A hot time in the Old North State

Published September 21, 2023

By Tom Campbell

The old proverb states that April showers bring May Flowers. So, what does August heat bring? Answer: Huge electric bills. My July bill was so high I was convinced my meter was broken and called to get a service person to my house.

The very nice Duke Energy customer service person dissuaded me from that notion. Did you know that they can test your meter over the phone to determine if it is defective? I was politely, but firmly told that my meter was working fine. She pulled up my usage records from the past year and there’s no question that the hot weather had caused my electricity usage to increase slightly, but Duke’s 16 percent rate increase also added to the largest electric bill we had ever seen. I cringe to think what the one this month will be.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) July was the hottest month recorded since they started keeping records 174 years ago, and the first seven months of this year were the third warmest year-to-date temperatures on record.

133,000 people moved to our state between July ’21 and July ’22 and more are coming every month. More people means greatly increased demands for electricity. Duke Energy is estimating that North Carolina’s electricity demands will increase by 35,000 gigawatt hours by the year 2035.

I can’t even comprehend what that means, but a gigawatt is 1 billion watts. Duke now serves about 2.5 million customers in North and South Carolina. There are now about 4,673,933 homes in our state and the average home uses about 11,000 kilowatt hours per year. A gigawatt will power about 750,000 homes, so if Duke’s projections are accurate, we’re going to need a lot more electricity capacity.

Further, a 2021 law requires Duke Energy to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 70% from 2005 levels by the year 2030. To reach this ambitious goal we must greatly reduce our dependence on coal and the pollutants it contributes to air quality.

According to December ’22 data from the US Energy Information Administration, North Carolina’s current power generation comes from the following sources: 36 percent – natural gas,

33 percent – nuclear, 16 percent – coal, 8 percent – solar, 4 percent – hydroelectric, 2 percent – biomass (from plants and animals), and .4 percent – wind.

Customers pay 100 percent of Duke’s fuel costs, so when fuel prices increase, as they have done the past two years, our electric bills also increase.

We need to be asking what the cleanest and most economical way is to increase electric power generation to meet those future needs. Sadly, there is no “magic bullet” solution and we will require a combination of generation sources.

We have placed a major emphasis on developing renewable energy sources (solar and wind), but both depend on nature - either sunshine or the wind blowing - to make electricity, thus they are not 100 percent dependable.

We should continue to increase renewable energy sources, but Duke is leaning toward increasing natural gas generation. Senator Paul Newton, former state president of Duke Energy, has become an advocate for small modular nuclear reactors. His enthusiasm is based upon the reality that building large nuclear plants is both unaffordable and unlikely to get the permits needed.

So smaller is better. First, they can be located on property Duke already owns (former coal plants). There is an existing infrastructure of power lines and transmission infrastructure already in place. Other advantages include lower capital costs to construct and many of the components and systems can be standardized and bult in off-site factories, thereby shortening the construction and installation times. Smaller reactors would have lower cooling requirements, allowing them to be built on inland sites. Finally, they may be attractive for outside investors to help with initial costs.

There are downsides to these small modular reactors, mainly that the economies of manufacturing scale aren’t now present, because not enough are being demanded. There are security costs, and currently they are less effective than desired.

Here’s my spin: Every fuel for power generation has downsides. We’ve already listed the problems with renewal energy sources. We must continue to expand our dependence on natural gas, while understanding that it still emits some air pollutants and is subject to fluctuating supply availability and costs. We should keep natural gas below 50 percent of our generation capacity.

Back in the 80’s my dad served on the State Utilities Commission and I remember he spoke highly of Duke Power (as it was then known) management. But after thoroughly studying all power generation sources, he was absolutely convinced that nuclear power was our best and safest power source. I believe that still is the case and North Carolina should encourage Duke to move further in the exploration of small modular nuclear reactors.

A growing state must keep ahead of power demands to ensure we’ve got the power.

Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965.  Contact him at tomcamp@carolinabroadcasting.com.