As a state that depends heavily on coal-fired power, North Carolina currently dumps more climate-disrupting carbon dioxide pollution into the environment from burning fossil fuels than 186 nations.

But a new analysis [pdf] by a clean-energy advocacy group finds that it would be relatively easy to break the state’s dirty energy dependency — and eliminate the need for expensive new nuclear reactors to boot.

The N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network will present the findings during this week’s N.C. Utilities Commission hearings on how Progress Energy and Duke Energy — the state’s two biggest power providers — plan to meet customers’ energy needs over the next 15 years. The analysis was conducted by John Blackburn, an economics professor emeritus at Duke University and a renewable energy expert.

“We are convinced that North Carolina can now phase out all coal-fired power plants,” says N.C. WARN Executive Director Jim Warren.

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The analysis finds that this could be done by doing three things:

* Increase efficiency in electricity use at a rate of 1.5% per year over the 15-year planning period;

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* Up the state’s renewable portfolio standard — the amount of energy that utilities are obligated to generate from cleaner sources — from the current 12.5 % to the 20% standard used by 17 other states; and

* Boost the use of combined heat and power or cogeneration facilities that utilize waste heat produced during electricity production for heating buildings.

This latest analysis by Blackburn comes on the heels of another released last week that showed North Carolina’s need for backup power generation would be modest if it were to switch to an energy system based largely on solar and wind power combined with efficiency, hydroelectric power and other renewable sources like landfill gas.

It also comes as the state’s utilities are planning to build costly and polluting new coal and nuclear facilities to meet customers’ power needs.

Duke Energy — which in its own filing with the commission dismisses Blackburn’s analysis as “so flawed as to be completely unreliable” — is currently about halfway through building a controversial new coal-fired unit at its existing Cliffside facility in western North Carolina, a project for which the company has budgeted some $1.8 billion. But in another filing submitted to state regulators earlier this month, the company reported that it “is experiencing cost and schedule pressure related to construction.”

And soaring costs are not a problem limited to Cliffside — or to new coal plants. The construction cost estimate for the two new nuclear reactors Duke Energy is planning to to build at its Lee Station in Cherokee County, S.C. near Charlotte has more than doubled from an initial estimate of between $4 billion and $6 billion to about $11 billion. Meanwhile, Progress Energy has also doubled the construction cost estimate for the two new reactors planned for its Harris plant near Raleigh, N.C. from about $4.4 billion to more than $9.3 billion.

“We think our plans are cheaper and more feasible than new nuclear reactors,” says Blackburn.

With analysis in hand, N.C. WARN plans to expand its ongoing organizing effort to halt construction of the new Cliffside plant and call for closing down all coal-fired power plants in North Carolina over the next 15 years. Citing scientific experts including James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute and Rajendra Pachauri of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Warren says ending coal burning is urgent to prevent runaway climate disruption.

The utilities themselves are already taking steps away from coal: Progress Energy recently announced plans to shut down 11 coal-fired units at four plants in the eastern part of the state by 2017 and replace some of that generation capacity with natural gas, which emits less carbon dioxide than coal. And as part of its Cliffside construction plans, Duke Energy is shutting down four older, heavily-polluting coal-fired units at that facility — though the new high-tech coal unit would still emit over 6 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.

North Carolina currently has 67 operating coal-fired units at 25 locations totaling 13,279 megawatts of capacity, putting it in ninth place nationally in terms of dependence on coal power.

(This story originally appeared at Facing South.)