Friday, March 21, 2014

Duke presses for answer on hydro license

Duke Energy is pressing federal regulators to issue a new hydroelectric license for the Catawba River that is now five years overdue and snarled in legal limbo.

The license gives Duke authority to operate its 13 dams on the Catawba in both Carolinas. The original 50-year license expired in 2008.

Environmentalists challenged the renewal terms, saying Duke's dams would hurt the recovery of endangered shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon. That issue appears to have been resolved last year when a federal agency agreed the dams wouldn't threaten the survival of the fish.

South Carolina has posed a thornier challenge. Duke can renew its federal license only after the state agrees that the dams won't hurt the Catawba's water quality.

South Carolina initially refused to make that finding amid the turmoil of a U.S. Supreme Court case, later settled, between the two states over rights to the river.

Now before South Carolina's Supreme Court is whether the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control suspended a 180-day deadline to act on the water-quality certification.

This week Duke asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to ignore the court case, saying it could take years to resolve. Duke asked FERC to rule that South Carolina has waived its right to grant or deny the water certification.

"The commission has a federal mandate to act now and it has everything it needs to do so," Duke wrote. "... Every licensee and every license application deserves due process and continued delays are not warranted for this project."

Approval will unleash millions of dollars in recreational improvements and land conservation Duke promised in negotiating the license terms.

Silence so far from FERC.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Are insect-ravaged hemlocks at a tipping point?

A Japanese insect called the hemlock woolly adelgid has devastated Southern Appalachian hemlock forests, but apparently not to the degree expected, new research shows.

The U.S. Forest Service released a study Wednesday that says the majestic trees might still be growing fast enough in the East to offset the insect's damage.

The adelgid was first spotted in Virginia in the 1950s. By 1980, damage had begun in the hemlock's Appalachian range running from northern Georgia to Canada. Trees were hit hardest in the South, where mild winters don't help limit the insect's spread.

Lead author Talbot Trotter, an ecologist at the service's Northern Research Station in Pennsylvania, says the study might have captured a tipping point between hemlock losses and increases due to forest regrowth. The study used forest data only through 2007.

"Repeating this analysis as new (forest) data becomes available may show if we are beyond a tipping point and are now losing hemlock," he said.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Gas prices to drop, solar to rise, feds say

The Energy Information Administration's new short-term energy outlook forecasts some interesting trends through 2015. Some bullet points from administrator Adam Sieminski:

-- Gasoline prices are expected to trend downward over the next two years, averaging $3.46 per gallon in 2014 and $3.39 per gallon in 2015, as U.S. crude oil production grows and crude prices fall.

-- U.S. crude oil production could set a record in 2015 with the highest output since 1972. Production is projected to rise by 1 million barrels a day this year to 8.5 million barrels, and then rise to 9.3 million barrels per day in 2015. Imports would drop to 24 percent of total liquid fuels consumption, the lowest level since 1970.

-- Onshore natural gas production will continue increasing over the next two years, with the Marcellus Shale of eastern North America offsetting declines in the Gulf of Mexico.

 -- Average household electricity use is expected to decline 1.1 percent this year and another 0.4 percent in 2015 due to improved appliance and lighting efficiency. Dropping household use will be offset by increased demand from industries.

-- U.S. wind power capacity is forecast to increase 8.8 percent this year and 15 percent in 2015. But utility-scale solar capacity is expected to zoom up 40 percent between now and the end of 2015.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Duke Energy silent on ALEC ties

Duke Energy isn't saying whether it's a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, the conservative, state-level policy group that is a frequent target of the left.

The British newspaper The Guardian released internal documents last week that list Duke as a lapsed ALEC member. ALEC counts as members nearly one-third of North Carolina's Republican-led legislature, including House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius, the documents show.

Duke won't confirm or deny being a member. Duke has supported ALEC's past events, including spending $50,000 to sponsor a 2012 meeting in Charlotte, and might do so again, says spokesman Tom Williams.

All six of the states in Duke's territory -- the Carolinas, Florida, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky -- have Republican-majority legislatures, Williams notes, and five have Republican governors.

"It's all about having a seat at the table as discussions are held, and sometimes supporting things and sometimes not," Williams says.

Greenpeace and other groups say Duke's status matters because of ALEC's positions on renewable energy. Among them is a proposal that, critics say, would make it more expensive for owners of rooftop solar panels to pay utilities to use the electric grid.

"Duke's customers deserve to know whether their utility stands with an organization that plans to attack homeowners in North Carolina who have installed solar panels," Greenpeace researcher Connor Gibson said by e-mail. Duke's membership would "prove," he said that the utility supports the ALEC proposal.

ALEC lost support following the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida last year for its support of "stand-your-ground" laws.

Dozens of bills introduced in the N.C. legislature this year, including measures on voter identification and private school vouchers, reflected the group's positions, Raleigh's News & Observer has reported.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Fewer Charlotte commuters get to work by car

A slightly smaller proportion of metro Charlotteans is commuting by car as working from home, public transit use and biking increase, says a new study based on federal transportation and census data.

The study was commissioned by the NCPIRG Education Fund, a Raleigh-based consumer group. The group declared the results, which showed an overall drop in miles traveled by vehicles, to mean "the driving boom is over." It urged policy makers to invest more heavily in public transit and biking.

The proportion of commuters using cars dropped in 99 of the 100 largest U.S. cities in recent years, the report says. That included a 3.4 percent drop in metro Charlotte between 2000 and the period of 2007-11, the ninth-largest decrease nationwide.

Public transit passenger-miles transit increased in a majority of cities, including Charlotte. So did biking, although Charlotte showed little recent change. Every metro area showed an increase in employees working from home.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Doubts grow on man-made climate change

Mecklenburg County residents are becoming more dubious about man-made climate change even as scientists become more sure of it, the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute's annual survey shows.

Three out of four residents still believe climate change is a serious problem. But the number who say it's not a problem has doubled since 2012, to 14 percent, the survey shows.

UNC Charlotte Urban Institute 2013 Annual Survey data
And while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in September raised its confidence that humans are the main driver of warming to 95 percent, Mecklenburg finds that proposition less convincing.

Fewer than 40 percent of those surveyed blame human activity, significantly lower than the 45.5 percent who said so in 2012.

A Pew Research Center poll in June found Americans generally less concerned about climate change than people in the rest of the world.

The Urban Institute quotes assistant earth-science professor Manda Adams, who studies the interaction between weather, climate and energy systems, as saying "there's still a lot of confusion in the general public" about climate change.

Most climate scientists, she notes, no longer debate causes. Instead, she says, they focus on the "lots of little parts that we don't have an understanding of yet."

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Rates could save customers millions, analysts say

Customers of Duke Energy Progress could save $50 million a year by switching to a little-used rate, says a Wilmington firm that audits and analyzes utility rates.

Utility Management Services says most residential customers with electric bills of more than about $125 a month can save money on the R-TOUD, or time-of-use, rate schedule. The schedule charges more for electricity during weekday high-demand periods and much less at night and on weekends, when there is less demand for electricity.

Most large-use customers realize a net savings -- equal to about one month's bill -- over a 12-month period, according to UMS' analysis. Duke Progress serves Eastern North Carolina and the Asheville area.

Here's the catch: Duke Progress is phasing out R-TOUD for new customers on Nov. 30, and will replace it with a new time-of-use schedule that UMS says won't save customers as much money.

But Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks says the new schedule, R-TOU, has changes that customers will like.

Under the old schedule's on-peak/ off-peak prices, he said, some customers could see their bills actually go up. That happened if they weren't careful to run high-demand appliances such as the dishwasher or clothes dryer at night or weekend off-peak hours.

"The key to any time-of-use rate is aligning habits to the benefits of the rate," Brooks said.

The new schedule's peak, shoulder and off-peak times are intended to send "price signals" that motivate customers to pay attention to their energy use. Those who don't will not end up paying more than if they used a standard rate. "The flexibility will be more attractive to customers," Brooks said.

R-TOUD has been around for 30 years but has only 30,000 customers. Utility Management Services says another 500,000 customers could save money by using the rate.

The company's founder, Brian Coughlin, testified as an expert witness on behalf of business customers during Duke Progress' rate hearing before the N.C. Utilities Commission.