Duke Energy received a report card early this year from multiple environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club NC, Clean Air Carolina, Vote Solar, and others. They “failed” Duke in nearly every category. But were they grading Duke on the right objectives?
While this report card on the surface claimed to judged Duke on its abilities to meet energy goals in categories ranging from efficiency to affordability, a large portion of this report advocated for renewable energy sources or said that fossil fuels should be ditched. The environmental groups offered many critiques supposedly to make the future of energy provision cleaner and more affordable. But their ideas would cause less reliable and more expensive energy sources to take precedence in the energy industry.
Trying to achieve goals like energy efficiency the way these environmental organizations suggest would not only fail but would push us backward instead of forwards. Instead, the paths that these environmental groups say we shouldn’t pursue are the most optimal ways to a better future.
The portrayal of renewable energy from organizations like the Sierra Club would fall into the category of “imaginary technology” that the report card staunchly advises against relying on. They classify “imaginary technology” as hypothetical, and unrealistic possible future energy sources. Renewables as a primary source of reliable and affordable electricity, however, fall into that category. In North Carolina, renewables didn’t even make up 7% of energy generated in 2019, and although some claim that the Levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) of renewables is lower than other energy sources, using LCOE to compare these types of energy isn’t an accurate comparison.
Renewables cost much more in terms of upkeep, not to mention that they must be replaced long before other power plants need to be replaced. As the Berkeley Lab study “Impacts of Variable Renewable Energy on Bulk Power System Assets, Pricing, and Costs” from November 2017 explained, “If all generation sources were homogenous, decision‐making by regulators, utilities, and power plant investors would be simple. … However, comparing the LCOE of different technologies that provide varying services is misleading.” Additionally, solar and wind require backup generation, which comes with their own levelized costs, increasing the total cost further.
Listening to the organizations behind this report card on energy choices would not be a good idea for consumers or a cleaner energy future. Furthermore, there are better alternatives that directly go against what the Sierra Club and similar groups suggest for a better energy policy.
Natural gas, for instance, may not be carbon neutral but can take North Carolina in that direction. In the last decade, natural gas has skyrocketed in use because of its reliability, cost-effectiveness, and how much less CO2 it emits than coal.
The environmental organizations blame Duke’s decision to use more natural gas for making it harder to reduce emissions. But just since 2000, CO2 emissions in North Carolina from electricity generation have fallen more than 40%. Recently filed legislation, House Bill 951, would phase out some coal plants and increase natural gas usage even more. Duke spokesperson Grace Rountree said, “Gas facilities are included in our plan to help us ensure reliability for customers, meet carbon reduction goals faster and compliment growing renewables on our system which are not available 24/7.”
Even Duke recognizes that natural gas is a must to reduce emissions while still providing reliable energy. Regardless, the report card said that renewable energy was effectively the only path to significantly reducing emissions. It even said that natural gas is a dirtier way of generating electricity and will soon be more expensive. With overwhelming evidence showing natural gas as a far more reliable and affordable way to achieve carbon reduction goals, these organizations should rethink their grades.
A significant obstacle blocking natural gas is political pressure from organizations like the Sierra Club. In late April, the MVP Southgate project, a proposed natural gas pipeline, was denied an essential water quality permit for the second time. Currently, North Carolina is entirely dependent on the Transcontinental Gas Pipeline to bring natural gas through the state. In light of the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack, the risk is obvious. Senators such as Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, recently expressed concern about this issue, saying, “North Carolina’s reliance on a single pipeline is a critical vulnerability.”
Trying to prompt utilities like Duke Energy to make better energy generation choices could be a beneficial thing. However, when “green” organizations advocate forcing problematic energy choices and restricting other power sources from being used, it could create worse outcomes for everyone. Calling for the obstruction or destruction of energy sources like natural gas or nuclear may seem like advocating for a cleaner future. Still, it actually would halt progress toward that cleaner future. The best way to help those in need is to provide cheap and reliable energy, and while the Sierra Club and other groups give Duke Energy an F on their report card, these environmental watchdogs are the ones who flunked their test.
Ewan Hayes is a student at Hillsdale College and an intern at the John Locke Foundation