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.