Monday’s Numbers: A Closer Look at the Tall Challenges NC Faces in Transitioning to Sustainable Energy

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

Whereas North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association held its annual conference last week, the World Meteorological Organization announced disturbing news: the levels of the three main greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide – all reached new records in 2021.

The The UN has also sounded the alarm. The planet is on track to raise global average temperatures by 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius (3.7 to 4.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, by 2100, surpassing the goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) set by the multinational Paris Accord.

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

The commission is expected 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 from 2005 levels, as set out in Bill 951, enacted last year.

“What we do over the next two to five years is critical to achieving these goals and isolating taxpayers [from high energy costs]said Maggie Shober, director of research for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy at the conference, “but you also have to put yourself in place to hit the trajectory of the 30-year goals.

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

Although the darker the blue color, the greater the wind power potential, but state law prohibits the construction of wind turbines on mountain ridges. (Graphic: National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

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

Duke Energy’s own documents, based on a study commissioned from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, show not only the feasibility, but also the need for ambitious investments in clean energy. However, Duke Energy did not release the study until a week after the Public Utilities Commission hearing on the carbon plan. This means that no clean energy group or other interested party could draw on the report for their own analyses.

“Unfortunately, we can’t take three years of a top-notch study and present it as evidence,” said Tyler Norris, vice president of development at Cypress Creek Renewables.

There’s no question that it’s a huge feat of planning, permitting, and engineering to add gigawatts of renewable energy to the grid.

But Duke’s transmission system is not prepared for these complexities, said Steve Levitas, Pinegate Renewables’ senior vice president for regulatory and government affairs. This makes it difficult to move power from where it will be generated – in the future, offshore wind turbines and even areas of eastern North Carolina ripe for solar development – to urban centers and the suburbs where most people live.

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

“Will the transmission be built in time for the alternative energy sources?” said Adam Foodman, CEO of Charlotte-based Aderis Energy. “Network planners have not prepared for changes in the energy mix.”

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

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

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

262% – the amount of global methane concentrations was above pre-industrial levels in 2021

124% – the amount of global nitrous oxide concentrations was above pre-industrial levels in 2021

96% – quantity of North Carolina electricity supplied by Duke Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Progress

4% – amount provided by Dominion Energy

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

60-77 – average annual percentage of the state’s electrical load that could be met by carbon-free generation at that time – depends on the number of solar installations, and whether Duke Energy Progress and Duke Energy Carolinas are modeled as one region rather than two entities

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

60 – gigawatts of utility-scale solar power needed by 2050, or 2.2 gigawatts per year. That’s four times the amount that Duke Energy has deployed in the Carolinas each year since 2014.

1.7-2.5 – estimated tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emitted from methane leaks, each year from 2024 to 2036 – depends on whether Duke deploys more natural gas to offset shutdowns of its power plants in the remaining coal.

Chart: NC Utilities Commission Presentation at Energy Conference

The “red zone” and transmission: areas of eastern North Carolina and South Carolina where the terrain is flat, sparsely populated, and sunny, but the transportation network is limited.

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

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

Environmental justice indicators

61 – percentage of North Carolina clean energy industry workers who are white

8 – who are black

16.5 – who are Latinx

40% – percentage of viable solar rooftop spaces in the US that are on low to middle income housing accounts

$110,000 – median income of “solar adopters”, who have solar roofs, United States. Compared to the general population, Solar Adopters tend to: identify as non-Hispanic white, be predominantly English-speaking, have a higher level of education, be middle-aged, work in business-related occupations and finance, and live in higher value homes, depending on 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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