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.