On the morning of Sept. 12, a headline blared from the front page of The News & Observer: "Gases heat seas, stoke storms, scientists say." The story, one of hundreds of media reports this year about the perils of global warming, explained that greenhouse gases are heating ocean surfaces where hurricanes form.
Coincidentally, Sept. 12 was also the first day of Duke Energy's testimony before the N.C. Utilities Commission about its proposed new coal-fired power plants. Duke Energy Carolinas President and CEO James Rogers has waxed poetic before Congress about limiting carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, the primary culprit in global warming. He's penned op-eds in major newspapers lauding energy efficiency and conservation. And in the utility's 2005 annual plan he wrote, "As a major coal-burning utility, some might expect us to duck this issue, but avoiding the debate over global climate change and failing to understand its consequences are not options for us."
Yet, Rogers' purported allegiance to clean energy doesn't square with reality. Despite the worldwide red alert over carbon dioxide's contribution to catastrophic climate change, one of the nation's largest utilities has made few inroads into energy efficiency or conservation.
Moreover, Rogers, who also sits on the National Coal Council board, is asking the N.C. Utilities Commission for a certificate of public convenience and necessity to build two 800-megawatt coal-fired power plants near Charlotte. Although Duke would retire four outdated Cliffside units as part of its air permit requirements, if approved and constructed, the new, cleaner plants, Cliffside 6 and 7, would still belch an estimated 11.5 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.
"It's not either-or," Rogers told the state commission last month, adding the new plants are essential to meet the state's future baseload electricity demands. "Cliffside will not reduce our commitment to sound and cost-effective energy efficiency programs."
Considering Duke's weak commitment to these programs, it would be difficult for the utility to reduce its support much lower. The utility's effete energy efficiency initiatives fail to meet the benchmark set by the National Action Plan for Energy Efficiency, which Rogers co-chairs. The NAPEE has recommended that 1 percent to 3 percent of a utility's annual revenues should go toward energy efficiency programs--in Duke's case, $46 million to $50 million.
"You've incorporated nowhere that aggressive of an energy efficiency plan?" Gary Davis of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy asked during the hearing.
"That is correct." Rogers replied.
Duke's $2 million energy efficiency and conservation campaign, required as part of the Cinergy merger, includes mailing educational booklets to 50,000 ratepayers ($690,000), providing educational videos to 140,000 customers ($715,000) and offering online, phone or onsite efficiency audits ($445,000) and Web-based tools ($150,000) to large industrial and commercial customers.
Duke's 2005 annual plan added no new efficiency programs; its 2006 plan allots 200 megawatts for energy efficiency and conservation--twice that of 2005--but lists no specific initiatives.
Duke isn't America's lone coal crusader. Cliffside 6 and 7 are just two of the 153 proposed coal-fired power plants in the nation, according to the Department of Energy. And no wonder: The Energy Policy Act of 2005 contained $9 billion in coal subsidies, nearly twice the incentives given to renewable programs. While the law extended renewable energy production tax credits for two years, it was stripped of a national renewable energy standard. However, several states, including Texas, have such a standard, requiring utilities to generate a percentage of their power from wind, solar, biomass or other renewable sources. In North Carolina, the utilities have beaten back legislative attempts to pass such a compact.
N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, among the groups questioning Duke at the hearing, says building new plants works at cross purposes with energy efficiency and conservation.
"In North Carolina, we can't go both directions," says Jim Warren of NC WARN. "The utilities are about to drag the state down a dark alley of their failed strategies."
The commission is expected to announce its decision this fall. It remains to be seen which dire prediction will sway its members: Rogers' prognostications of brownouts and economic decline if the plants are canned, or the scientific consensus that global warming and greenhouse gases are wrecking the planet.
Unwinding the spin
For three days in mid-September, top Duke Energy officials testified before the N.C. Utilities Commission about the company's $2 billion proposal to build two new, 800-megawatt coal-fired power plants. Information and quotes are excerpted from the official hearing transcript.
On the necessity of new plants:
On energy efficiency programs:
On Duke's political clout:
On the health costs of pollution emitted from coal-fired power plants: