Monday numbers: A closer look at the daunting challenges NC faces in transitioning to sustainable energy

By: - October 31, 2022 5:55 am

The darker the orange color, the more potential for solar power (Graphic: National Renewable Energy Lab)

While the NC Sustainable Energy Association was holding its annual conference last week, the World Meteorological Organization announced some troubling news: Levels of three main greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — all reached new record highs in 2021.

The United Nations also rang the alarm. The planet is on pace to increase global average temperatures by 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius (3.7 to 4.8 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial levels, by 2100, blowing past the goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) set by the multinational Paris Agreement.

This global scenario set the backdrop for North Carolina’s progress toward clean energy — at the hands of Duke Energy and the state Utilities Commission.

The commission is scheduled to rule on Duke Energy’s Carbon Plan by the end of the year. This plan sets the course, which can be corrected every two years, for the utility to meet its legally required carbon reductions — 70% by 2030 over 2005 levels, as laid out in House Bill 951, passed into law last year.

“What we do in the next two to five years is critical in meeting those goals and insulating ratepayers [from high energy costs],” Maggie Shober, research director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said at the conference, “But also you have to set yourself up to meet the trajectory for 30-year goals.” 

House Bill 951 requires Duke Energy to attain net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Though the darker the blue color marks the greater potential for wind energy, state law prohibits wind turbines from being built on mountain ridges. (Graphic: National Renewable Energy Lab)

Critics of Duke Energy, and there are many, say the utility’s plan is too passive in pursuing those reductions. In addition to offshore wind and solar, the utility is still relying on natural gas as a so-called “bridge fuel,” or considering small, but extremely expensive and untried modular nuclear reactors.

Duke Energy’s own documents, based on a study commissioned from the National Renewable Energy Lab, show not only the feasibility, but the need for ambitious clean energy investments. However, Duke Energy did not publicize this study until a week after the Utility Commission’s evidentiary hearing on the carbon plan. That means no clean energy groups or other interested parties could tap into the report for their own analyses.

“Unfortunately we can’t use three years of a top-rated study and present it as evidence,” said Tyler Norris, Vice President of development at Cypress Creek Renewables.

No doubt it’s a enormous feat of planning, permitting and engineering to add gigawatts of renewable energy to the grid.

But Duke’s transmission system is unprepared for those complexities, said Steve Levitas, Pinegate Renewables’ senior vice president for regulatory and government affairs. This makes it difficult to move energy from where it will be generated — in the future, offshore wind turbines, and even areas in eastern North Carolina ripe for solar development — to urban centers and suburbs where most people live.

And to keep energy costs low for ratepayers, Levitas said, there are technologies, such as lightweight conducting materials, to get more power from existing transmission lines, “without massive capital investments.”

“Will the transmission get built in time for alternative energy sources?” said Adam Foodman, CEO of Aderis Energy, based in Charlotte.”Grid planners didn’t prepare for changes in energy mix.”

Battery storage would also help even out renewable energy loads, compensating for when the sun isn’t shining and the winds are calm. (Graphic: NREL)

Here’s a closer look at global greenhouse gases and renewable energy in North Carolina:

415.7 parts per million – concentrations of carbon dioxide in atmosphere, 2021, equivalent to 149% of pre-industrial levels

262% – amount global methane concentrations were above pre-industrial levels in 2021

124% – amount global nitrous oxide concentrations were above pre-industrial levels in 2021

96% – amount of North Carolina’s electricity supplied by Duke Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Progress

4% – amount supplied by Dominion Energy

70% – required reduction in carbon emissions by Duke Energy by 2030 over 2005 levels

60-77 – average annual percentage of the state’s electricity load that could be met by carbon-free generation by that time — this depends on the number of solar installations, and if Duke Energy Progress and Duke Energy Carolinas are modeled as a single region rather than two separate entities

75 – percentage of total annual energy that could be generated by wind, solar and existing nuclear power, by 2030

60 – gigawatts of utility-scale solar needed by 2050, or 2.2 gigawatts per year. This is four times greater than the amount Duke Energy has deployed in the Carolinas each year since 2014.

1.7-2.5 – estimated number of tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emitted by methane leakage, annually 2024 through 2036 — this hinges on whether Duke deploys more natural gas to compensate for the retirements of its remaining coal-fired power plants.

Graphic: NC Utilities Commission presentation at energy conference

The “red zone” and transmission: areas in eastern North Carolina and South Carolina where the land is flat, sparsely populated and is sunny, but the transmission grid is constrained.

3,500 – megawatts of solar procurement (or 70%) that is in a known “red zone”

$560 million – amount Duke Energy plans to spend on increasing transmission in the red zone

Environmental justice indicators

61 – percentage of workers in NC’s clean energy industry who are white

8 – who are Black

16.5 – who are Latinx

40% – percentage of solar viable rooftop space in the US that is on low- to middle-income housing accounts

$110,000 – median income of “solar adopters,” who have rooftop solar, US. Compared to the broader population, solar adopters tend to: identify as non-Hispanic white, be primarily English-speaking, have higher education levels, be middle-aged, work in business and finance-related occupations, and live in higher-value homes, according to the Berkeley Lab on Electricity Markets and Policy.

Sources: National Renewable Energy Lab, NC Utilities Commission, United Nations, World Meteorological Organization, Berkeley Lab on Electricity Markets and Policy

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.