Duke Energy Blames Renewables for Increased Air Pollution in North Carolina

Duke Energy Blames Renewables for Increased Air Pollution in North Carolina

WASHINGTON – At a time when forward-looking utilities are rapidly transitioning to renewable energy, the nation’s largest investor-owned electric utility is pushing an outlandish claim that the growth of solar power will increase air pollution.

Duke Energy, which supplies electricity to 7.7 million Americans, says the increase of solar power in its home state of North Carolina is responsible for a spike in nitrogen oxide pollution from Duke’s natural gas plants. A spokesperson for Duke told the North State Journal, in the state capital of Raleigh, that a surge in carbon dioxide emissions could also occur if the use of solar is allowed to grow as a share of the state’s energy mix.

The increase in emissions, according to Duke, is the result of more frequent “cycling” – scaling down energy production from its enormous natural gas plants during the day to accommodate a surge in solar energy to the power grid, then powering those plants back up at night.

Duke says the increase in pollution occurs when the gas plants are forced to stop and start during the day, temporarily disabling emission controls. Not surprisingly, Duke is seeking “permit modifications” from state regulators to allow its gas-fired facilities to run at full capacity throughout the day.

“I hope everyone who reads Duke’s claims will try to picture a herd of highly paid executives clustered around a conference table fretting themselves sick about the pollution being caused by solar panels and windmills,” said Ken Cook, president of Environmental Working Group.

Cook’s group and other advocacy organizations recently named Duke “Public Energy Enemy No. 1,” citing its puny investments in renewable energy, its schemes to penalize customers who want to go solar and its record of heavy air and water pollution.  

“Duke’s outrageous claim that renewable energy somehow increases air pollution and worsens the climate crisis is on its face ridiculous,” said Cook.

Duke’s claim is at odds with a 2013 study from the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The study found that as solar and wind power are added to the grid, emissions of both nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide decrease. More frequent cycling of fossil fuel plants lowers the amount of emissions reduction achieved by renewables but does not result in increased emissions.

Cook also noted that Duke’s claim doesn’t mention that emissions reductions from solar and wind would be much greater if the natural gas plants were shut down for good, eliminating the need for increased cycling.

“Duke is bent on keeping its grip on dangerous and dirty sources of fuel while fighting state initiatives to promote solar and wind, because big, centralized, polluting power plants are central to the company’s business model,” said Cook. “This ludicrous attempt to blame air pollution on solar energy is another example of Duke’s history of doing nearly anything to keep its captive customers reliant on fossil fuels, ensuring excessive profits and pollution, while forward-thinking utilities are moving toward cleaner, safer and cheaper renewable sources.” 

In the North State Journal article, analysts endorsing Duke’s claims were drawn from think tanks with ties to the utility industry and a track record of skepticism about renewable energy. On Monday, Duke itself walked back its claim, writing in a blog post that although more frequent cycling may mean that emissions increase at some natural gas plants, the power grid ”will continue to see an overall decrease in air emissions from this transition to solar and other cleaner energy resources.”

Duke operates in the Carolinas, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio. EWG’s year-long investigation revealed that Duke’s master plan is sharply at odds with America’s urgent need to turn away from outdated energy sources that fuel the climate crisis and threaten public health.

Among Duke’s actions to undermine renewables in favor of fossil fuels and nuclear power:

  • Abandoning offshore wind in favor of expanding natural gas.
  • Making paltry investments in battery storage for renewables.
  • Relentlessly implementing tactics to punish customers for going solar or investing in energy efficiency.

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The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.