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.