Duke Energy on Friday announced plans to bring its gas operations to net-zero methane emissions by 2030, increase its renewable energy output and retire some of its coal plants earlier than planned.
The utility plans to double its renewable energy portfolio capacity to 16 GW by 2025, at least triple the amount for its regulated subsidiaries by 2030. The company also plans to reach 40 GW for its regulated subsidiaries by 2050, along with 11 GW of storage across its system by that time. It will also retire all of its coal-only units in the Carolinas by 2030 and is "working with stakeholders to accelerate retirement of coal plants in Indiana," Duke spokesperson Phil Sgro said in an email.
To reduce its methane emissions to net-zero by 2030, the utility has replaced all of its cast iron pipes with plastic or steel coated pipes to reduce leakage and add new technologies to help monitor emissions. Pipeline replacement is seen as an effective emissions reduction tool by some observers, but environmentalists say Duke's plan is a signal that it will continue to rely on gas infrastructure for decades to come.
Duke is the latest utility to raise its clean energy and greenhouse gas reduction commitments from previous goals. The utility last year set itself on a path to reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century, and halving them by 2030.
Now, it expects to significantly expand its investment in renewable energy, representing a $2 billion increase to its now $58 billion capital plan. The utility first indicated it would shift toward more renewable energy and storage investments as part of that five-year plan following the July announcement that it would cancel its $8 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline Project. Approximately $2 billion of its capital plan had been carved out for the project, which was a joint venture with Dominion Energy.
As part of its methane emissions reduction plan, the utility has invested $1 billion in preventing methane leakages from its pipeline infrastructure through replacing cast iron pipes which are a "major contributor of methane leakage," according to the company.
Methane is natural gas's largest component and leaks from pipelines present a big problem to the industry, according to Richard Hyde, executive director of One Future Coalition, a group of gas companies from across the value chain that formed under the anticipation of methane regulations from the Obama Administration. Pipeline replacement has been a major way to reduce emissions on the distribution system, Hyde said.
"They've all been very successful with that. That's a major way for the utility side to drive down emissions," he said.
Duke joined the One Future Coalition and is also in the midst of a pilot study to analyze the effectiveness of satellites for detecting methane leaks. The company is also analyzing the use of drones and other systems to address leaks more quickly. Other efforts include damage reduction initiatives, increased leak surveying and experimenting with renewable natural gas. Finally, the utility will use carbon offsets to negate any leftover methane emissions on its system. These investments are expected to be "modest," said Sgro, in an effort to keep rates low.
Duke's local gas distribution companies total 33,300 miles of transmission and distribution pipelines and 26,600 miles of service pipelines.
The utility has previously faced criticism for what some see as an over-reliance on gas, and environmentalists say this plan continues that pattern.
"Duke's plan to double down on fracked gas means a deadly explosive will continue to pump through our communities, putting our safety and health at risk. Making these changes will further cement Duke's dependence on gas, which is a dangerous fossil fuel that is not, and never will be, clean or renewable," Dave Rogers, Southeast deputy regional campaign director for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, said in a statement. "Duke should not be praised for a plan that further endangers our climate, health, safety, and economy. Instead it should make a plan to phase gas out and use those savings to meet its own clean energy goals."
Sgro said Sierra Club's criticisms were "missing the point."
"To argue that having a methane goal signals anything else other than a commitment to a comprehensive climate strategy is missing the point," he said. "This goal solidifies our role as a leader in our industry in executing an ambitious strategy to deliver a clean energy future for millions of Americans."
Correction: Duke has already replaced all of its cast iron pipes with plastic or steel coated pipes. An earlier version misprepresented the timeline.