President Obama plans to issue an executive order to limit carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. Right now, there is no limit. It could change the mix of energy sources on which North Carolina relies. Coal provides the largest source of the state’s power, including 51 percent in 2011. But, burning coal emits the most carbon-dioxide of the major power sources, so it is most likely to be affected by the order. Other North Carolina businesses could stand to benefit by the scaling back of coal plants.
The effects will depend on what limits the Environmental Protection Agency sets. The rules will be on a state-by-state basis and will not be announced for at least another year and most likely will not go into effect for two years. Nevertheless, since coal is the most carbon-heavy fuel, it will be the primary target of any order.
Johan Enslin, director of the Energy Production and Infrastructure Center at UNC Charlotte, says coal will make up less of the mix.
“We’ll definitely see some of the marginal coal plants either being turned off faster or actually not being built at all, so that’s definitely an impact,” Enslin says. “But, it’s definitely a very positive trend for our nuclear side.”
Enslin points out that nuclear plants provide the bulk of the nation’s carbon-free energy. And, North Carolina provides 5 percent of the nation’s nuclear power, so it could be good for business here. Solar and wind energy could benefit, as well, especially since another aspect of the President’s plan is to permit more renewable projects.
Natural gas may stand to gain the most; it is the cheapest and fastest growing source of energy, including in North Carolina. The drilling technique known as “fracking”—driving water and chemicals into shale rock to release natural gas—is not allowed, but lawmakers in Raleigh are working to open the state up to fracking companies. That push could get a boost from the president’s order, because natural gas also emits less carbon dioxide than coal or oil – although, environmentalists worry that does not capture the whole picture.
“That calculation does not count all the methane that is pouring into the atmosphere based on the production and extraction of natural gas,” says Jim Warren, director of NC WARN.
Warren says methane is a more harmful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. But, the president’s order will not cover methane, just carbon dioxide.
Limiting emissions could have a significant impact on Duke Energy. The nation’s largest electric corporation draws more electricity from coal than any other energy source, 41 percent, according to the company. Duke has opened two new coal plants this year, and is the second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide—a company statement points out this is due to how much energy it produces, and says it ranks 14th in the rate it produces carbon compared to energy.
A company spokesman says Duke is taking a “wait and see” approach.
“We feel like we’ve come a long way,” says spokesman Tom Williams. “We’re getting close to one-third nuclear, one-third coal, and one-third natural gas [for energy]. We feel like that’s a pretty good place to be right now. We’ll just have to continue to run our plants well and to see how things shake out.”
Williams says the company cut carbon emissions by 20 percent since 2008. Part of that was the recession, but other parts were retiring older, dirtier coal plants and switching over to natural gas.