Going greener: Power companies face deadline to increase percentage of renewable energy

North Carolina news

The clock is ticking for North Carolina’s power suppliers to make themselves even greener.

By the end of the year, Duke Energy and other investor-owned electric companies must raise to 12.5 percent the percentage of their retail power sales that come from renewable sources under a state law passed in 2007.

A CBS17.com investigation found that those companies still have some progress to make: They were at 11.8 percent in 2018, according to the most recent statistics made available by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Duke Energy spokesman Randy Wheeless predicts the nation’s largest electric company will meet the state’s requirement, in large part because of an expected continuation of the boom in solar power.

The amount of energy generated by solar in the state increased by 738 percent from 2014-18, according to the EIA’s most recent figures. The 6.1 million megawatt-hours produced by solar power in 2018 would be enough to power roughly 850 homes for a year.

Cassie Gavin, senior director of government relations for the Raleigh chapter of the Sierra Club, says her group would prefer an even higher goal going forward. The environmental advocacy group served as a watchdog for the step-by-step implementation of the 2007 Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard.

North Carolina and South Carolina are the only two Southeastern states with mandatory renewable portfolio standards. Nationally, 29 states, three territories and the District of Columbia have adopted RPS laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

 Solar panel installation on a roof in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Cathy Bussewitz)

Thirteen of those states have requirements of 50 percent or greater, with 100 percent of Hawaii’s electricity from investor-owned utilities coming from renewable sources by 2040.

The mandates here aren’t quite that high: Investor-owned electricity producers were to raise their renewable energy percentages four times between 2012-20. The first increase was to 3 percent for 2012, then 6 percent in 2015, 10 percent in 2018 and finally to 12.5 percent for this year’s sales numbers, which will be released in 2021.

“From our perspective, (12.5 percent) is very low and very achievable and we’re very happy that we have it,” Gavin said. “But we think we can go a lot higher in the future.”

Harrison Fell, an associate professor in the department of agricultural and resource economics at North Carolina State University, agrees that it probably won’t be “a huge challenge” for the companies to meet the upcoming standard, saying the drops in solar power costs should help.

“I think in ‘07, yes, that was probably a pretty ambitious goal,” Fell said. “It wasn’t the most ambitious among all the states that were doing things, but when you consider a lot of the Midwest states that have big potential for wind generation, and relatively small potential for wind generation here, that was pretty aggressive. … That said, I don’t think anybody expected the fall in solar prices that we have seen over the years.”

A windfarm near Velva, North Dakota. (Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images)

The Solar Energy Industries Association says the solar industry has invested $8 billion in North Carolina, with $1 billion of that coming in 2018. Wheeless said Duke Energy has roughly 3,000 megawatts of solar capacity, with much of that generated on farms in the eastern part of the state.

“That’s almost like a nuclear plant of solar has come online since that law was passed, and there’s a lot still planned,” he said.

The percentage of North Carolina’s electricity that comes from the sun has skyrocketed since 2007, when it comprised just 0.1 percent of the state’s total power generated.

Solar generated 0.5 percent of the state’s power in 2014, but that leaped after that to 2.6 percent in 2016 and to 4.5 percent in 2018. That year, North Carolina trailed only California in installed solar-power-generating capacity with more than 4,100 megawatts, according to the EIA.

Duke Energy Allen Steam Station, Belmont, North Carolina (AP photo)

During CBS17.com’s deeper investigation into EIA’s annual power percentages, some other trends became apparent.

There was a 35 percent drop in the amount of power produced by coal-fired plants, and it made up just 23.6 percent of the state’s power in 2018.

That year also saw natural gas-fired plants (32.3 percent) make up a higher percentage than nuclear power (31.3 percent) in the state for the first time. A fracking-caused abundance of natural gas resulted in a massive drop in prices over the past decade-plus, from around $9 million per million British thermal unit in 2008 to less than $2 million per mBtu earlier this month.

Duke Energy presently operates seven coal-fired plants in the state and is closing one in Asheville after it opens a natural gas plant there.

“We hope to be carbon-neutral by 2050, and we’re in the process of closing a lot of coal-fired stations over the next decade or so,” Wheeless said. “We’re making movements to be a cleaner energy mix, and we’re already a clean energy mix.”

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