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N. Carolina doesn’t pick electric mix to lower carbon levels

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina utility regulators ordered Duke Energy Corp. on Friday to carry out a series of activities to generate electricity that they say will help ensure greenhouse gas reductions set in a new state law are met.

But the Utilities Commission’s directives on solar, wind, nuclear and other sources for electricity don’t endorse any particular mix of energy sources to meet the mandates currently required for 2030. The order does tell Duke Energy’s subsidiaries in North Carolina to optimally retire its remaining coal-fired plants by 2035, in keeping with a previous announcement by the company.

The bipartisan 2021 state law said the panel needed by Saturday to approve a plan for the state’s electric public utilities — essentially Duke Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Progress — to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 70% by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels. Net-zero emissions by 2050 also are ultimately necessary, according to the law.

Duke Energy had offered last spring four different portfolio options, three of which actually delayed meeting the 70% reduction until 2032 or 2034. The law provides for wiggle room on the deadline.

Critics of Duke’s plans said they relied too much on natural gas or unproven technologies and would make customer bills too costly. Some environmental groups offered their own carbon-reduction plan that reached the 70% reduction mandate by 2030 while relying more on solar and wind power and battery storage use.

But the seven-member commission, chosen by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, declined to pick any specific portfolios Friday. The 137 pages produced by the panel said it was adopting “all reasonable steps” that the state law ordered to achieve the reduction and directed near-term actions “that support many of the portfolios the parties to this proceeding present.”

The commission held 13 days of hearings to receive expert witness testimony and five public hearings. It also received hundreds of statements from consumers.

“As the record amply demonstrates, there is no single, unique resource portfolio that satisfies the required emissions reduction goals,” Commissioner Dan Clodfelter wrote in a separate opinion to the main order, with which he fully agreed. “I believe this is the most responsible way, and indeed the only responsible way, to proceed on a journey that starts today and will span the next 28 years until 2050.”

The commission is already required to review the plan every two years, and it can make adjustments. Friday’s order told Duke to file a new proposal by September — which reflect the new directives — and prepare for hearings in May 2024.

Still, the order could be challenged at the state Court of Appeals by the Charlotte-based utility or any of the dozens of third parties that formally intervened in the case.

The law says the panel could examine “the latest technological breakthroughs to achieve the least cost path” and other considerations in determining a way forward. The commission ultimately can delay the date for reaching the 70% target if, for example, the electric grid’s performance is questioned.

A commission news release announcing the order said that last weekend’s power outages caused by the extreme cold and high demand “particularly underscore the need for an orderly transition away from fossil fuels to low and zero-carbon dioxide emitting generating resources while maintaining or improving the reliability of the electric grid.”

The outages led Duke to reduce demand with automated rolling blackouts that took many by surprise.

Friday’s order directed Duke Energy to conduct by 2024 two more competitive procurements for solar generation that will come online by 2028. The utility also authorizes Duke to procure battery storage to contain the solar-generated electricity; study the acquisition of wind-lease areas off the North Carolina coast; extend the licenses of its current nuclear power fleet and consider new nuclear generation; and plan for additional natural gas-fired turbines.

The two Duke Energy subsidiaries serve 4.4 million customers in North Carolina and South Carolina. The utility also intends to carry out an energy-mix strategy in South Carolina.

Third parties that got involved in the case included trade and environmental groups, alternate energy producers and big electricity consumers like Google and Meta. The Attorney General’s Office and the commission’s Public Staff, which represents customers, also scrutinized the portfolio proposals.