Duke Energy, which pollutes more carbon than any other US electric company, set a goal today to reach “net-zero” carbon emissions by 2050, but the company’s plans to expand its natural gas infrastructure calls the integrity of the new goal into question.

Duke Energy has told state regulators in the Carolinas and Indiana within the past two months that it is planning to build nearly 15 gigawatts of new gas-fired power plants in those states, with new gas plants coming online as late as 2034. Burning natural gas emits carbon.

The company does not seem to be shying away from the cognitive dissonance created by setting a zero-carbon goal while continuing to invest heavily in gas. In its announcement of the new goal, Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good said in a video that “we will need a diverse set of resources including nuclear, natural gas, renewables, battery storage, energy efficiency, and the electrification of transportation.” 

With its announcement, Duke joins a rapidly growing club of investor-owned utilities that have committed to some variety of being zero-carbon by 2050, including Xcel, Southern Company, Idaho Power, and PSEG. 

Some of those utilities, like Xcel Energy, have announced investment plans that mostly align w/ their decarbonization goals. Others, like Southern Company, which also announced a new gas expansion in Alabama this month, and now Duke Energy, are making zero-carbon pledges while they continue to plan to build new gas infrastructure which will have life expectancies that take them beyond 2050.  

Duke tells regulators it plans to build new gas plants in Carolinas, Indiana

In the latest long-term resource plan that Duke filed with its regulators in North Carolina earlier this month, the utility asked for approval of a plan that includes the construction of as many as 14 new gas plants, for a total of 12 new GW of gas capacity. 

While other utilities around the country are scaling back plans for new gas development because clean energy portfolios are beating gas on cost, Duke’s latest plan in the Carolinas is evidence that its gas appetite is only growing. The latest Duke Energy plan added 3 new GW of gas on top of the 9 GW of new gas that it had forecast building in its 2018 plan. 

The plan entails Duke constructing new gas plants in 2026, 2028, 2029, and in every year from 2031 to 2034, the end of the 15-year planning horizon required by regulators.

Duke Energy Carolinas 2019 integrated resource plan
From Duke Energy Carolinas 2019 IRP
From Duke Energy Progress 2019 IRP

Utilities generally build gas-burning plants with the intention to run them for 30 to 40 years to recoup costs from construction. In theory, Duke could plan to equip those new gas plants with carbon capture and sequestration technology (CCS), but it has not signaled any intention to do that with regulators in any state. Adding current CCS technology would dramatically increase the costs of building gas plants, and clean energy advocates have already presented models showing that Duke’s proposed gas plants in the Carolinas, even without CCS, will be more expensive than a portfolio of renewable energy, energy efficiency and battery storage. 

Duke Energy is also the owner of a 47% stake in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, an interstate gas pipeline that, if completed, would bring more fracked gas into Virginia and the Carolinas from West Virginia. Duke has justified the need for that project by saying that its own utility in the Carolinas will be the customer for that gas. 

Duke plans to take 40 years to recoup the pipeline costs, plus profits, from customers, which would take the pipeline’s lifetime well past the 2050 “net-zero carbon” goal, according to regulatory filings. Other estimates from the Southern Environmental Law Center peg the lifetime of the pipeline as high as 80 years. If Duke plans to adhere to its new goal, either customers or shareholders will be left eating the costs for that stranded pipeline asset.

Duke continues its investments in gas in Florida, Indiana

Duke’s voracious appetite to profit from building new gas plants extends beyond its plants and pipeline in the Carolinas. In Florida, Duke tells state regulators that the percentage of its generation mix provided by gas will go from 64% in 2017 to 77% in 2027.

Duke Energy Florida 2018 10-year site plan
Duke Energy Florida 2018 ten-year site plan

In a similar long-term planning document that Duke submitted to Indiana regulators in July, the utility proposed building a 1,240 MW natural gas combined cycle unit in 2028 and an additional 1,240 MW unit in 2034, with a far smaller increase in renewable energy during the same time period. 

Energy analyst Ben Inskeep’s twitter post on Duke Energy’s Indiana IRP

Other utilities, including some which operate in the same regions as Duke, are eschewing new gas investments. Northern Indiana Public Service Company, or NIPSCO, says that it will reduce carbon emissions by “more than 90%” by 2028 from a 2005 baseline. The company told Indiana regulators that of all the pathways it analyzed, skipping gas in favor of renewable energy was the one with the lowest cost to consumers.

That plan from NIPSCO and plans from other utilities, like Consumers Energy in Michigan, aligns with a new study from the Rocky Mountain Institute which shows that 90% of new gas investments planned for the next five years will prove more costly than a clean energy portfolio.

Even with upgrade, Duke’s near-term goals still reflects a slowing of decarbonization rate

In addition to its 2050 net-zero carbon pledge, Duke is also raising a nearer-term 2030 goal to reduce its carbon emissions 50 percent by 2030, from a baseline of 2005. The goal had previously been a 40 percent reduction by 2030 from the same baseline.

EPI had previously reported that Duke’s 2030 goal represented a significant slowdown in its pace of decarbonization compared to the pace it had achieved from 2005 to 2017. 

Even with the more ambitious 2030 goal, Duke will still be cutting its emissions at a slower rate from 2017 to 2030 than it did during the 2005-2017 period. Duke is now saying that it will reduce its carbon emissions by an average of 2.1% per year between 2017 and 2030. That’s slower than the 2.6% rate that Duke achieved from 2005 to 2017, according to an analysis by EPI of the company’s data

Duke’s new goal a response to increasing influence of climate-concerned investors

Duke’s new goal may be a response to the growing concerns from investors about climate change. Institutional investors escalated that pressure in February 2019, when pension funds with $1.8 trillion of assets under management, led by the New York City Comptroller, asked utilities to go carbon-free by 2050.

“The climate crisis is an imminent threat not only to our planet, but to pensions systems, and ultimately, our beneficiaries,” New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer said. “These are the biggest power producers and polluters in our country, which is why decarbonization is not just a moral imperative, it’s a financial necessity.”

Additionally, a younger generation of investors are considering climate change in their investment calculus. A 2017 Morgan Stanley study found that nine of 10 millennials want to invest in socially responsible portfolios. That trend has caught the attention of the electric utility industry.

“Investors are increasingly interested in the risks associated with climate change,” said one internal briefing from the Edison Electric Institute, the trade association for investor-owned electric utilities. The presentation, which Ameren shared with one of its regulators in Missouri, cited estimates from the accounting firm PwC that “a $30 trillion wealth transfer from Baby Boomers to Generation X and Millennials will occur over the next several decades,” and that “86% of millennials are interested in socially responsible investments, and 90% desire sustainable investing options in their 401(k) plans.” 

Majority Action, the shareholder advocacy group that organized the ​$1.8 trillion Net-Zero Investor Coalition​ to demand top U.S. electric utilities commit to the 2050 net-zero carbon goal, welcomed the commitment in a statement, while calling on the company to align its gas investments with the new goals.

“As the $1.8 trillion Net-Zero Investor Coalition called for in March, Duke must now disclose their plans for how they will realign their capital spending, executive compensation, and policy influence to achieve this net-zero goal,” Eli Kasargod-Staub, Majority Action’s executive director, said. “Duke is investing extensively in fossil fuel infrastructure, such as ​its investment in the ​controversial​ and ​potentially uneconomic Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, at a time when the costs of carbon-free power are now on par with natural gas.”

Duke pledges “sound public policy advocacy”

In its announcement, Duke also said that it would “advocate for sound public policy that advances technology and innovation. This includes advanced renewable energy, longer-lasting storage, new nuclear technologies, low- and zero-carbon fuels and effective ways to capture carbon emissions.”

Those pledges run contrary to Duke’s recent history of advocating against federal limits on carbon pollution, as well as the company’s membership in several trade associations which have lobbied heavily against climate policies. 

Duke individually, and via its membership in the now-defunct Utility Air Regulatory Group,  sued the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency to prevent the finalization of the Clean Power Plan, a policy to place modest limits on carbon pollution.

Duke Energy continues to be a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, American Gas Association, Edison Electric Institute, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, all of which have lobbied against various policies designed to address climate change. The U.S. Chamber, for instance, was challenged by 24 U.S. Senators earlier this year for opposing “congressional, executive, and judicial actions that would meaningfully address climate change.” Meanwhile, the utility contributed to the climate-denying ALEC even as corporations like ExxonMobil have departed in recent years. The utility, along with Peabody Energy and others, was a “Vice Chairman” level sponsor at ALEC’s States and Nation Policy Summit in November 2018.

For investors to evaluate Duke’s policy advocacy on climate change, they would need greater transparency from the company about those activities. Earlier this year, some Duke shareholders introduced a resolution calling upon the company to disclose its political and lobbying expenditures. 

“Relying on publicly available data does not provide a complete picture of the Company’s political spending,” the shareholders said in their proposal. “For example, the Company’s payments to trade associations used for political activities are undisclosed and unknown. In some cases, even management does not know how trade associations use their company’s money politically.”

Duke’s board of directors recommended a vote against the proposal, which failed. 

Yesterday, another coalition of 200 investors with $6.5 trillion assets under management called upon corporations, including Duke Energy, to “align their climate lobbying with the goals of the Paris Agreement.”

“Climate change is one of the greatest risks facing long-term investors,” said New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, trustee of the New York State Common Retirement Fund. “Many companies talk the talk when it comes to building a lower-carbon global economy, but some continue to support agendas and groups that oppose the goals of the Paris Agreement.”

Updated on Sept. 17 with information about an investor coalition calling upon corporations to align their climate advocacy with Paris Agreement goals.

Posted by David Pomerantz

David Pomerantz is the Executive Director of the Energy and Policy Institute.