Here are the facts: We need to keep a lot of our remaining fossil fuels in the ground — perhaps as much as 80 percent — in order to prevent the worst of global warming, and we should be alarmed that no one is speaking this truth when we’re discussing energy policy in Western North Carolina.
In the past few weeks alone, extreme weather events have caused devastating California wildfires, 19 deaths in South Carolina, five in North Carolina, 20 on the French Riviera and 186 in Guatemala. The recent flooding in the Carolinas was the sixth U.S. flood event since 2010 with 1-in-1,000 odds.
Meanwhile, this year is on track to be the warmest on record. If we continue burning fossil fuels, even with the modest reductions proposed by the United Nations Bonn climate negotiations, global average temperatures will be more than 6 degrees warmer by century’s end, and these kinds of catastrophic events will become much more common.
If greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, projections show, summers in Asheville will see average high temperatures of 93 degrees instead of the current 83 degrees. And thanks to a 3- to 6-foot sea level rise, your favorite South Carolina or North Carolina beach won’t even exist. If you’re not alarmed, you should be.
The good news is that we can still change course and possibly avoid the worst. The first and easiest strategy is to completely decarbonize electricity generation. With a combination of conservation, energy efficiency, renewable energy, electric storage and demand-side management, we can transition 100 percent of our electricity economy by 2050, and we can easily meet an intermediate goal of 50 percent by 2030. Other nations are currently achieving these targets, and some U.S. cities are well on their way to meeting them as well.
But we can’t achieve these goals without Duke Energy’s cooperation, and this is where truth telling — using language in a way that says what it means — becomes crucial. For starters, let’s consider the words “bridge,” “modern,” “clean” and “cheap.”
Duke says natural gas is a bridge fuel. A bridge takes you from one place to another. Duke’s destination, however, is the same old big, centralized power station economy. We need to arrive at some new and different place: a sustainable, job-creating, technologically sophisticated energy economy.
Duke is investing $2 billion in a natural gas pipeline into North Carolina, just purchased Piedmont Natural Gas for $4.9 billion and is replacing coal plants, including its Asheville facility, with natural gas. These plants have a life expectancy of 30-40 years, so in fact, these aren’t bridges but commitments to more global warming.
Duke Energy has called its new plan the “Western Carolinas Modernization Project.” The gas boilers will be new and, in that sense only, modern. Real modern technologies are solar, wind, energy efficiency, electric storage and demand-side management systems.
“Clean and cheap”
The utility claims that natural gas is cleaner and cheaper than coal, but these are more half-truths. Yes, burning natural gas produces less carbon, sulfur, nitrogen and soot pollution than coal and doesn’t create dangerous coal ash residue. Extracting natural gas, however, can poison the water and air of communities at extraction sites, along pipeline routes and near pumping substations. And in the first 20 years, the most critical time period, methane gas leakage from those sites can actually be worse for global warming than burning coal. Furthermore, while the price of natural gas is currently very low, price instability and volatility will put all of Duke’s customers at risk of rising fuel prices in the not-too-distant future.
We stand at a fork in the road. Which will turn out to be “the road not taken” — the one leading to climate instability or to a hopeful future?
Now is the time for truth telling — by Duke Energy, by our elected officials, by concerned citizens. Duke recently announced that it’s delaying submitting its modernization plan to the N.C. Utilities Commission because of the more than 9,000 public comments it’s received. The utility is willing to reconsider the “configuration” of the natural gas boilers. This is good news, and the public response by elected officials and environmental advocates has raised the possibility of real, constructive dialogue with Duke.
A truly modern plan for WNC will have science-based goals. To do our part in keeping 80 percent of fossil fuels in the ground, we’ll need to be burning no more than 50 percent for electricity by 2030 and none by 2050.
The city of Asheville already has a good start on achieving these goals. Mayor Terry Bellamy signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement in 2007, and Asheville is ahead of schedule in meeting the target of shrinking the city’s carbon footprint by 80 percent by 2050. But Duke’s proposed 650-megawatt gas boiler configuration is inconsistent with those goals, and since the city gets all of its electricity from Duke, the proposal places Asheville in a bind.
The size of these boilers must be reduced, and Duke should use those cost savings to invest in renewable energy sources, energy efficiency, demand-side management and electric storage NOW. This version of modernization will meet the 50 percent reduction target by 2030 while guaranteeing price stability for decades. It will also attract truly technologically sophisticated and entrepreneurial companies to the area. Together we will build and support a sustainable green economy and full employment.
Duke Energy has a great opportunity to use WNC as a model for how the rest of North Carolina can begin to transition more quickly from coal and natural gas. The process for developing offshore wind generation in North Carolina has begun, so the science-based targets are more realistically within reach.
Truth telling is risky business. The science tells us that if we don’t quickly change our energy infrastructure, it’s very likely that our children will inherit a dangerously warm world. In the context of science, “very likely” means a 95 percent or greater risk. No sane person would put his son or daughter, mother or father, or any other loved one in a car or on a plane, boat or train if the chance of their arriving safely were only 5 percent.
It’s time for some very serious truth telling by Duke Energy, our public officials and citizenry. Facing the truth is our only realistic chance to create a collective future that is life-enhancing rather than one that threatens our health, safety and even survival.
Retired physician Richard Fireman is a founding member of The Alliance for Energy Democracy. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: This commentary was written before Duke Energy’s Nov. 4 announcement regarding its Western Carolinas Modernization Project.