NTE Energy grabs an opportunity to supply power to N.C. cities

 In March 2019

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Duke Energy Corp.’s grip on North Carolina’s power sector has tightened over the last decade through its acquisition of Piedmont Natural Gas Co. and limited competition for wholesale power. But Florida-based NTE Energy sees an opportunity to grab a sliver of the market — and potentially more — by investing billions to offer lower-priced electricity to Tar Heel cities, electric co-ops and universities that manage their own distribution networks.

In January, Concord and Kings Mountain started receiving electricity under 20-year agreements with NTE, replacing Duke as their energy provider. The two towns joined 10 other Carolinas cities and Western Carolina University that have signed similar agreements with NTE. Each of those entities employs its own workers to repair downed lines or handle whatever distribution problems emerge.

Savings are expected to top 20% because of reduced overhead and the efficiency of NTE’s Kings Mountain natural-gas plant that opened last year, says Mike Green, who oversees the company’s Carolinas operations.

“We’re looking at every wholesale buying customer in the Carolinas,” he says. “If you look just at the potential customers on our target lists, it totals about 4,000 megawatts,” entailing an investment of more than $4 billion. By comparison, Duke Energy has about 37,000 megawatts in the Carolinas, with wholesale power making up about 15% of its $6 billion in annual electric sales in the region.

A 32-year veteran of Duke Energy before joining NTE in 2010, Green says NTE customers also benefit by separating themselves from the liability of coal-ash cleanup and other costly surprises. “We’ve got an opportunity to do a lot of good in the Carolinas.”

The Piedmont cities are just a start, Green says, which is why NTE is planning a $550 million plant near Reidsville in Rockingham County, slated to start construction this summer and open in 2021. A $1 billion project near Anderson, S.C., is expected to open in 2024. Potential customers include the 26-member N.C.’s Electric Cooperatives, which serve 2.5 million consumers in 93 counties.

Most N.C. cities aren’t potential customers, however. Duke owns the distribution networks, and its employees or contractors — not local-government staffers — maintain the power lines in Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro and other cities. The biggest exception is Fayetteville, which can opt out of its Duke Progress Energy contract in 2024, Green says.

About 70 other N.C. cities that make up ElectriCities of North Carolina have contracts that restrict their ability to buy wholesale power from other sources until 2032 or 2035, spokeswoman Michelle Vaught says.

Seth Shortlidge, a lawyer-turned-energy investor who is based in St. Augustine, Fla., started NTE in 2009. While he controls the business, other investors have stakes in the N.C. power plants, Green says. The company opened a small downtown Charlotte operation about three blocks from the lot where Duke is planning a new 39-story office tower.

Selling wholesale power is a long-term business that requires patience in waiting for contracts to expire and power plants to fire up, Green says. Kings Mountain studied NTE for about four years before its switch occurred, says Nick Hendricks, assistant city manager for energy services. While ElectriCities members have worked together on wholesale power issues, Kings Mountain and Concord were early proponents of changing suppliers.

Green expects others will follow their lead. “We’ve bid against Duke on 12 occasions and we’ve won on 12 occasions. … Our best marketing tool is letting people talk to those we already serve.”

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