While the utility industry is undergoing considerable upheaval, critics say you’d never know it by looking at Duke Energy’s most recent long-range planning documents.

Submitted last week by Duke Energy Progress and Duke Energy Carolinas, the 15-year plans differ little from recent versions, with a continued commitment to more than a dozen new natural gas plants and conservative projections for solar growth. The company must file the plans each year with regulators in North and South Carolina.

“They’re saying they’re essentially going to stay the course, even though we know the whole industry is turning over on its head right now,” said David Rogers, the North Carolina representative for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “This is like a cab company around the turn of the century in New York City saying it will continue to use horses and buggies as Model T’s are flying all around them.”

Solar: ‘certainly not ambitious’

North Carolina currently ranks third in the country in overall solar capacity, with enough to power about 245,000 homes. Duke projects it will more than double that figure by 2031, but many say that statistic belies how little the company is doing to develop the renewable resource.

“The doubling of a really small number is not a big deal,” said Dave Hollister, President and CEO of Sundance Power Systems, an Asheville-based solar company. “It’s a pittance.”

Doubling solar over 15 years would represent a slowdown in North Carolina’s growth rate of the energy source. Solar power capacity in the state nearly tripled from 2014 to 2015, and has at least doubled every year since 2010.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the state is expected to add more solar energy in the next five years than Duke is projecting to build over a time span three times as long.

“The plan assumes the brakes will get thrown on solar in the next year,” Rogers said. “It’s woefully inadequate.”

Duke spokeswoman Meredith Archie rejected the notion that the company’s pursuit of renewable energy was lackluster, but added, “we have to have a thoughtful approach, and make sure we’re meeting our customers’ needs in a reliable and affordable manner.”

The utilities’ plans for just over 5,400 MW of solar by 2031 are below what Duke’s own research shows the grid can handle without technical difficulties. The company commissioned a 2014 study showing it could add 6,800 MW of solar capacity by 2022 and still maintain reliable operations.

Solar growth also has a history of outpacing the utilities’ predictions. Today’s levels are already near what two years ago Duke Progress and Duke Carolinas projected by 2029.

Peter Ledford, regulatory counsel with the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, gave Duke credit for what he called incremental improvements on solar. But for the plan as a whole, he said, “certainly it’s not ambitious, and it’s not as far-reaching as we as a state are capable of.”

‘Full-fledged switch’ from coal to gas?

The two Duke utilities do not foresee building new coal plants over the next decade and a half, and have retired more than half of their coal fleet since 2011. Their long-range plans reflect closures in Asheville and Belmont that have already been announced. Beyond retiring two additional units at the Allen plant near Belmont, they don’t anticipate any other coal closures.

And while clean energy advocates want Duke to shut down more coal plants more quickly, they say a bigger worry is the company’s expansion of natural gas.

Duke plans up to 18 new natural gas plants over the next fifteen years, for a 63 percent increase in capacity. That includes a controversial new gas plant in Asheville, “peaking” plants designed to run only when electricity demand is high, and combined heat and power plants that reuse waste heat – one of which has sparked controversy recently at Duke University.

“They are making an effort to close these [coal] plants, but they’re doing a full-fledged switch toward natural gas,” said Anna Henry with NC WARN, a member-based Durham nonprofit that advocates clean energy. “We’re seeing the direction their energy portfolio is going. It’s a big shift, but it’s not the right shift.”

Duke Energy defends its focus on what it says are cutting-edge power plants.

“As we look at these new facilities, they’re more state of the art and more efficient than they have been in the past,” said Archie. “Those [natural gas] facilities are becoming cleaner and cleaner.”

Yet some scientists and clean energy advocates are raising alarms about the climate implications of natural gas. Natural gas combustion produces less carbon emissions than coal, but recent studies show that leaks of the potent greenhouse gas methane during natural gas development could cancel out that benefit.

Henry, whose group is challenging the new Asheville gas plant, said when it comes to burning natural gas, “Duke seems to be oblivious to or unwilling to see the negative implications for the climate.”

‘Best estimate’

Since natural gas plants typically last 30 years or more and cost as much as $1 billion or more to build, the utility’s energy generation proposal, if enacted, could lock in substantial fossil fuel energy sources through the middle of the century.

But both a spokesman for the North Carolina Utilities Commission and Duke Energy note that the 15-year plan doesn’t irrevocably prescribe the future, and could change.

“We update our [plan] every year so it’s not something we’re locked into,” said Duke’s Archie. “It is our best estimate.”

Now that Duke has submitted its plans, the next step is for the North Carolina Utilities Commission to approve them. As they are every other year, this year the forecasts are subject to extensive review.

“We hope that with input from stakeholders and the public in this process,” the Sierra Club’s Rogers said, “Duke will amend its plan to capture the full potential of energy efficiency, and wind and solar power as cost-saving, emission-free, alternative resources.”

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Elizabeth has covered the state’s clean energy transition for the Energy News Network since 2016. She has also produced features for Environmental Health News and SEJournal, the news magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. A former communications director for the nonprofit Environment America, Elizabeth brings over two decades of environmental and energy policy experience to her reporting.

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