Duke will have much at stake with new carbon standards

bhenderson@charlotteobserver.comJune 27, 2013 

— The nation’s second-largest source of greenhouse gases, Duke Energy, will have much at stake as the Environmental Protection Agency crafts carbon standards for new and existing power plants.

Only Ohio-based American Electric Power ranks higher for carbon emissions, the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst reported this month. Duke says it ranks 14th in carbon intensity, which measures emissions by unit of energy generated.

Duke’s emissions dropped to 131 million tons last year as its power plants used less coal and more natural gas, which is cheaper and cleaner-burning. But Duke expects emissions to trend upward again in the coming years.

Its contributions to climate change through heavy use of coal have become regular conflict points at shareholder meetings and in rate cases. Duke’s regulated power plants generated about two-thirds of their electricity from fossil fuels – coal, natural gas and oil – in 2012.

The nation’s largest utility had little to say directly about Obama’s climate plan Tuesday, praising his call for a diverse mix of energy sources.

Duke said it will work with the EPA on a plan “that will allow us to deliver a secure and reliable supply of electricity at affordable rates and that will not adversely impact the economy.”

Pressure to adopt new ways

Environmentalists exulted over Obama’s long-awaited climate plan.

“The president’s plan … will likely drive Duke Energy toward bigger investments in clean energy solutions like solar and wind,” Sierra Club official Kelly Martin said. “For the climate and for North Carolina’s economy, this is welcome news.”

The North Carolina Wildlife Federation, headquartered in Charlotte, said the Obama plan harkened back to “common-sense policies” enacted under President Richard Nixon, including the Clean Air Act.

“Here in North Carolina, our largest utility is retiring its coal plants and since air knows no boundaries it’s important to our lakes, waterways and quality of life that the air we receive from the Ohio and Tennessee valleys have the same requirements for carbon capture,” federation CEO Tim Gestwicki said.

The role of coal

Duke has invested $9 billion in recent years in five new power plants but two of those, including the Cliffside plant 60 miles west of Charlotte, are fueled by coal. The new plants will offset 3,400 megawatts of older coal units that will be retired by the end of 2013.

“We have no plans to build any new coal plants in the foreseeable future, however we still value coal as an important part of our fuel mix,” Duke said in a statement.

Duke says there is no proven, commercially-available technology to control carbon emissions.

The coal-fired Edwardsport plant in Indiana, which started up this month, was designed with the capability of capturing carbon dioxide and storing it underground. That capability hasn’t been exploited because of cost – the plant as built came in $1 billion over budget – and uncertainty about where to store the gas underground, spokesman Tom Williams said.

Duke has a corporate goal of reducing or offsetting carbon emissions by 17 percent from 2005 to 2020, in line with Obama’s plan.

Nuclear setbacks

Nuclear power plants, which have no carbon emissions, supplied 34 percent of Duke’s generation last year but face an uncertain future.

Duke decided earlier this year to retire the crippled Crystal River nuclear plant in Florida and in May shelved plans for two new reactors at the Shearon Harris nuclear plant near Raleigh. The company is still considering new nuclear plants in South Carolina and Florida, but has pushed back their expected operating dates as demand for electricity slows.

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