State climate goals get a nuclear boost

By Lee Causey

North Carolina has a lot to be proud of: The Blue Ridge Parkway, America’s finest barbecue, craft breweries galore, and now, the chance to be carbon neutral. As a Duke Energy engineer and president of the non-profit North American Young Generation in Nuclear (NAYGN), an organization dedicated to developing leaders to energize the future of nuclear energy, my expectations are high for North Carolina’s energy future. I was born and raised here, and I see North Carolina as an energy hub with a real potential for continued leadership.

This is why I was pleased when leaders at Duke Energy shared their strategy to be carbon neutral by 2050, which would mean any amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by Duke Energy plants would be removed through other company efforts. But how can this be possible?

Renewable energy sources like solar are certainly part of this solution, and North Carolina is one of the country’s largest solar producers. But, in 2018 only about 5 percent of North Carolina’s electricity came from renewables. Clearly more of these types of sources are needed, but what else can be done?

A large part of that answer was made clear when Duke Energy officials announced their working to extend the lives of the company’s 11 nuclear reactors past the year 2050. It’s hard to overstate how important nuclear power is to carbon emission goals. Our state’s biggest supplier of carbon-free electricity isn’t wind or solar farms, but nuclear plants. In fact, Duke Energy’s Carolinas-based nuclear plants offset 54 million tons of carbon dioxide last year. That’s like removing 10 million passenger cars from the road for a year. In recent years, nuclear plants have produced about a third of all the electricity North Carolina has used, jockeying for most electricity produced with the state’s natural gas plants. 

In a sad contrast, North Carolina’s promise of continued, carbon-free generation came the same week as Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear plant produced its last spark of power. Although a well-performing plant operationally, Three Mile Island struggled with economic pressures in both an open energy market and a country rich in cheap, domestic gas resources. Now, the power once produced by Three Mile Island will be replaced with other sources, increasing the state’s fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions. 

Every clean energy source feels the pressure of cheap and abundant fossil fuels, and North Carolina is no exception. But, our state enjoys power prices below the national average, a rapidly growing renewables market and a desire to provide clean energy. As North Carolina’s governor prepares to review the Clean Energy Plan prepared by our state’s Department of Environment Quality, it is important to keep in mind how reliable our state’s nuclear power plants have been and will continue to be for meeting our climate change goals.

Lee Causey is president of the North American Young Generation in Nuclear, a non-profit focused on developing the future leaders on the nuclear industry, and a member of the Nuclear Matters Advocacy Council. He is also a lead engineer with Duke Energy. He lives in Huntersville, North Carolina.