Column: More gas plants will yield financial risks, rate hikes and increased pollution - not energy freedom - for South Carolina ratepayers


Producing power from natural gas is less harmful to our environment than coal power, but that doesn't mean it's good for our environment. It's simply the lesser of two evils. When it comes to generating power in South Carolina, we are fortunate to have other options. We have a booming solar industry, bolstered by the passage of the Energy Freedom Act. This resource in combination with battery storage is where we need our utilities to focus their attention. With major investments in natural gas power plants, utilities are proposing to hike up the risk customers bear, hike up our already-high bills and hike up levels of pollution.

Despite the picture the industry wants to paint, natural gas is not a step toward a clean energy future. Natural gas is a non-renewable fossil fuel that has disastrous implications for our environment.

Even new highly efficient natural gas power plants still release 40-50% of the carbon emissions of a typical coal facility. When you fully account for gas leaks during the extraction and transportation process, the climate advantage of coal shrinks even more. Also, new data collected from satellite imagery suggests this leakage rate may be higher than previously thought, which could further erode the lower emissions touted by the natural gas industry.

While gas is marginally cleaner than coal, it doesn't take much to be better than a fuel source that sends pollution up its smokestack and leaves toxic coal ash in its wake. And yet even in this age when we have access to cleaner technologies like solar, utilities like Duke Energy still seem set on going all-in on gas. As has been illustrated by the recent cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline and the winter storm in Texas, fossil fuel infrastructure is vulnerable to disruption, and a more diverse energy generation mix makes for a more resilient grid.

Therefore, embracing solar, offshore wind, battery storage and other alternatives should be considered in Duke's plan. I recently wrote to the South Carolina Public Service Commission, asking them to send Duke Energy back to the drawing board, as they did with Dominion, to cut the amount of gas in its current long-range plans and instead leverage affordable, clean energy like solar. I hope the PSC will have Duke reconsider its plan and present something that is more favorable to their South Carolina customers.

In addition to the pollution emitted from burning natural gas for power, our air and water are also polluted as a result of the extraction of this material from the ground and piping natural gas to its destination. The utility narrative of "clean natural gas" is a fantasy used to support ratepayer investment in expensive pipelines and plant infrastructure so that shareholders can reap the benefits on the capital investment.

The risks are all laid on the backs of South Carolina customers for these big gas investments if they are approved by the PSC. As was pointed out in the hearing at the PSC this week, customers will be forced to bear the full cost of the plant's 35-year life, even though utility representatives already said that gas will be obsolete before the plant's lifespan is fulfilled. So not only would customers be paying for an outdated, dirty plant to be constructed and operated, but we would also be paying for it long after it was no longer producing power. This cannot possibly be construed as something that is in South Carolina customers' best interests.

Not to mention that solar with battery storage is "consistently cheaper than new coal- or gasfired power plants in most countries,'' according to the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook 2020.

And utilities are not maximizing the use of short-term solutions like energy efficiency, which reduce the overall energy demand, weakening the case for building those expensive new gas plants at all. Energy efficiency should be a much stronger focus of Duke's and other utilities' plans. And as the saying goes, the cheapest energy is the energy you don't use.

Some customers are hurt more by gas than others. Gas pipelines and plants tend to have the worst impacts on low-income communities. Construction of new gas plants, pipelines and compressor stations tends to be in low-income areas where the most vulnerable in our society are harmed by their proximity to air and water pollution.

Gas is harmful to our environment, detrimental to our power bills and runs the risk of dangerous leaks and explosions. South Carolina's elected leaders at the Statehouse made a historic vote when they passed the Energy Freedom Act, but if we don't hold the utilities accountable for making good energy decisions that are aligned with the intent of that law, we will have missed an important opportunity that will have a negative impact on our air and water quality - and our checkbooks - for many years to come.

Hirak Pati is an attorney and climate activist living in Moore, South Carolina.