A better plan for power is possible

Hendersonville Times-News, October 15, 2015

Duke Energy did the right thing last week by taking a step back and rethinking its proposal to build a super-sized, gas-fired power plant here — the Western Carolinas Modernization Project.

After thousands of us spoke up, the company has promised to extend its review process for another month and consider alternatives to “all” components of the plan. The hope is it will look at the entire scale of the project — from the size of the plant to the size of the power lines, from the route of the lines to the size of the new substation.

In last Thursday’s announcement, Duke’s spokesperson said the company recognized the significant impact on views and tourism the mega-power lines could have. Duke says it listened when we told it we didn’t want to mess up this great place by fouling it with giant power lines.

Thousands of us reacted to the initial announcement of where the lines might go. “Duke Energy really kicked a hornets nest here in Western North Carolina when it notified us of the possible routes,” said MountainTrue Southern Regional Director Mark Stierwalt.

With the help of MountainTrue, the community has organized to form the Carolina Land Coalition, a group of residents, business owners, visitors and ratepayers who are concerned about Duke’s project.

The coalition invites residents of Western North Carolina and Upstate South Carolina to gather for a Protect Our Land rally and picnic from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday in front of the Historic Courthouse in downtown Hendersonville.

The purpose of the event is to bring people together to stand in unity in response to Duke’s “modernization” plan. This family-friendly event with food, fun and entertainment will also provide opportunities to learn more, participate in action steps, share concerns and brainstorm ideas for a better proposal.

Let’s build a vision for the kind of energy future we want, and hold Duke to the possibilities of powering WNC with clean, renewable energy.

Duke has an opportunity to showcase a new model here and move away from building oversized projects. Our mountains are different; we don’t want a boilerplate plan, the same one used in five previously built plants.

Let’s hold Duke to its promise of looking at present power line infrastructure to update its plan. Since the original announcement of the new plant, Duke has held our property values hostage.

Those of us living along the path of the new transmission lines, with its proposed 45 miles of 15-story towers and rights-of-way of 150 feet, will have little choice but to sell to Duke because of the power of eminent domain. Those of us who live close to the lines would see our property values decrease without being compensated for the losses.

Duke’s plan to shut down the coal generators at the Lake Julian plant was initially applauded by environmental groups such as MountainTrue. The organizations that formed MountainTrue have worked for years to get Duke to clean up the plant, concerned with emissions that pollute the air and coal ash ponds that leak toxins into the French Broad River.

But when the company announced its plans to update the plant, it left many people thinking there was nothing modern or visionary about it. A “truly modern” plan would invest more in renewable energies and set more ambitious targets for efficiency in order to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

Although natural gas is a cleaner fuel than coal, it is still a fossil fuel, which comes from the questionable practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Using artificially cheap fracked gas as a long-term strategy will thwart a quicker transition to clean renewables.

With more innovation and investments in new technologies in the next few years, we may be able to solve the problems of meeting peak demand on super hot and cold days, a reason Duke is giving to justify the need for the new plant.

Increased efficiency measures by all of us can put a dent in future demand. If Duke invested more in efficiency rather than fossil fuel, we could capture wasted energy. Leaky ductwork, drafty roofs and poorly functioning furnaces and air conditioning systems are culprits we can fix.

If Duke chooses to stick with its original plan, which it admits is a possibility, we get stuck paying the $1.1 billion cost of construction. We will pay through increased electric bills for a plan we don’t want. There has to be a better way.

Come join me to stand in unity with our neighbors at Sunday’s Protect Our Land rally and picnic. There is power in community.

Katie Breckheimer is a board member with MountainTrue, a nonprofit organization formed from the merger of the Environmental and Conservation Organization, the Western North Carolina Alliance and the Jackson-Mason Conservation Alliance.