Duke Energy may up solar in 2009

NORTH CAROLINA - As early as next year, Duke Energy — one of the largest utility companies in North Carolina — could be using more solar power to generate electricity for its customers.

The company submitted a $100 million plan to the North Carolina Utilities Commission in June, and is currently seeking bidders to supply and install the panels. If the proposal passes, Duke Energy will install photovoltaic solar panels over the next two years at up to 850 sites, adding 16 MW of power to the regional grid.

Lincoln Pratson, associate professor of sedimentary geology, noted that solar technology is one of the most expensive energy generators. He said solar energy becomes more attractive if costs are lower and a cap is put on carbon dioxide emissions.

"[It meets] a requirement of the North Carolina Renewable Energy Portfolio," Duke Energy Spokesperson Dave Scanzoni said. "We really wanted to move forward in the renewable energy sector because it is the new wave of the future."

The energy generated will not be used to power the buildings on the land that the panels occupy. The panels and the electricity will belong to Duke Energy, and they will pay rental fees to property owners.

"I think it is great Duke Energy is taking this step," junior Yishan Cheng, co-president of the Duke Environmental Alliance, wrote in an e-mail. "If North Carolina can just increase energy efficiency and decrease energy demand, we would be able to meet more energy demand with these greener alternative energies."

From June 23 to the deadline to petition to intervene today, organizations ranging from the National Council of Structural Engineers Association to Kroger Co. have filed to intervene with Duke Energy's plan, according to the NCUC's Web site. Duke Energy will file a rebuttal before Oct. 10.

NCUC, for one, firmly supports alternative energy, said Roy Ericson, senior operations analyst for the Utilities Commission.

Last year, the North Carolina General Assembly passed Senate Bill 3, a mandate requiring that all utility companies gradually increase the amount of renewable resources they use to generate power over the next 10 years.

Although solar generators are expensive, the cost of construction is dropping, Scanzoni said. As a result, he predicted that utility bills will increase by 34 cents a month to cover the program, although the figure has not been finalized.

Pratson noted that solar energy is much less efficient than natural gas and coal. Currently, coal and nuclear energy generate 97 percent of Duke Energy's power, Scanzoni said.

"This is a pilot project for the industry, and it is ultimately cost effective," Scanzoni said. "The costs of traditional power plants are soaring, and it takes 10 years to build nuclear plants. This is making renewable energy more competitive, and there are environmental benefits to it also."

The lifespan of the panels is 20 to 25 years. In addition to its solar plan, Duke Energy has announced other environmentally friendly projects involving wind power and plug-in electric vehicles.

"To this end, I think that different sectors of society have different responsibilities," Cheng said. "Ultimately, using clean energy sources falls into the hand of utility companies. It seems that they are moving naturally in this direction due to market forces, which is a positive sign.


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