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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Energy demand soaring at unprecedented rate, Duke Energy says

Demand for electricity in the Carolinas is growing at the fastest rate in more than 30 years, reflecting an economic development boom that is exceeding expectations, a senior Duke Energy executive says.

As a result, state leaders need to be prepared to approve an “accelerated execution of an ‘all of the above’ strategy … to provide reliable electric service to a growing economy in the Carolinas.”

That’s the conclusion of Glen Snider, Duke Energy’s managing director of Carolinas Integrated Resource Planning and Analytics, in a Nov. 30 filing with the N.C. Utilities Commission. Charlotte-based Duke Energy dominates the state’s energy market, while also having a substantial market share in South Carolina.

Duke Energy regularly forecasts how much energy it needs to provide customers. But the pace of demand growth is surprising the company, prompting it to raise forecasts just six months after its previous filing with state regulators.

“The current peak demand growth by 2030 is now approximately eight times the peak load growth projected in the 2022 Carbon Plan proceeding over the same time horizon,” Snider said in the filing.

Economic development wins in North Carolina have been well publicized, including the $5.9 billion Toyota Motor battery production plant in Randolph County and the $5 billion Wolfspeed chip manufacturing site in Chatham County. Those expansions, coupled with about a dozen less-heralded projects, are contributing to the demand growth, according to Duke Energy.

The larger projects range from 150 megawatts to as much as 1 gigawatt, many of which require around-the-clock supply of electricity because some plants operate more than 90% of the time, Duke Energy said. It cited increased manufacturing and technology projects, the latter referring to a growth of data centers. Big Tech companies Apple, Google and Meta operate major data centers in central North Carolina. (A gigawatt can power an estimated 300,000 to 700,000 homes, based on energy consumption.)

Supplying more power will require Duke Energy to add capacity beyond its current projection of an expansion of about 17 gigawatts through 2034, Snider said in the filing. That growth would occur through a combination of solar, natural gas, onshore wind and pumped-storage hydro projects.

Duke Energy’s mix of energy generation is a continuing controversy, with some environmental groups pressing the company to accelerate use of alternative energies and limit expansion of its natural gas operations. Durham-based nonprofit N.C. WARN, a longtime critic of Duke Energy’s strategies, contends the company is intentionally sabotaging the growth of rooftop solar systems in favor of a continued reliance on fossil fuels. The company disputes those allegations.

Rather, company views natural gas as “the best option out there to maintain customer reliability, reduce emissions and keep energy rates affordable for those we serve,” according to a November statement by Nelson Peeler, the company’s senior vice president of transmission and fuels strategy and planning.

“The growth is not unique to Duke Energy” with large electric utilities in Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia also raising their forecasts, says Katie Southworth, the Clean Energy Buyers Association’s deputy director of market and policy innovation for the Southeast. The Washington, D.C.-based group represents mostly large companies. “The era of flat load growth is over.”

The growth shows why North Carolina should study whether to join regional transmission organizations that would enable East Coast utilities to share power and coordinate planning, Southworth says. “It’s really time to have a conversation about regional planning,” which she says could curb rate increases.

Duke Energy staunchly opposes participation in the regional groups. “We expect some will use this incredible growth to advocate for their own policy agenda — an agenda that would restrict state control and jeopardize reliability,” a spokesperson said. “While they do that, we’ll continue to focus on investing in our communities and powering the Carolinas.”

Demand growth is occurring at such a pace that Duke Energy may need to speed its exploration of offshore wind energy generation off the North Carolina coast, Snider said. That would likely please Gov. Roy Cooper, who has pressed the utility to be more aggressive in pursuing such offshore projects.

Next steps include talks with regulators and others to discuss ways to meet the growing demand, Snider wrote. While differences are inevitable, “There is simply no doubt that an accelerated execution of an `all of the above’ strategy will be required.”

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at dmildenberg@businessnc.com.

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