Thursday, November 3, 2011

NC Utilities Commission has more questions on Duke merger

North Carolina's utilities commission wants Duke Energy and Progress Energy to answer more than two dozen lingering questions on their planned merger.

Some queries are left over from the commission's September hearing. Others arose when the companies filed a proposal Oct. 17 to sell excess wholesale power, responding to anti-competition concerns of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The N.C. commission wants answers by Nov. 17. Among its questions:

-- Does the power-sale plan submitted to federal regulators change the joint operating agreement between Duke and Progress, a key to the merger?

-- What is the companies' employee-reduction plan? Are more staff cuts (Duke and Progress have said they expect to trim about 2,000 jobs) expected after the merger?

-- Is the offer of a $15 million contribution to workforce preparedness connected to the merger's expected impact on the N.C. workforce?

-- What factors will the companies include in the "service quality measurement" proposed in the merger settlement with the commission's Public Staff?

The answers should be interesting.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Duke-Progress merger off schedule?

With two months left in 2011, it's looking less likely Duke Energy and Progress Energy can meet their goal of merging by year's end.

"Given the amount of approvals needed, you could certainly look at it that way," said Duke spokesman Tom Williams.

On Monday the companies fired off a request that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reconsider the conditions it attached to its Sept. 30 approval of the merger. The filing accused the commission, in evaluating the impacts to wholesale-power markets, of holding the companies to a higher bar than it had previous mergers.

Duke and Progress still hope FERC will approve their offer to sell off excess power, addressing the competition concerns, by Dec. 15. Even if it does, much work remains.

The N.C. Utilities Commission, which has not yet ruled on the merger, will have to review the power-sale proposal if FERC approves it. South Carolina's utility commission has to rule on the companies' plan to jointly operate their power plant fleets in the Carolinas. FERC has not yet addressed the joint-operating proposal or a power transmission agreement among Duke and Progress subsidiaries.

Duke's last merger, with Cincinnati-based Cinergy, took 11 months to complete in 2006. Williams said Duke and Progress are eager to close this deal, which was announced in early January, to reduce the "internal churn" of assigning roles for their combined 29,000 employees. The companies expect to cut about 2,000 positions through voluntary departures and, if needed, layoffs.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Eastern forests not adapting quickly to climate change

Many Eastern tree species aren't migrating northward as climate change models say they will, says a new study led by Duke University researchers. That could be bad news for the trees' long-term survival.

The ranges of 59 percent of the 92 species analyzed appear to be contracting on both their northern and southern ends, while 16 percent seemed to move to the south. More concerning to researchers was that only 21 percent are shifting northward.

That raises the prospect of climate change stranding some species in increasingly inhospitable surroundings. "It's kind of like pulling the climate out from from under it," said ecologist James Clark of Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment.

Models show that, as the climate warms, many tree species would lose ground on the southern end of their ranges as adults die and seeds fail to sprout. Their northern boundaries would expand as dispersed seeds find happier conditions. See some examples at this U.S. Forest Service site.

But that's not happening for many species, despite warm zones in parts of the East shifting up to 60 miles north. The researchers found no evidence that tree ranges are changing fastest where climate has changed the most. They don't believe differences in seed sizes or their ability to be dispersed account for their findings.

The study did find evidence that some species are migrating to higher elevations, as models also predict.

Clark and his colleagues, funded by the National Science Foundation, based their work on decades of data from the U.S. Forest Service's Forest Inventory and Analysis program. They compared tree distributions in more than 43,000 plots in 31 states.

Kai Zhu, a doctoral student of Clark, was lead author of the study with co-authors Christopher Woodall, a Forest Service researcher in St. Paul, Minn., and Clark. The article was published in the current issue of the journal Global Change Biology.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Huntersville teen petitions for solar White House

Thomas Greenough, 14, thinks it pretty neat that former President Jimmy Carter preached green energy decades ago, installing solar panels on the White House during the oil-embargo days of the 1970s. (Ronald Reagan later took them down.)

So when Thomas learned that President Obama's administration had failed its commitment to reinstall solar panels by last summer, he took to his computer.

"That time has come and gone," he says, "so I want to hold him to his promise."

Two weeks later, the petition Thomas posted on a White House site is slowly climbing in the online ranks. By late Tuesday afternoon, the petition had 772 signatures -- and a long hill to climb. The administration's new "We the People" initiative guarantees a written response to petitions that draw at least 25,000 signatures within 30 days.

The ninth grader at Mooresville's Pine Lake Preparatory says the exercise combines his love of science and politics. He's still hopeful the petition will earn a response.

"I'm optimistic," says Thomas, who's been featured in local news articles. "Word of mouth is very powerful."

Monday, October 17, 2011

Winter bills will be smaller, gas company says

Residential customers are likely to see smaller heating bills this winter, Charlotte-based Piedmont Natural Gas says.

Winter bills could fall up to 10 percent, compared to last year, in Piedmont's territory in the Carolinas and Tennessee. Piedmont serves about 1 million customers.

ypical residential customers are expected to pay about $4 to $10 less a month than they did last winter, reflecting falling wholesale gas prices. Since 2008, Piedmont's billing rates have dropped 20 percent to 30 percent, shaving $100 to $200 off a winter's worth of bills.

Piedmont's Share the Warmth program, which rounds up monthly bills to the nearest dollar, helps low-income residents in its territory.

Wholesale prices are dropping as U.S. shale-gas production, and supply estimates, go up. The gas is extracted through a technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that blasts underground shale formations with high-pressure water and chemicals.

Fracking makes it possible to drill into gas deposits that were too expensive to tap before. It's also excited worries that the chemicals may contaminate groundwater, and that the process uses too much water.

The technique is illegal in North Carolina, which is believed to hold large deposits of shale gas southwest of Raleigh, but the N.C Department of Environment and Natural Resources is beginning a study of the issue.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Duke filed rate hearing notices late

Duke Energy was a month late in notifying customers of hearings, beginning in Charlotte on Tuesday night, on the 15 percent rate hike it's seeking.

Don Smith, a Duke customer who lives in Kannapolis, got his notice in the mail at 3 p.m. Tuesday -- four hours before the Charlotte hearing began before an overflow crowd. Smith said he and several friends would have attended if given earlier notice.

"If they had that many people show up, how many would they have had if they'd given more than two or three hours' notice?" he said later.

The rate case, filed July 1, was hardly a secret. The Observer published the list of six hearings on July 30 and ran a story on the Charlotte hearing Tuesday morning.

But the N.C. Utilities Commission told Duke to do more, publishing legal notices in local newspapers and mail notices to each customer 45 days before the hearings. That didn't happen.

Duke told the commission in late September that notices hadn't gone out as planned on Aug. 27. Mailings to customers would instead be sent out starting Sept. 28, Duke said. Ads about the hearings ran in the Observer on Sept. 22 and 26.

Staff mistakenly scheduled the notices to start 45 days before a Nov. 28 evidentiary hearing in Raleigh, not the Charlotte hearing on Tuesday, spokesman Jason Walls said this week. Walls said Duke tried to make up for the error by contacting local television stations before Tuesday's hearing. He noted that five more hearings are scheduled, none in the Charlotte area, and written comments may be sent to the commission.

Neither the commission nor its Public Staff, which represents customer interests, have filed a response to Duke's mea culpa.

"It's something that we don't like, but it does happen occasionally," said Tony Wike, the Public Staff's chief counsel. "We had no idea that the notices would arrive so late that a customer could not plan to be there. We would not like to see it happen again."

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Toxic pollution program before legislative panel

North Carolina's air quality director was scheduled to appear before a legislative panel this morning to defend an anti-pollution program that legislators tried to gut last summer.

The Republican-led General Assembly was in an anti-regulatory mood this year. Late in the session, a House committee approved a broadly-worded amendment that environmental advocates said would effectively kill what is known as the Air Toxics Program.

The 21-year-old program limits emissions of 97 toxic pollutants that can cause cancer, birth defects and respiratory ailments by making new or expanding industries prove their emissions won't harm people outside the plant's boundaries.

Duke Energy and other industries say the program duplicates federal standards that also set emission limits for major industries. The state program adds little or no additional protection, they say, while costing industries time and money.

The House committee amendment, which has not been enacted by the full legislature, exempted industries that fall under federal standards or use "unadulterated fossil fuels," such as the coal that Duke burns.

"Politicians who reduce or repeal limits on toxic air pollution knowingly increase the risk for all North Carolina residents of cancer and other serious, even deadly, health problems," said Derb Carter of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Sheila Holman, director of the N.C. Division of Air Quality, was to report to the legislature's Environmental Review Commission in Raleigh this morning.

North Carolina industries released more than 34 million pounds of toxic substances, and nearly 1.5 million pounds of carcinogens, into the air last year, federal reports show.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Duke's Rogers on clean energy

Duke Energy is greener than critics give it credit for, CEO Jim Rogers insists after this week's merger hearings before the N.C. Utilities Commission.

The three-day hearing began with a line of speakers blasting Duke, in seeking a merger with Progress Energy, for growing too big and powerful at the expense of its customers. Many implored the company to move away from new nuclear plants and toward sun and wind power.

Duke's already there with wind, Rogers says. The company's unregulated side has built 10 wind farms from Kansas to Pennsylvania since 2007, announcing its fifth in Texas alone this week. The deals are in other states where winds are more reliable and renewable-energy mandates are stiffer, although Duke this week called for bids for North Carolina wind power.

"We're not doing it here, but we're doing it, that's the important thing," Rogers says. "If you put it in the context of not just the state but the nation, we're overachieving."

Not so in North Carolina. Duke's latest planning forecast predicts that renewable energy will shave only 2 percent off summer peak demand by 2030.

Duke ranked 10th-largest among U.S. utilities last year for the amount of solar power it has installed in the Carolinas. It has already satisfied the solar requirements of North Carolina's green-energy law -- 0.2 percent of its total power generation -- through 2017.

But Rogers, at this week's hearing, wouldn't commit to going beyond that tiny mandate. He says Duke is caught between calls for clean energy, which is more expensive to produce, and demands to control costs.

"I was actually signaling that I'm prepared to do more," he says, "but I'm still aware that the Public Staff (the commission arm that represents customers) wants me to control costs for customers."

Rogers said he thinks solar power holds more promise, globally, than wind. Solar installation costs have dropped by about half since 2007, and Rogers expects costs will fall further. We'll learn over the next few years whether Duke finds bargains that are impossible to resist.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Duke seeks N.C. wind energy

Duke Energy today issued its first request for proposals to buy wind energy, including electricity produced in North Carolina, for its Carolinas system. The wind power would help Duke satisfy North Carolina's clean-energy standard.

Duke announced the RFP on the same day clean-energy advocates testified before the N.C. Utilities Commission on its merger with Progress Energy, although Duke says the timing is coincidental. Advocates have urged the commission to steer the new Duke away from nuclear and fossil-fueled power and toward renewables and energy efficiency.

Duke company had signaled a shift toward wind energy earlier this month, in a 20-year planning forecast for the Carolinas. Part of the reason was uncertainty over federal regulation of biomass, the organic fuel that's expected to provide much of the state's renewable energy.

But the increased emphasis on wind was also driven by plans for the state's first wind farms. Iberdrola Renewables plans to build a 300-megawatt wind project in the state's northeastern corner. A second company is working on an 80-megawatt wind farm in coastal Beaufort County.

Duke spokesman Jason Walls said the company has talked with Iberdrola and others, but he wouldn't speculate whether a deal is likely.

Paul Quinlan, managing director of the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, called the timing of Duke's announcement unfortunate. Duke plans to sign contracts in the first quarter of 2012. But Iberdrola has to start construction, presumably only after reaching agreements to sell its power, by the end of this year to qualify for federal payments in lieu of tax credits.

Today's announcement solicits proposals only through Oct. 14 and is open to facilities of 50 to 300 megawatts. Apart from wind generation itself, Duke says it will consider bids for renewable energy certificates, the tradeable commodities that represent units of clean energy, from N.C. wind farms.

Friday, September 16, 2011

With weekend cold snap, a fall leaf preview

As if cued by today's cold snap, the U.S. Forest Service has unveiled an online leaf-viewing page with tips on where to see the best color in the national forests of western North Carolina.

Don't get excited yet, warns service botanist Gary Kauffman. It's still early in leaf season. Kauffman, who works in Asheville, said mountain sourwoods and dogwoods, with their bronze leaves, are beginning to turn. Goldenrod patches and asters splash the hills with yellow and purple.

"If it stays sunny during the day, and gets cold at night and stays cold, (color) is going to come on faster," Kauffman says.

A dry spring and summer, which parts of the mountains have experienced, intensifies sugars in leaves, he says. That make fall colors glow once chlorophyll, the green pigment in leaves, breaks down. Fall weather that's neither too dry nor wet and windy shows the best leaf color.

The Forest Service site details scenic roads at low, medium and high elevations in the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, which cover about 1 million acres of the N.C. mountains. Use it as a companion to Observer travel editor John Bordsen's own leaf-viewing picks, and savor the season.

Friday, September 9, 2011

More wind power in Duke's future

Wind energy makes a surprise appearance in Duke Energy's 20-year planning forecast for the Carolinas, which was updated this month.

Last year's Integrated Resource Plan showed a mere one-half megawatt of wind power helping meet Duke's summer peak demand, beginning in 2013. This year it shows 15 megawatts, starting now. By 2030, the new IRP has wind producing 62 megawatts, compared to 22 megawatts in the previous plan.

The change has less to do with an explosion of wind power -- there still aren't any commercial farms operating in North Carolina -- than with uncertainties about biomass, says Duke spokesman Jason Walls. The organic fuel is expected to supply the bulk of the clean energy mandated by a 2007 state law.

Scientists debate the climate impacts of burning wood, farm wastes and other forms of biomass. The Environmental Protection Agency in January put off for three years any greenhouse-gas permits for biomass. Duke cites "continuing federal regulatory uncertainty" in reducing the amount of power it expects to get from biomass over the next few years.

But, the plan adds: "The projected increase in wind resources is driven by the company's observations that land-based wind developers are presently pursuing projects of significant size in North Carolina. The company believes it is reasonable to expect that land-based wind will be developed in both North and South Carolina (by 2030) to a degree that exceeds what was expected a year ago."

Iberdrola Renewables filed an application in January for a 300-megawatt wind project in the state's northeastern corner that would be the state's first commercial-scale wind farm. A second company, Invenergy, plans to build an 80-megawatt wind farm in coastal Beaufort County.

Duke is also allowed to buy proxies, called renewable energy certificates, for wind energy produced in other states.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Commission signs off on Duke's green-energy costs

Duke Energy's residential customers in North Carolina will pay 20 cents more a month to pay for the utility's foray into solar power.

The N.C. Utilities Commission approved the increase Tuesday to let Duke recoup its 2010 costs under the state's renewable-energy law. The law makes utilities produce increasing amounts of electricity from renewable sources and energy efficiency, starting last year with solar power.

The initial solar target was tiny -- 0.02 percent of Duke's total retail sales for the previous year, rising ten-fold by 2018. The law lets utilities recover their costs of complying with the law, and that's what Tuesday's order did. Those costs will add 47 cents a month to residential bills, beginning Sept. 1 (up from the current 27 cents). Commercial customers will pay $2.36 a month, industries $26.07.

The way Duke went about satisfying the solar mandate didn't sit well with some critics, who have said Duke's dependence on one huge solar farm and utility-owned rooftop arrays did little to help local solar companies grow.

Duke installed the rooftop systems at 25 businesses and homes, and bought power and renewable-energy certificates, or RECs, from SunEdison's big solar farm in Davidson County. It also bought RECs, which each represent 1 megawatt-hour of clean energy, from in-state and out-of-state solar generators. Duke accumulated so much solar power, in fact, that it will satisfy the full solar mandate law to 2018.

The N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, which represents renewable-energy companies, objected. As costs fall, it argued, utilities could likely meet the state mandate more cheaply by buying solar power from others than by generating it themselves, as Duke has done in part.

The commission disagreed, noting that it had already approved the Duke-owned rooftop program. It's not appropriate, the order added, for the commission to address future projects now.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Duke's new-nuclear spending limited

The N.C. Utilities Commission today endorsed Duke Energy's decision to spend up to another $120 million to develop its Lee nuclear plant site near Gaffney, S.C.

The commission's order reflects an argument, accepted by Duke, that limits the scope of its spending on the $11 billion plant, which is scheduled to open in about 2021. It's similar to an order from South Carolina's utility commission in June.

Duke initially sought the commission's endorsement of spending $229 million on Lee between January 2010 and the end of 2013. Including earlier spending, that would have put its total investment for engineering, designs and site development at $455 million.

The commission's Public Staff, which represents consumers, argued it would be overly ambitious for Duke to spend that amount given the uncertainties around new nuclear plants - among them shaky financing, reactor design problems and the nuclear calamity in Japan. Duke agreed to a $120 million spending cap over a shorter period, January 2011 through June 2012.

The commission approved that cap -- or, in the cautious language of the order, Duke's decision to spend that much. At some future point, the commission will be asked to approve the "prudence and reasonableness" of Duke's investment --and how much will be passed to customers.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Dead fish found near McGuire plant

Nearly 300 dead striped bass have been found since Friday in Lake Norman near the McGuire nuclear plant, Duke Energy reported today. The fish kill follows the 7,000 stripers that died on the lake last summer, and is the fourth die-off since 2004.

Power plants are no stranger to dead fish. Cooling water intakes kill millions of small fish a year, and the Environmental Protection Agency is considering new rules to reduce the toll.

Duke and other utilities also have to worry about the cooling water they return, heated, to the rivers or lakes from which they pumped it. Discharge water that's too hot can hurt fish and other aquatic life. McGuire's discharge, which goes into a canal connected to the lake, is limited to 99 degrees this time of year.

Which takes us to the dead stripers on Norman. Hot weather limits oxygen at some depths of southern reservoirs, especially in a middle zone that acts as a barrier to fish trapped on the cooler bottom.

But in order to moderate the temperature of its discharge water, McGuire pumped water from a low intake about 80 feet deep for five days in July, Duke told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission today. The plant's cooling water normally goes through intakes closer to the surface.

Duke had also pumped from the lower intake before last summer's fish kill.

Pumping from such depths takes oxygen from the bottom, biologists say, hastening its natural depletion. Some fish trapped there can't survive. Duke told the NRC that staff members monitored fish around the intake by video camera and took temperature and oxygen readings while pumping the low-level water.

Despite that, dead fish were found Friday near Cowan's Ford dam, near McGuire, four days after the pumping stopped on July 25, McGuire spokeswoman Valerie Patterson said. The current count is 290 dead fish, she said.

Monday, July 25, 2011

House overrides veto on rules reform

The N.C. House voted today to override Gov. Bev Perdue's veto of legislation that sharply limits environmental rulemaking. The N.C. Senate had overridden the veto on July 13, so the measure is now law.

The bill was styled as a way to create jobs by limiting the proliferation of rules that its Republican backers say stifle business. It followed a series of regulatory-reform hearings held around the state this spring.

The law prohibits state environmental agencies, in most cases, from enacting rules that are stronger than federal standards. It orders agencies to ferret out "burdensome" regulations and conduct cost-benefit analyses of new rules, identifying alternatives for those with a fiscal impact of $500,000 or more a year.

Administrative law judges, not state agencies, will have final say on appeals of agency fines or orders. Judges have previously submitted only recommended decisions.

Environmental advocates predict the new restrictions will quickly come back to haunt the state. Among rules likely to be entangled, they say, are standards for the now-banned drilling practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas.

"Effective now," said Sam Pearsall of the Environmental Defense Fund, "it's going to be a mess."

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sierra Club's $50M windfall to boost NC wind power

Today's $50 million commitment by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's philanthropy to the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign will be used in North Carolina to promote offshore wind, a spokeswoman says.

The Sierra campaign aims to "end the coal era" and usher in cleaner technology. The billionaire Bloomberg appeared for today's announcement outside a coal-fired power plant in Alexandria, Va.

In North Carolina, an unspecified increase in Sierra staffers will develop "new, innovative strategies to hasten deployment of offshore wind," said spokeswoman Jenna Garland.

Environmental advocates despise coal power for its pollution, vast releases of carbon dioxide and the damage caused by mountaintop-removal mining in the Appalachians. Sierra claims credit for derailing plans for more than 150 new coal plants, although it didn't stop Duke Energy from building two new plants in North Carolina and Indiana.

Duke and Progress Energy plan to shut down many of their older coal-fired plants in the Carolinas as environmental standards stiffen.

Bloomberg's money will expand Sierra's anti-coal campaign from 15 to 45 states and double the number of staff members assigned to 200 people.

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry group that includes neither Duke nor Progress, quickly pounced. ACCCE said the Sierra plan would raise electric rates and kill jobs.

“Rather than demonize an important national strategic resource, Mayor Bloomberg should be using his millions to push for a balanced energy policy that utilizes all our domestic sources of energy including coal,” the group said.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Carolinas rank 10th, 11th for power plant pollution

North Carolina ranks 10th-highest and South Carolina 11th in a ranking of states with the most toxic air pollution from coal- and oil-fired power plants, the Natural Resources Defense Council said today.

The advocacy group based its rankings on the Environmental Protection Agency's 2009 Toxics Release Inventory, to which industries report their chemical releases to the air, water and land. Physicians for Social Responsibility shared in the report's release.

Power plants are the single largest industrial source of toxic air pollution in 28 states, including the Carolinas, NRDC said. N.C. utilities released 14.9 million pounds of toxic air emissions, 49 percent of the total for the state. South Carolina's emitted 11.4 million pounds, or 43 percent.

NRDC decried efforts in the U.S. House last week to delay proposed EPA limits on mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants. EPA estimates the new limits, proposed in March, would save up to 17,000 lives and prevent 120,000 asthma episodes a year by 2015.

Duke Energy plans to retire many of its smaller, older coal-fired units by 2015 to avoid the expense of installing new air pollution controls. Duke and Raleigh's Progress Energy say "scrubbers" installed at their larger N.C. plants to catch sulfur dioxide, which forms lung-damaging fine particles, also capture up to 90 percent of the mercury the plants release.

Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida led the NRDC's "Toxic 20" list.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Fort Bragg to test fuel cells

Sprawling, camo-intensive Fort Bragg will become one of eight U.S. military installations to test fuel cells as backup power, the Department of Energy said today.

Home to more than 50,000 active-duty soldiers (and endangered species including the red-cockaded woodpecker), Bragg is earning a name for energy innovation. Solar photovoltaic panels and solar hot water systems have been added to construction and renovation projects. Micro-hydro power, geothermal heat pumps, biodiesel production and energy meters to fine-tune efficiency are planned.

DOE's fuel cell tests will see how the technology, which generates electricity by chemical reaction, works in the real world. Department-funded research with 3M, DuPont, BASF and other companies has cut costs up to 80 percent since 2002, the government says. Many of the innovations that came out of that research will be tested at the military bases.

Compared with diesel generators, the usual source of backup power, fuel cells use no petroleum, are quieter and need less maintenance. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory will collect data from the $6.6 million project for two years, passing its findings to fuel cell developers and potential commercial and government adopters.

Fort Hood in Texas, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Base in Colorado, the Marine Corp's Air Ground Combat Center 29 Palms in California and the Ohio National Guard will also test the cells.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Progress outranks Duke in customer survey

Progress Energy topped its intended merger partner, Duke Energy, in J.D. Power and Associates' annual residential customer satisfaction survey released today.

Progress Carolinas ranked third-best among 13 large electric utilities in the South, the study found, while Duke Carolinas came in sixth. Both beat the average for the segment.

The results mark substantial happy-customer slippage for Duke, which led the list in 2010 and placed second in 2009. Progress finished fourth last year and so improved a bit.

Duke can't blame the results on this month's news of the 17 percent rate hike it's seeking for N.C. residential customers. The study was based on 98,000 online interviews conducted from July 2010 through this May.

Customer relations ranked low for both companies outside their Carolina bases. Progress Energy Florida finished dead last in rankings for the South, which was led by Oklahoma Gas and Electric. Duke's Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky operations ranked 10th-highest among 16 utilities in the Midwest.

J.D. Power's release didn't detail each utility's performance, but said customers generally are less satisfied with power quality, reliability and prices compared to last year. Gains in other areas, including customer communications and billing, helped offset the problem areas.

The California-based marketing information firm, also asked about attitudes on nuclear power. It found that 57 percent support building U.S. nuclear plants. Support is 70 percent among people who live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Consumer advocates slam Duke's Indiana costs

Advocates for Indiana utility customers have given a thumbs-down on Duke Energy's request to recover more of the escalating costs of its Edwardsport coal-fired power plant.

The Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor had been generally supportive of the project, which will use cleaner-burning gasification technology and is now nearing completion.

But that began to change last winter, with the fallout over conflict-of-interest allegations between Duke and Indiana utility regulators that ultimately cost the job of Jim Turner, one of Duke's top executives in Charlotte. Duke later withdrew a settlement with the consumer agency and other parties on the Edwardsport cost overruns.

With the issue back before the Indiana utilities commission, the Consumer Counselor's office now says Duke doesn't deserve the extra $530 million in reimbursement it's seeking for cost overruns. Cost estimates of $2.35 billion in 2008 have climbed to $2.88 billion.

"Duke has not demonstrated any budgetary constraints on this project," the office's Barbara Smith wrote in pre-filed testimony to the commission. "There appears to be a lack of responsibility or accountability on the part of those causing these multi-million dollar cost overruns. In addition, there has been no evidence presented to indicate that Duke management, or any other entity, has conducted any kind of timely prudency review regarding these cost overruns."

Smith wrote that Duke didn't fully spell out the project's scope, or finish design work, before starting work. The result, she said, was escalating costs borne by ratepayers and benefits going to Duke shareholders.

Duke has defended its management of the project. The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission will hold hearings on Edwardsport's costs in October.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

UNCC rolls out regional-indicators site

UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute has unveiled a new website that tracks how the Charlotte region's doing on the economy, environment, education and other indicators.

The institute launched its Charlotte Regional Indicators Project in 2007. The new version allows its database to be updated with fresh material as soon as it's released from the source.

"It is our hope that the Indicators website will become a sort of 'community commons,' where the data and commentary found here will spark more serious conversations and dialogue across the region – in city council meetings, neighborhood gatherings, corporate and nonprofit board rooms, in classrooms, and around the family dinner table – as we all strive for that elusive shared vision of what the Charlotte region can be," institute director Jeff Michael wrote in announcing the site.

The site offers search options for 33 indicators grouped around 11 quality of life themes that give an overview of the 14-county region. It also allows searches of detailed local data and can generate graphics based on the data.

It's absorbing stuff: the site lets you watch the steady loss of open space in Mecklenburg County, check out the violent crime index in Lancaster County, S.C. or compare Charlotte's commute times with other cities. Visitors can sign up for data alerts via social media, but a caution: the site won't display properly in Windows Internet Explorer 6.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Duke silent on rumored Latin America merger

Duke Energy is saying nothing further today about reports it is in talks to sell or combine its Latin American operations with Paris-based GDF Suez SA.

Published reports on the alleged deal originated with Brazil's Valor Economico newspaper, which cited confidential sources. Duke, in a Brazilian regulatory filing, called it a "pure market rumor," reports say.

Valor Economico reported that the deal would create an electricity generator worth $18.8 billion, with a combined capacity of 15,000 megawatts.

Duke Energy International operates power plants with generating capacity of 4,000 megawatts, 70 percent of it from hydroelectric plants, in Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and Central America.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Perdue vetoes Montgomery County fine waiver

A bill to erase a $101,000 state fine against Montgomery County for dumping sludge into streams didn't make it past Gov. Bev Perdue's desk.

The county's argument that the money would be better spent to fix the problem apparently didn't resonate with Perdue, who vetoed the measure Monday.

The rural county said it had spent more than a half-million dollars to vacuum sludge out of two tributaries downstream of its water treatment plant, and would need another $400,000 for upgrades to the plant. The bill introduced by Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, and ratified by the legislature wiped away the fine in return for remedial action.

The N.C. Division of Water Quality called the bill an unprecedented maneuver that violated the state Constitution's dictate that state fines go to the public schools. Appeals courts have affirmed that principle, noting that the point of fines is, after all, to punish offenders.

Perdue crushed the hopes of environmental advocates, however, by allowing beach communities to test erosion-control structures called terminal groins. The legislation she let pass will allow up to four groins to be built near eroding coastal inlets.

Environmentalists called it a rebuke of North Carolina's long-standing ban on structures such as seawalls and jetties, which often stop erosion in one place but accelerate it elsewhere. The impact of the new terminal groins should be apparent within a few years after they're built.

Legislators, meanwhile, left the fate of the state's toxic air-pollution program hanging this month.

A N.C. House committee voted to gut the program at the urging of Duke Energy and other industries who said it duplicated federal pollution rules. The Senate then passed a study-committee bill that directs the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to assess the issue. But legislators only named a conference committee to iron out differences between the two chambers' versions of the study bill before leaving town June 18.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Duke gets S.C. approval for nuclear spending

South Carolina's Public Service Commission this week approved Duke Energy's decision to spend up to $120 million more on pre-construction costs of the Lee nuclear plant.

The $11 billion plant, Duke's first in a generation, would go up near Gaffney, S.C., southwest of Charlotte. The S.C. approval covers spending from January of this year through June 2012 to "keep the nuclear option available."

That language reflects the uncertainty surrounding the delayed nuclear renaissance, which has been battered by high costs, cautious investors and, more recently, the nuclear crisis in Japan. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission last month said it has delayed approval of the reactor design Duke plans to use, the Westinghouse AP1000, because of unresolved technical issues.

North Carolina's Utility Commission hasn't yet ruled on a similar request on pre-construction spending by Duke. Duke had initially sought an endorsement of its decision to spend up to $287 million on Lee through 2013, for a total of $455 million including previous spending. Duke agreed with consumer advocates to limit the amount of further spending to $120 million through mid-2012.

Duke, meanwhile, continues to seek partners to share the costs and risks of new plants. In February, Jacksonville, Fla.'s municipal electric utility took an option to buy up to 20 percent of Lee. Duke has also shown interest in buying a portion of the two-reactor expansion of the Summer plant near Columbia that is co-owned by Santee Cooper and Scana Corp.

After twice pushing back the startup date for Lee, Duke now says it will be in about 2021.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Charlotte's clean-energy rankings

The Charlotte region leads the state in energy-efficient commercial buildings and ranks third in the number of renewable energy and energy efficiency firms, says a report released today.

The N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, whose members include people in the profession, produced its first Clean Energy Data Book. The report summarizes, by region, the renewable energy profile of a state that is a leader in the Southeast.

All told, the association says, more than 12,500 N.C. residents work in some phase of renewable energy or efficiency. Sun, wind, water or biomass (the term for organic waste) produce energy at more than 1,800 sites. More than 1,500 commercial and government buildings have been certified as energy efficient.

The 12-county Charlotte region is home to 355 clean-energy firms, the report says. That total ranks third-highest in the state after the Raleigh area (623 firms) and the Asheville region (with 397 companies). Most of the firms do energy-efficiency work, but the region also has a surprising presence in companies that make parts for the wind industry.

There's room to grow in energy efficiency, the report adds. The Charlotte region has 265,000 homes built before 1970, most without enough insulation. Central Piedmont Community College offers a degree in sustainable technologies, and other local colleges turn out electricians and heating-cooling technicians that could find work there.

The growing number of firms, anchored by Duke Energy, "provides a robust technical knowledge base and strong industry presence with clear opportunity for continued development," the report says.

The 415 buildings registered or certified under the EPA's Energy Star or U.S. Green Building Council LEED standards lead the state. Among those earning Energy Star status are 99 Food Lion stores and 58 schools.

Renewable energy systems in the Charlotte region have a total capacity of 595 megawatts, nearly all of it from hydroelectric plants. For perspective, that's a little less than the output of the single coal-fired unit Duke is building at its Cliffside power plant.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Fracking, offshore drilling bill nears final approval

The N.C. House has joined the Senate in approving a bill that encourages offshore drilling and calls for study of the controversial practice of "fracking" for natural gas on land.

Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican, is a primary sponsor of the Energy Jobs Act. The Senate has already passed the measure that's intended to increase the state's energy production and boost the economy. It's now before a House-Senate conference committee.

The bill directs the governor to form an offshore-energy compact with South Carolina and Virginia, citing the 5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that might be recoverable off the N.C. coast. It also divvies up the revenues and royalties the state might take in.

Problem is, the Obama administration has banned offshore drilling on the Eastern seaboard until at least 2018. Obama softened his stance last month as Republicans clamored for increased production and gas prices soared. The administration accelerated environmental reviews and will consider opening to exploration some parts of the southern and central Atlantic coast.

Environmental advocates, with last year's Deepwater Horizon spill in the rear-view mirror, say it's too risky for the state to gamble its coastal tourism and fisheries on drilling.

They also warn against on-shore drilling for natural gas, which might contaminate groundwater. Techniques called hydraulic fracturing, which breaks open shale to release gas, and horizontal drilling have boosted estimates of U.S. gas reserves by 40 percent. Exploration companies are busily buying up leases in Lee and Chatham counties.

Those techniques are now illegal in North Carolina.

Rucho's bill orders the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Energy Jobs Council it creates -- it had been the Energy Policy Council -- to study the commercial potential of shale gas and review drilling regulations.

Largely missing from the measure is mention of a third energy source: wind power. The shallow waters of the mid-Atlantic coast, including North Carolina, hold some of the nation's highest wind-energy potential, the Interior Department reported in 2009.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

More limits on state rules proposed

A new bill that limits state rule-making is moving through the N.C. Senate in this legislative session's last days.

Introduced by Republican Sens. David Rouzer, Harry Brown and Don East, the bill aims to "balance job creation and environmental protection" by making rules easier to comply with. It echoes, but goes farther than, language in the Republican-crafted budget that blocks most state environmental rules that are tougher than federal standards.

The measure requires state agencies to root out "unnecessary" existing rules each year. It calls for cost-benefit analyses of proposed rules, a standard that environmental advocates say handicaps the worth of resources that are hard to quantify such as clean water.

The Office of State Management and Budget would have to approve fiscal notes, including two alternatives, for rules that would have an economic impact "on all persons affected" of $500,000 a year or more.

The measure gives administrative law judges the ability to make final decisions on contested cases -- not just recommendations to the state agencies that issue fines, which now have the final say.

And it extends the term of many environmental permits from five to 10 years, with the exception of air-quality permits for major industries and wastewater discharge permits.

The Senate commerce committee reported the bill favorably Tuesday, sending it to the agriculture, environment and natural resources panel. Thursday is the deadline for bills to pass in one chamber in order to stay alive this session.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

New budget will hammer enviro programs

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources would lose 160 jobs, nearly 5 percent of its workforce, under a Republican-crafted budget the state Senate approved Thursday. The budget also moves three DENR divisions to other departments.

But the budget also cuts other environmental programs that you might not miss until they're gone.

Among them are state trust funds for conservation and parks. The Clean Water Management Trust Fund, a crucial force in many of the state's largest conservation deals, would be hit hard. The budget repeals a statutory mandate that the fund get $100 million a year, cutting it to a $11.25 million appropriation. It also prohibits spending money on land acquisition in most cases.

Millions more would be taken from two funds whose revenues, from deed stamp and real estate excise taxes, have plummeted since the recession. The budget diverts $8.4 million from the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, which made $9.2 million in grants for local parks last year. It takes $8 million from the Natural Heritage fund, which had income of only $13.1 million in 2010. Natural Heritage has quietly helped protect 301,000 acres of wild land since 1987.

DENR would lose three of its five-member environmental education staff. The office was created during former Gov. Jim Martin's administration of the late 1980s to balance regulations - which also have come under attack by this legislature - with a sense of public stewardship of the state's resources. Raleigh, ironically, will host the North American Association for Environmental Education's international conference in October.

Finally, the budget zeroes out money for an innovative program that shed new light on the health of the nation's second-largest (but least-understood) estuary, Pamlico Sound. The 2,000-square-mile sound nurtures all manner of sea life, including most of the commercially important species.

The FerryMon project, conceived in 2006 by UNC and Duke University coastal scientists, equips state ferries to collect water samples and transmit water-quality data. The data helps scientists understand the effects of storms and pollutants on the sound. It has shown, for instance, that heavy rains followed by drought can trigger algal blooms that cause fish kills.

What else could we learn about this vast resource? We may never know.

Monday, May 23, 2011

NRC signals problems with reactor design

Anti-nuclear forces are gloating over problems with the reactor design that is planned for use in the nation's first wave of new nuclear plants in a generation. Duke Energy and Progress Energy both planned to use the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor.

With Fukushima vivid in the world's consciousness, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission appears in no hurry to sign off on a reactor design that's designed to save money.

In a brief statement Friday, NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko said additional technical issues have delayed approval of the AP1000.

The unresolved questions have to do with the strength of the reactor's concrete protective husk, called the shield building, which would also support a cooling water storage tank. Jaczko said there are also issues with calculating peak pressures within the inner steel shell, called containment, during an accident.

"The agency has made it clear to Westinghouse that it must prove to our satisfaction that the company has appropriately and completely documented the adequacy of the design," the statement said.

An NRC structural engineer has formally challenged the strength of materials to be used in the shield building. Experts hired by Friends of the Earth have challenged the strength of the AP1000's containment, among other issues.

“The fact that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which often operates as an industry lap dog, is voicing concerns is a sign of just how serious these design flaws are,” said Tom Clements, a Friends activist in Columbia.

Westinghouse, which has built reactors around the world, touts the AP1000 as the safest and cheapest available because of a simplified design that cuts construction time and operating expenses. It's designed to safely cool a reactor during an accident even if no electric power is available.

Westinghouse said it will work with the NRC on the outstanding issues, which the company asserted include none of safety significance. Westinghouse called the AP100 "one of the most studied, reviewed and analyzed" designs in the history of the nuclear power industry.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Rare birds blown into Charlotte area

You never know what the spring winds will blow in during bird-migration season. Charlotte birdwatchers have found some treats lately.

Don Seriff, natural resources coordinator with the county parks department, says unusually strong weather systems might be responsible for these recent arrivals since late April:

-- The purple gallinule pictured at right is usually found in Florida and in Georgia's coastal plain. The species had never been recorded in Mecklenburg County and fewer than 10 times in North Carolina.

-- Two common moorhens, one of them injured. The duck-like bird is considered a very rare transient, Seriff says, and had been seen in Mecklenburg only twice, most recently in 1989.

-- Several American bitterns, marsh birds that had been reported fewer than 10 times in the Charlotte region. A least bittern, found at Cowan's Ford Wildlife Refuge near Mountain Island Lake, had been reported only five times in the region.

-- A pair of white-winged doves, spotted in Pineville, became only the second record of the species for this area.

Two hours east of Charlotte, a Cassin’s sparrow became the first record of the southwestern native in the state. A fork-tailed flycatcher, a rare tropical species, was seen in the same area the same week.

More on this to come. Dozens of volunteers from eight counties are scouring the county to compile Mecklenburg's first breeding-bird atlas. "I will have lots of good info and some surprises to share in late June about the local discoveries," Seriff writes.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Duke in hearing on nuclear costs

Amid the aftershocks of the Fukushima-Daiichi crisis, Duke Energy is seeking the S.C. Public Service Commission's blessing today to spend more money on its next nuclear plant.

Duke took much of the drama out of the day by agreeing to whittle back the additional $229 million in additional pre-construction costs it first sought. That would have put the total spent on the Lee plant, which Duke hasn't yet decided to build, at $459 million through 2013.

Instead Duke agreed with consumer and environmental groups to limit spending to "only the absolute minimum amount of dollars necessary to keep the nuclear option available" -- $120 million from this January through June 2012. That would keep the $11 billion Lee on track to start up sometime between 2021 and 2023, a date that's been pushed back a couple of times.

Duke has agreed to similar terms with North Carolina's consumer advocates on a Lee spending proposal before the N.C. Utilities Commission. That commission hasn't yet ruled.

Approval by the states would give Duke reassurance that it can eventually recover Lee's costs from customers, although that would take separate OKs.

Duke also commits in the S.C. agreement to continuing to try to share the risks of building a new plant. It pledges to keep negotiating for an interest in the two reactors that Santee Cooper and SCANA are preparing to build in Jenkinsville, S.C.

Friends of the Earth nuclear activist Tom Clements, the only party to the case that didn't sign the agreement, was scheduled to question Duke CEO Jim Rogers and other executives today.

Friday, May 13, 2011


A note to readers: It’s more than the shortage of quill pens and parchment that moves me to launch this late-blooming blog. After years on the smog beat as an environment writer, I’ve expanded my coverage to energy, which turns out to involve lots of technology. It also turns out to be fascinating.

Energy is the crossroads of the past and future, of belching 1920s smokestacks and biofuels made from algae. It’s embedded so deeply in daily life as to be invisible – until it’s not, when the next rate hike or power outage comes. It’s an engine of jobs and a casino of billion-dollar bets on technology that has to work. And a test of values: Will Americans choose the cheapest energy or the kindest to people and planet?

Come join the conversation, but play nice.

Let’s start with a topic we all can agree on: climate change!

It’s been a tough spring, I thought as hail pounded my expensive new roof the other night. Hundreds of tornadoes tore through the Southeast and Midwest, killing 24 people in North Carolina alone last month. The Mississippi is flooding middle-American towns and farms like something out of the Old Testament.

Is this what climate change looks like? Yes and no, says David Easterling, a scientist at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville who studies extreme climate events.

“We’ve seen increases in heavy rainfall in the past, and that fits the climate models,” he says of the flooding. “Parts of the Midwest have seen that pattern.”

As air temperatures warm, the atmosphere holds more moisture that’s released as rain. Melting snow added to this year's deluges. North Dakota’s Red River is among those that “seem to have flooding just about every year,” Easterling says.

The two multi-year droughts the Carolinas have suffered in the past decade are also consistent with what’s expected of a warming climate, he said.

Tornadoes are another matter. While last month’s count could set a record, Easterling says it’s hard to compare activity to past years, when records relied solely on direct observations instead of modern tools such as Doppler radar.

Tornadoes form when a strong jet stream overhead and wind shear, the changes of speed or direction at different heights in the atmosphere, rotate thunderstorms. But climate models show wind shear will be less dramatic in the future.

“There really is not good evidence linking that to climate change,” he says.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Rogers wavered on Indiana hire

The latest release of internal e-mails that fueled the Duke Energy ethics scandal in Indiana show some staff members, including CEO Jim Rogers, squirming over the hire of a former state regulator.

Messages published today by the Indianapolis Star show Rogers sensing it would be "a bad move" to hire Scott Storms, the former general counsel for the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission. Duke had already hired another commission official, Mike Reed, to head its Indiana operation.

Rogers had good reason to engage his radar. Months before, Duke had asked the commission to approve $530 million in additional costs to build its $2.9 billion Edwardsport coal-fired power plant. Customers will likely pay most of the plant's costs.

For reasons the e-mails don't make clear, Duke hired Storms anyway last summer.

Within months, as Duke's relationship with the former regulators came to light, the fallout began. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels sacked David Lott Hardy, the commission's chairman, and Duke fired Storms and Reed. Jim Turner, who had led Duke's regulated businesses from Charlotte, resigned in December following publication of e-mails between him and Hardy.

The latest e-mails suggest that Hardy and Reed wanted Duke to hire Storms. They show Duke staff members initially ruling out Storms for the job of handling Indiana legal affairs, but worrying that Hardy would be offended.

"This could all blow up with Hardy being mad that we won't hire Scott," says a July 1 exchange between Duke lawyers. "I'm really not sure how to get out of this mess."

Three weeks later, Turner wrote Rogers that he had talked to David Pippen, Daniels' general counsel. Pippen supported Duke's hiring Storms, Turner said.

Rogers responded that "it bothers me but I don't know why ... feels like a bad move at this time ... coming on the heels of Mike ... "

By the next day, more e-mails say Rogers had signed off on the hire.

The e-mails are among evidence before the Indiana State Ethics Commission, which heard accusations that Storms violated state law by taking the Duke job while continuing to handle cases involving Duke. The commission is expected to decide the case Thursday, the Indianapolis Star said.

"We are letting our testimony before the commission serve as our statement on this issue," Duke Indiana spokeswoman Angeline Protogere said.

Duke, meanwhile, offered in March to cap the Edwardsport costs passed to customers to $2.7 billion. The commission will hold hearings in October. It has scheduled more hearings in November on allegations of mismanagement, fraud and concealment filed by opponents of the plant.