Our survival’s at stake: We can’t afford half-truths about our energy future

Richard Fireman, founding member of The Alliance for Energy Democracy Photo courtesy of Richard Fireman

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 firepeople@main.nc.us.

Editor’s note: This commentary was written before Duke Energy’s Nov. 4 announcement regarding its Western Carolinas Modernization Project.


About Richard Fireman
Richard Fireman is a retired M.D. He is a founding member of Elders Fierce for Justice, and has worked as a climate change/energy advocate in WNC for 15 years as a volunteer for Mountaintrue, Creation Care Alliance of WNC and the Sierra Club.

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19 thoughts on “Our survival’s at stake: We can’t afford half-truths about our energy future

  1. OneWhoKnows

    So sorry that he is so darn misinformed. Just look at his affiliations and you can see how he’s influenced by taxpayer funded ‘non profits’…another clueless liberal progressive … god bless em…when will they learn better ?

  2. One Who Doesn’t Know or prefers to Not Know is so off base as to be nutty.

    Thanks to Richard Fireman and many others who are pulling for a survivable future for the next generation.

    • Lulz

      LOL, yet just like Web said China and India are by far the largest polluters on the planet lulz. Mr Bothwell, you grew up in a time of prosperity which allows you to live in no reality. Why oh why do you lie to, cheat out, and seek to steal from those that came after you lulz?

  3. James

    Oh what a crock! There is no global warming people and I’m surprised this letter writer didn’t change it to “climate change.” After all, after Al Bore’s stupid movie full of lies we saw record cold winters and then overnight “global warming” became “climate change.” All of this is just absurd. Climates changes and they always have. Right now its autumn but in another couple months we’ll have winter. Then when we’ve had a little too much it’ll be spring and when our allergies can’t take it anymore, we’ll have summer. Some years have colder winters, some not so much. Some summers have devastating droughts, others have floods. Hurricanes, tornadoes, typhoons and hail, they’ve been happening since God created this world and will continue until He decides to end it.

    • Big Al

      I split the difference: there likely IS global warming, but it is part of a natural cycle. The “man-made” part is just another strategy for wealth redistribution a la Karl Marx, but since the commies could not convince the world to be more “fair” without engaging in wholesale slaughter, a “kinder, gentler” approach was needed, hence “Love your mother earth (or you are BAD, shame on you!)”

      And spare me the “you are a man-made global warming denier” shtick. It didn’t work when you tried to compare meat-eaters to holocaust camp guards, and it won’t work now by trying to guilt-trip me into feeling like a holocaust-denying skinhead.

  4. The comments above reveal how difficult it will be to pull our bacon out of the fire, so to speak. If natural forces hadn’t sequestered numerous substances over the geologic span, we wouldn’t be here. Releasing those substances abruptly, in the case of carbon dioxide and methane, can’t help but reset the planetary chemistry and environment. (The same is true, but on a somewhat slower pace, with numerous direct toxins.) The rise in parts per million of carbon dioxide has closely tracked previous climate changes, and is happening now. Our release of that carbon and methane since the dawn of the industrial era is beyond clear. Denial may prevent us from doing anything to redress our piece of the problem, but it won’t save anybody’s life. The six degree increase currently anticipated by the latest climate models will utterly devastate macrobiotic life forms, like us. If one there is any hope for the long term survival of our species, absent massive change, it probably lies in the SpaceX project to colonize Mars.

  5. OneWhoKnows

    greatest HOAX EVER perpetuated against the world by EVIL controlling progressives…bigger even than Social Insecurity…

    • Peter Robbins

      Aren’t you forgetting the President’s fake birth certificate?

      • OneWhoKnows

        uhm, NO…obviously obongo’s birf cert had little effect on all his other LIES and EVILNESS…he is a heinous human.

  6. Grant Milin

    I wish MX would not allow anonymous posts.

    Here’s a couple of articles I wrote on these matters. These points still apply, even after Duke Energy’s plan change this week:

    Optimal electrical grid modernization requires open, learning minds


    Buncombe is at the center of the NC Clean Power Plan


  7. Stewart

    Dr. Fireman is a great voice for common sense and hope for the future. Unfortunately, few are listening. The Republican party may be the only major political party in the WORLD that denies the conclusive science of climate change. You can’t have a position on climate change any more than you can have a position on whether or not the earth is round or watermelons are red inside. Facts are facts and science is science, neither are open to opinion. Yet the Republican party continues spreading the myths paid for by Exxon, aka the war on science. But what can we expect from people who believe the world is only thousands of years old and are waiting for the rapture? Until we have some real leadership in this country, we won’t make any progress. We need to vote these idiots out of office. It’s time we all start “feelin’ the Bern!” http://feelthebern.org/

    • The Real World

      “Facts are facts and science is science, neither are open to opinion.”

      LOL, wow, that’s the most naive statement I’ve heard in a week! Depends who is procuring the ‘facts’ and why…..as you point out yourself that Exxon likes to cherry-pick and use info for their benefit. Let’s dig and find out how many scientists are on the payroll of a corporate entity that benefits from them putting forth particular ‘science’. Al Gore has personally coined-it big time along his green journey and it happens in the medical profession all the time.

      I don’t have a specific view on this issue b/c I haven’t studied it. But, I do think it was a mistake for the movement to omit primarily using the word: pollution. Everyone understands it and no one likes it. We can easily identify with dirty air and water more than global temperature changes.

      Lastly, Stewart, it appears you’ve decided to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution in using rhetoric meant to divide and pit people against each other. I’m not a Repub but the whole good cop / bad cop crap that so many of both parties lower themselves to ends up lowering us all.

      • Stewart

        You said “I don’t have a specific view on this issue b/c I haven’t studied it.”

        I’m a retired accountant, and I can tell you that four and four equals eight. But this isn’t just because I studied math and accounting, it is because it is a fact. If you haven’t studied math, maybe you don’t have an opinion on the sum of four plus four? Believe me, the answer is eight.

        • The Real World

          Clearly, my points flew right over. I find myself back to the ‘comprehension issue’ so often on this comment board. Sigh………..

          But, I do trust your math and am sure that you are a good accountant.

          • Stewart

            I guess you missed my point. When the ship is sinking, should you really spend a lot of time coddling those who want to talk about whether the ship is sinking, and making money off of the fact that the ship is sinking, or should you do something about the sinking ship?

            Below is a link to the top story at the moment on CNN News, I will cut and paste the beginning:


            Climate change could create 100 million poor, over half a billion homeless

            Rising sea levels from unchecked carbon emissions could drive more than 100 million people into extreme poverty and submerge the homes of over half a billion, two new reports say.

            The reports have been released ahead of the United Nation’s 21st annual global conference on climate change — known as COP21 — being held in Le Bourget, France from 30 November to 11 December, 2015.

            Extreme poverty
            Climate change is an acute and pressing threat to the poor and any climate stabilization policies must be integrated with efforts to eliminate poverty, according to a new report from the World Bank.

            The study found that rising global temperatures stand to push more than 100 million people into extreme poverty in the next 15 years, with sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia most at risk.

            Climate-related “shocks” are already impeding efforts to reduce poverty, according to the report, particularly through crop losses, food price shocks and other impacts on agriculture, which is the main source of income for most poor families.

            Climate change also increases the risk of waterborne diseases and the transmission of malaria, with a warming of 2 to 3°C likely to put an extra 150 million people at risk for malaria.

            “The report demonstrates that ending poverty and fighting climate change cannot be done in isolation — the two will be much more easily achieved if they are addressed together,” said Stephane Hallegatte, a World Bank senior economist who led the research report team.

            “And between now and 2030, good, climate-informed development gives us the best chance we have of warding off increases in poverty due to climate change.”

            Other than reining in carbon emissions — one of the major topics to be debated at the COP21 global climate summit — countries can prepare by developing early warning systems for flood protection and introducing heat-resistant crops.

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