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By Nelson Peeler
SVP of transmission and fuels strategy and planning 

Duke Energy is overseeing one of the largest energy transitions in the nation. We’re more than a decade in on this effort to retire coal units and replace them with a diverse mix of energy resources to meet customers’ growing 24/7 energy needs. While coal plants have been a reliable and affordable energy source for many decades, our coal units are approaching the end of their useful life. In addition, federal environmental regulations are phasing them out over time, and the coal to supply them is getting more challenging to source.

Replacing that power requires an “all of the above” approach – natural gas, nuclear, hydro, solar, wind, energy storage, energy efficiency and demand-side management.

Research tells us Americans support the use of natural gas for electricity. It’s cleaner than coal, affordable and can respond quickly when we need it. We also recognize in the face of a changing climate and with the imperative to reduce carbon emissions, it invites an important question.

How can energy companies be seeking out more natural gas supply and generation and still reduce carbon over the long term?

The answer is clear: Natural gas is the best option out there to maintain customer reliability, reduce emissions and keep energy rates affordable for those we serve. That is, until other clean and dispatchable energy technologies come to fill the unique role that natural gas serves in today’s energy system. We’re working on that part, too.

Let’s unpack this. We can’t retire coal until new generation is permitted, built and in service. Natural gas units emit about half the amount of carbon dioxide as coal units, and gas is a key enabler to bring online the unprecedented level of renewables we’ll be adding. Importantly, intermittent renewable resources need backup power from other dispatchable sources like natural gas until energy storage systems last longer than a few hours.

And the demand for energy is only growing. Tremendously. Many aspects of our economy are working to electrify more, including the building and transportation sectors. We’re getting calls daily from manufacturers and data centers seeking to locate in the states we serve. These energy-intensive industries require 24/7 electric supply, often in very large quantities. We want to partner with these customers and our state agencies to position these regions for continued growth and economic vitality. 

This only intensifies the need for natural gas until other technologies mature. It can sound theoretical, but it’s got very real consequences for those of us responsible for generating electrons and delivering them to customers and communities anytime they flip the switch.

Consider this from Jim Robb, president and CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation—the entity responsible for national reliability and grid standards: “Natural gas will remain essential to reliability for total energy and as a balancing resource. In many areas, natural gas-fueled generation is needed to meet energy demand during shoulder periods between times of high and low renewable energy availability…And on a daily basis in areas with significant solar generation, the natural gas fleet is a flexible generation resource to fill the gap.”

NERC’s 2023 Summer Reliability Assessment noted that while renewables are making a positive impact on the grid, retiring power plants increases the risk that extreme temperatures can result in energy supply shortages across the U.S.

Energy providers like us are managing real capacity constraints, especially during extreme weather. Electricity demand is going up, aging coal units need to be retired in the near future and we need new gas supply and generation to continue serving customers reliably and affordably through this energy transition