EXCLUSIVE-Duke Energy boosts capital spending to fight climate change

By Ross Kerber

BOSTON, Oct 9 (Reuters)Top U.S. utility Duke Energy Corp DUK.N plans billions of dollars of new spending this decade as it ramps up efforts to slash greenhouse gas emissions, executives told Reuters.

The move comes amid growing pressure from Democratic politicians and activist investors for power producers to reduce their hefty contribution to climate change.

“If you’re going to pursue the more aggressive carbon-reduction targets, you’re going to retire coal earlier, you’re going to be replacing it earlier with renewables, batteries, storage etcetera,” said Duke Chief Financial Officer Steve Young in an interview.

“That pushes up the capital profile,” he said.

According to Young and to an investor presentation to be made on Friday, Duke will boost projected capital spending by $2 billion to $58 billion for the period from 2020 to 2024, and projects a capital plan “in the range of $65 billion to $75 billion” for the following five years.

Neither the near-term spending increase, nor the longer-term projection have been previously reported.

Duke said the increased spending will cover efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, by retiring old coal plants and replacing them with more solar and wind facilities, with the exact targets tied to forthcoming regulatory decisions.

Other power utilities have embraced similar strategies as the cost of renewable generation falls. But the outlook from Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke, the largest regulated U.S. utility, also stands out because it has given public officials and other stakeholders a large say on how quickly to move away from fossil fuels.

Duke has outlined various fuel-mix scenarios in recent “integrated resource plans” filed to regulators in North Carolina and South Carolina, but did not make a recommendation on which scenario to pursue.

The omission was unusual for a large utility since a faster move will require more spending, but Young said the approach should help build public support. Duke will make a similar filing in Indiana, he said.

Asked about reports that Duke rebuffed acquisition interest from rival NextEra Energy Inc NEE.N, the world’s largest generator of renewable energy, Young said “we can’t comment on rumors.”

In August Duke took a $1.6 billion charge for the cancellation of a natural gas pipeline. Young said the move did not affect Duke’s broader strategy but will probably lead to changes in the locations of new plants.

Duke has set a target of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Like other utility executives Young said it would be difficult to move the data up to 2035 as U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden has proposed.

Technical advances would be required in areas like battery storage, nuclear reactors and carbon sequestration. “You’re going to need to see significant advances in those technologies even to get to net zero in 2050,” he said.

For the period through 2024 Duke’s efforts should allow earnings per share to grow “at the upper end” of its current forecast of between 4 to 6 percent, the company said.

(Reporting by Ross Kerber. Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Richard Pullin)

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