Natural gas power plant in Arden, North Carolina.
Duke Energy's natural gas-fired Asheville Combined Cycle Station in Arden, North Carolina opened in 2020, replacing a former coal plant. Credit: Duke Energy

Facing a massive projected increase in electricity demand, Duke Energy on Wednesday proposed what advocates called a “tripling down” of new gas plants and scuttling a 2030 deadline to significantly curb its carbon pollution.

An update of a proposal submitted last summer, the bid comes after the company warned in November that major new economic development projects would drive electricity sales “well above” its “historical experience.” 

The amended plans show the company expects a 12% increase in demand by 2038, driven largely by more than two dozen economic development projects in both Carolinas that had made “commitments sufficient to justify inclusion” in the new load forecast. 

To meet the increased demand in the near term while preparing for decarbonization mandates in the long term, Duke wants to build two more large, “hydrogen-capable” gas plants than it proposed in August. Some hydrogen fuel could theoretically be zero-emitting but is not yet commercially available, and critics call the technology speculative.

The company also proposes an additional smaller, single-cycle gas plant. In all, Duke recommends nearly 9 gigawatts of new gas before 2035, almost three times what it anticipated in its first blueprint to cut carbon pollution, approved at the end of 2022. 

“This plan is tripling down on the coal-to-gas transition, saddling customers with risky investments in new polluting power plants and failing to deliver the clean energy future called for in state law,” said Will Scott, Southeast Climate & Clean Energy Director for the Environmental Defense Fund, in a prepared statement.

On the bright side for renewables, the company does recommend a smidge more solar and battery storage. And most significantly, it proposes 2.4 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2035 — about two-thirds the size of the Kitty Hawk Wind energy area, the project off the Outer Banks that’s furthest along in development. 

“Obviously, this is fantastic news, that we’re seeing offshore wind in the Carbon Plan,” said Katharine Kollins, president of the Southeastern Wind Coalition. But she flagged what appeared to be a lengthy and probably unnecessary study period in the new Duke filings. 

“What all of the developers need is certainty and a path to market,” she said. “I think we need to make sure that we don’t get caught in a loop of trying to gather information, and bringing that back to the Utilities Commission, and then gathering more information.” 

Duke also left its summer plans for retiring its coal plants largely unchanged, even moving up the timeline for closing one of its largest, the Roxboro 4 unit in Person County, to 2029.

“It’s nice to see that large, dirty capacity go away quicker,” said Justin Somelofske, regulatory counsel for the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association. But, he added, “the bad news is… they’re doing that to use the transmission assets to interconnect new gas.”

And though regulators had ordered Duke to file with its latest proposal “a portfolio that meets the 70% reduction by 2030,” as mandated by law, the utility doesn’t really do so. Instead, it appears to suggest in just one chart on one page that resources planned by 2035 could be built five years earlier. 

“We were very happy with the [Utilities] Commission order requiring Duke to do that,” said Somelofske of the 2030 blueprint. “But it feels like Duke was checking a box, instead of making an earnest effort to find a viable path to achieve 70% by 2030.”

A Duke spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment before this story was published. But the company’s filing makes clear it prefers a pathway to cutting its pollution 70% by 2035, if not 2037. That plan, it writes, is the “most reasonable, least cost, and least risk portfolio for planning purposes.”

As they have in the past, advocates say they’ll scrutinize Duke’s load projections as part of the Carbon Plan process this year. But the irony isn’t lost on them that much of the new demand is being driven by electric vehicle battery plants and other projects heralded as part of the clean energy transition. And some companies likely chose the state in part because of its commitment to decarbonizing the electricity sector. 

“We don’t want to see Duke take a fundamentalist position to meet the challenge” of new demand, Somelofske said, “by doing what they’re comfortable with, and then potentially threatening future economic development.”

No matter what, the latest Duke filing is far from the last word on the subject. The state’s Utilities Commission has until the end of the year to greenlight or amend the Carbon Plan, and it has scheduled public and expert hearings through the spring and summer.

“We’re hopeful the Utilities Commission will require Duke to pursue a path that controls costs for customers,” Scott said, “while meeting North Carolina’s 2030 carbon emission reduction goal on time.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to provide more context on Duke Energy’s proposed power plant investments.

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Elizabeth has covered the state’s clean energy transition for the Energy News Network since 2016. She has also produced features for Environmental Health News and SEJournal, the news magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. A former communications director for the nonprofit Environment America, Elizabeth brings over two decades of environmental and energy policy experience to her reporting.