comprehensive analysis from Duke to justify the location for the combined cycle unit. “The Public Staff cannot say definitively that the proposed Roxboro… project is least cost for [Duke’s] ratepayers,” Metz and Lawrence said in their testimony.

Other critics also question whether the gas plant is Duke’s most economical option, though for different reasons.

In testimony for the environmental groups, Stanton asserts that Duke artificially limits renewables in its carbon-reduction models; assumes clean energy is 60% costlier than industry standards; and, in the plan that most quickly transitions the company away from fossil fuels, makes all resources 20% more expensive. Plus, new generation built before 2030 – which would be mostly solar – gets an 8% penalty.

“Duke’s rationale for requesting the [Hyco Lake plant… is the] selection of gas resources in its least-cost modeling,” Stanton wrote. “That modeling, however, was flawed, including multiple biases for gas resources and against renewable resources.”

Detractors also doubt the company’s plan to convert the gas plant to run on emissions-free hydrogen as late as 2049 – just in time to comply with state law. That “presumption,” said consultant Bill McAleb in testimony on behalf of the Environmental Defense Fund, “is not based on substantive evidence presented in this docket proceeding.”

Detailing an array of challenges, including uncertainty from equipment manufacturers, McAleb concludes a zero-carbon, hydrogen-fueled facility, “is not only speculative but unlikely.”

‘A very nuanced topic’ 

While advocates wage a legal campaign against the gas plant, activists are reaching out to the people of Person County face-to-face, knocking doors on the roads surrounding the existing coal facility.

Juhi Modi, North Carolina field coordinator for Appalachian Voices, says the canvassing effort so far has identified more opponents than not – surprisingly so. 

“Given that it’s a very nuanced topic, and the fact that people appreciate Duke’s economic presence in the county,” Modi said, “it’s been really meaningful to just hear what they think.” 

Referencing the yearslong campaign to get Duke to excavate its leaking coal ash pits, Modi added: 

“These people were also impacted by coal ash contaminating their well water and were part of a long fight to get their water cleaned up, and still have a lot of skepticism about Duke’s ability to responsibly operate in this community.”

Along an existing pipeline right-of-way, the new pipeline Dominion Energy plans to transport gas to Duke and other customers has also given some in the community pause. Activists say it appears to pass dangerously close to Woodland Elementary School in Semora.

“What would happen if there is an accident? If there is a fire or an explosion?” Modi said. “It’s a real concern for the children, the teachers and the staff that work in the school.”

While cleaner than coal in terms of smog-and soot-forming air pollution, the gas plant’s emissions of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – will negate its climate benefits, said  Katie Moore, an air quality researcher who lives in Roxboro.  

“Not only do we not have enough time to use [gas] as a ‘bridge fuel,’” she said,  but it doesn’t even make sense because the climate impacts are the same, essentially, as coal.”

Moore also believes there’s an incorrect assumption that either Duke replaces its Hyco Lake coal units with gas or the company leaves the county altogether.

“Those are not the only two options,” said Moore, who grew up in neighboring Durham County and moved to slower-paced Person 2.5 years ago. “I don’t want people to be out of jobs and I don’t want to lose 20% of the tax base. But that’s not an inevitability. I think there are lots of ways that we could embrace renewables in this county.” 

Long odds remain

Still, at an in-person public hearing last month, Moore and other locals against the plant were outnumbered by supporters, who ranged from tourism boosters to local elected officials to the superintendent of Person County Schools, Rodney Peterson. 

“A school district like ours could not recover from the loss of our local tax base,” said Peterson, who noted he was appearing in a personal capacity. “I ask you to remember our students, our parents, our teachers in Person County.” 

Besides support from many community leaders, many other factors still weigh in Duke’s favor.  

Notwithstanding its concerns about the plant’s cost and its compliance with the new Biden administration rules, Public Staff believes the energy it will provide will be vital as the company works to reduce its carbon pollution as required by law.

“There is a need for [combined cycle and combustion turbine] natural gas generation in [Duke’s] service territories,” the engineers wrote in their testimony. Denying the company a permit to build the plant, they asserted, “could delay interim carbon emissions reduction compliance and coal plant retirements set forth in the Carbon Plan Order.”

While solar combined with battery storage could in theory provide similar economic and energy benefits as the gas plant, Person County leaders would have to repeal a 2022 ordinance that effectively bans large-scale solar farms. 

Meanwhile, Duke is eschewing an Inflation Reduction Act loan program meant to encourage clean energy investments in communities with retired coal plants.

And even though the commission is dominated by appointments from Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat who’s embraced the clean energy economy and criticized fossil fuels, the panel has so far exhibited little resistance to the utility’s gas expansion plans.

“It just makes me feel sad,” said Crystal Cavalier-Keck, the co-founder of the Indigenous activist group Seven Directions of Service, referencing how the panel approved Duke’s last carbon reduction plan with few edits. “It’s disheartening.”

A spokesperson for Duke declined to comment for this story, but the company’s formal responses to Public Staff and clean energy advocates intervening in the case are due later this month. An expert witness hearing is expected as soon as early August.

In the meantime, organizers like Cavalier-Keck say they’ll keep getting the word out. “We’re just going to continue to knock on all the doors,” she said, “and continue to educate people.”

Can a long-planned Duke Energy gas plant in North Carolina be defeated? is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

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