In August, Duke Energy in North Carolina created some interesting headlines along the line of “Solar energy creates air pollution!” That’s because it filed for regulatory changes to operations of one of its natural gas generation facilities, claiming that solar energy was making its NOx emissions higher than permitted.
There are a variety of interesting takes on this. CleanTechnica, for example, published a gloss on an environmental group’s takedown on Duke’s position. But this piece is focused on an assessment of one particular article on the subject, Duke Energy application points finger at solar for increased pollution by Dan Way in the North State Journal, published August 14th.
At first blush, the piece looks like balanced journalism. It claims to be the result of a 7-month investigation and freedom of information requests. Duke Energy’s spokesperson, Kim Crawford, is quoted, but also opinions are solicited from energy analysts at other organizations. A former North Carolina appointee responsible for environmental quality in one role and energy policy in another is quoted. A 2013 NREL report is cited. North State Journal seems like a credible local news outlet at first glance.
But looks are incredibly deceiving once you start peeling the onion. Riley Davis, a journalism grad student at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, reached out to me for my opinion on the piece and the claims it made. I hadn’t seen it before, but once I started digging in, the article became more and more fantastic.
I was late to this game, unsurprisingly. I reached out to an old colleague, Nancy Laplaca, for comment. She was Senior Fellow for Regulatory Policy at the Washington-based Energy and Policy Institute when I was Senior Fellow – Wind, but is now based in North Carolina and has a role with the Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy. She indicated that the entire issue, not just the article, made a lot of heads explode in the state. And she pointed out that the Energy and Policy Institute’s Dave Pomerantz had found that Duke Energy’s decarbonization rate was a minuscule 1% per year.
Let’s start with the author, Dan Way. Nothing is said about him other than his byline. There’s no indication of potential bias or any role he might have that might lead people to question his bias. But he’s actually affiliated with the John Locke Foundation, which has a history of anti-renewables advocacy and climate change denial. So that’s a red flag, lack of notification that this is an op-ed by a person with an affiliation which would lead to bias.
Then there are the three independent experts who were consulted and quoted to provide ‘balance.’
The first is Donald van der Vaart, former secretary of the NC Department of Environmental Quality and State Energy Policy Advisor in the McCrory administration. That certainly makes him seem like a very credible source and someone whose opinion could be taken seriously on this matter. The problem is that van der Vaart was an activist in attacking the EPA while in office and an outspoken critic of renewable energy. His appointment was controversial for those reasons. None of that background is provided in the article under discussion, just credentials that made him sound like the voice of authority. That’s another red flag.
The second independent expert quoted is Dan Kish, distinguished senior fellow at the Institute for Energy Research (IER). Once again, nice sounding credential. The problem is that the IER is founded by an anti-renewables PR flak with Koch money specifically to attack renewables, deny climate change and promote unregulated market ideologies, per DeSmog‘s assessment. The IER is just another part of the fossil fuel spin factory. None of that is brought forward in the article either, with Kish’ credentials presented as if they were rock solid and unbiased. Yet another red flag.
The third independent expert must provide balance, mustn’t they? Well, that would be Steve Goreham, a policy advisor to the Heartland Institute who “writes and lectures on energy, climate, and pollution.” Yes, that’s the Koch-founded Heartland Institute, the Libertarian, climate-change denying, renewable energy attacking, EV attacking institute, whose bias is once again detailed by DeSmog. And once again, Goreham is presented as an expert and one in demand for their balanced opinion. Red flag.
From a bias perspective, it’s probably worth looking at the outlet itself, North State Journal. It was only launched in 2016, and is a bit retro. It’s a print publication when print is dying. It was formed by people with strong Republican connections, including into the same McCrory administration that the first expert was in. Columbia Journalism Review was skeptical about it when it was launched, and made this cogent observation:
“The editorial pages at North Carolina’s major papers lean center-left; North State Journal’s opinion section, consisting only of bylined columns, will emphasize free markets and individual liberty.”
So it’s a partisan paper that’s strongly right-wing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you would never know it from the paper’s website. It mentions none of this on its mast head or in its About page. So that’s another red flag. No wonder no standards were applied to the article itself.
So what about the regulatory claim that Duke Energy is making itself? It’s an interesting one, and they actually have a minor point. I don’t doubt that NOx emissions have risen due to the specific regulatory regime under which their gas plants operate. They are required by regulation to operate these specific plants in a way which increases NOx emissions above the levels that are preferable, and changing the regulation to allow more efficient operation with solar makes a lot of sense. And NOx is a pollutant which creates health-harming smog. Those parts are not in dispute. The transition of the grid will involve regulatory change and often require fossil fuel plants to operate in ways other than the ways they were designed to operate, or the ways in which regulations have required them to for past concerns.
But there are still more challenges with the article and its representation.
One thing that’s unclear is the projected duration of this overage due to the energy transition that is inevitable. How long will slightly higher emissions last? The second is the degree of concern that this might actually have in terms of NOx health levels. The question is one of who might be harmed, to what degree and for how long.
Something to think about is whether the extra 117 to 360 pounds per day are material from the gas plant. Yes, bad, but how bad? It’s unclear how this level of pollutants compares to NOx from vehicles in the area, for example. As this resource shows, NOx is dominantly from traffic in many regions.
The NOx emissions are consistently (and accurately) painted as bad in the piece, but a.) are not put in a health context of degree of concern, b.) not compared to other sources of NOx, and c.) no public health professional’s opinion was quoted in the article. And if they are bad, what is the plan to eliminate gas generation entirely?
That’s another few red flags, in that solar was blamed for natural gas emissions, but little balance on the problem being burning natural gas was provided. Even Duke realized how badly slanted and inflammatory this article was, as they published a blog post, Solar power causes air pollution? Wait a minute …, five days later on their site.
“… while a slight increase in emissions may occur at individual units, our fleet will continue to see an overall decrease in air emissions from this transition to solar and other cleaner energy resources.”
And this is the Duke Energy that regularly comes under scrutiny for its long-term commitment to fossil fuels. Earlier this year it released its latest 15-year plan. What does it call for, per Energy News Network (a site which is transparent about its commitment to clean energy, by the way).
“… the company projects building more than a dozen new fossil gas units, deriving 8 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, and keeping several of its coal plants running past 2033.”
And more questions arise. Duke Energy operates 11 nuclear units at 6 sites in the Carolinas. Last year, Jenkins, et al., published a strong study which showed that operating US PWRs with access to day-ahead energy markets would allow the nuclear plants to take advantage of their limited load-following capabilities, decrease the use of fossil fuel plants used for day-ahead contingency energy, decrease curtailment of renewables, and increase profitability of the nuclear plants, helping them bridge to retirement. Yet the entire focus of not only the North State Journal ‘article’ and Duke Energy’s regulatory submission was on the gas plants and the impacts of solar energy on their emissions. Where is the corresponding regulatory relief request to allow nuclear to load follow and displace more natural gas?
And where is Duke Energy’s commitment to wind energy, which would balance the solar that it has on its grid as well? Despite the latest wind generation technology making wind generation in the Carolinas — both onshore and offshore — economically viable, Duke Energy doesn’t like wind energy, as the Environmental Working Group reported in May of 2019.
“The utility says it’s too difficult to site wind turbines in the Carolinas. In 2010 Duke abandoned a plan to build three turbines offshore in North Carolina and more recently rejected a bid for a contract to purchase wind power in the two states. Duke’s planning documents project very little expansion of wind power.”
The North State Journal piece and Duke Energy’s blog post don’t mention either nuclear load following or wind energy as part of the energy transition. The balance is missing, once again, which is fine from a blog post on Duke Energy, but not from something purporting to be an investigative journalism piece in an outlet which pretends to be neutral. More red flags.
The North State Journal article on this was an anti-renewables PR hit piece funded by anti-renewables fossil fuel industry money in an outlet that is a right-wing broadsheet that pretends to have journalist standards. Yet it pretended to be otherwise. That’s the anti-renewables disinformation campaign in a nutshell.
Note: I’ve also reached out to the journalism professor who published the CJR article on the creation of North State Journal to request his opinion. Should they get back to me, this article will be updated.
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