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WNC Business

Reducing emissions for expanding populations

Sep 01, 2023 12:11PM ● By Randee Brown

The largest energy provider in North Carolina, Duke Energy Progress and Duke Energy Carolinas serves about 500,000 customers in the 22-county region of Western North Carolina with a regional staff of about 700 employees.

Randy Wheeles, Communications Manager at Duke, said the company has big plans to reduce carbon emissions from electricity generation by 50% by 2030 and become net-zero by 2050. These goals influence a number of energy projects at Duke. In particular, thirty-five coal-fired units have been closed in NC. Often replaced with natural gas facilities which emit half the carbon as coal, Duke’s emissions have already been lowered by 44% since 2005.

Wheeles said customers receive energy from a variety of sources. The largest sources are nuclear and natural gas, while coal, solar, and hydroelectric sources are also important. 

Wind generation is another potential source in the future. Duke has no wind turbines in NC but has secured an offshore lease for a future wind project. They know a lot about wind from projects in other areas of the country, and offshore wind projects may have potential; however, a ridge law preventing windmill installation on mountaintops will not allow wind generation to be a source of energy in the western part of the state.

About half of the power generated in NC is nuclear. According to Wheeles, nuclear facilities produce power much more efficiently than 30 years ago, and for that reason, Duke plans to continue nuclear operations. He said the question for the industry is what technological advancements will be developed and if new reactors will be more economical, noting that there is considerable promise in that aspect. 

Natural gas accounts for about 25% of Duke’s energy, and it has been serving a purpose to lower carbon emissions. With a goal of removing all coal operations in the Carolinas by 2035, Wheeles said Asheville is a good example of how transitioning coal-fired facilities to natural gas can reduce emissions. The coal-burning facility shut down in January of 2020 and was replaced with the Asheville Combined Cycle Station, which is 75% more efficient and emits 60% less carbon dioxide than the former facility.

Hydroelectric dams only account for 1% to 2% of Duke’s energy, but Wheeles said they are still important. He said Duke was originally founded as a hydroelectric company in 1904, and now there are several pump stations in and west of Catawba County.

North Carolina is fourth in the nation for overall solar power behind CA, TX, and FL, according to Wheeles. He said there are a lot of solar farms in the eastern part of the state, as these farms are better suited for flatter terrain. The company plans to add 3,000 megawatts of solar in the next five to six years to double what is currently available in the state.

“Duke just wrapped up a $62 million solar rebate program that was very successful,” Wheeles said. “There were 6,000 homes with solar when the program started, and now there are more than 40,000 homes and businesses with solar, and that all happened in six years.”

Advancement of battery technologies may lead to more solar energy storage capabilities in the future, and Wheeles said WNC is a leader in that. There is a large battery system in an Asheville neighborhood, and the Hot Springs microgrid also uses this technology. “The future looks promising, but we still need more tech advancements,” he said.

To reach Duke’s 2030 and 2050 emissions goals, Wheeles said there will have to be more technologies than what is available today. “There is lots of work going on about new technologies,” he said. “Fifteen years ago there was no solar in North Carolina, and now solar provides about 9% of the state’s energy mix. It’s hard to know what is going to happen and what new technology will emerge by 2050. Lots can happen in the future that we can’t imagine today.”

North Carolina, and WNC in particular, have increased population growth, and Wheeles said this presents a challenge for sufficient energy generation. Duke struggles with solar projects in the area because of the terrain, and right now for solar farms, bigger is better. “Five megawatts used to be the normal output,” Wheeles said. “Now the normal is closer to 50 or 100 megawatts. Finding large parcels of land in the mountains is the biggest challenge”

Wheeles said the area’s population growth along with its geography presents other challenges as well. He said running power lines to rural areas can be tough. Looking at Asheville’s growth, the company wanted to expand the substation but didn’t have the geographic room to do so, which led to a large battery storage installation instead. The region’s growth was also a contributing factor in the conversion of the power plant from coal to natural gas, as more energy can be produced that way.

“We are looking at the system as a whole to determine where to add more plants or substations,” Wheeles said. “We’ve served this region for 100 years, and we can keep getting over these challenges.”