By Joan Walker
Just before Christmas break, Duke Energy presented a letter to the N.C. Utilities Commission outlining its intent to file the application it needs to build a new and larger natural-gas-fired plant on Lake Julian. This letter of intent has been the source of a good deal of concern and confusion. I’ll do my best to explain what Duke filed and what it means for our communities.
First, a little context. Last year, the N.C. Legislature passed the Mountain Energy Act, which created a fast-track review process specifically for this project. Because time is so short, lawmakers required Duke to give a heads-up to the Utilities Commission so it could schedule a public hearing in a timely manner. That public hearing is Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. at the Buncombe County Courthouse, and the commission has invited the public to attend, learn and provide public testimony.
What made it into Duke’s letter of intent and what was left out are both a cause for celebration and some concern.
The good news is that the transmission lines are off the table. Neither the transmission lines nor a new substation in Campobello, S.C., was included in Duke Energy’s letter of intent. In conversations with MountainTrue and our partners, Duke has reaffirmed its decisions on the transmission lines and that nothing that happens during this application process will bring the lines back. This is fantastic news and a huge relief for all of us.
The less-than-great news is that Duke has informed the commission that it will be submitting applications for not just two new 280-megawatt natural-gas-fired generator units that would come online in 2019, but also for a third 192-MW unit — even though that unit would not be needed until 2023, if ever.
According to Duke, the purpose of this third “peaking” unit would be to provide extra energy generation during peak times at some point in the future when the region’s demand is greater than it is today. Duke has publicly stated that this third unit may not be needed at all if more renewable infrastructure is built and if residents, businesses and government can meet higher energy efficiency goals.
Since November, when Duke Energy announced it would no longer pursue construction of a new transmission line or substation, the company has taken a remarkably more positive approach by listening to the concerns of the community and working with area leaders toward better, more responsible energy solutions. MountainTrue strongly supports this effort and anticipates playing a role in a partnership that includes representatives from Duke Energy, the city of Asheville and Buncombe County.
Having a positive, constructive relationship with Duke is what is best for our region and for building a better future for Western North Carolina, and despite our differences and years of litigation on coal ash pollution, we have that. But that doesn’t mean we stop advocating.
When we come to the table, MountainTrue does its best to represent the interests of the residents of our region. That means fighting for cleaner air, cleaner water and more sustainable energy infrastructure that doesn’t just help us keep the lights on now but into the future as both our community and economy grow.
With Duke Energy’s application for the new gas plant, the company will, for the first time, be required to provide the data to justify the size and scope of the plan. The Utilities Commission has invited interested parties to submit petitions to intervene in the ongoing proceeding, and MountainTrue and the Sierra Club, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, have filed a petition to intervene. This is not a “challenge,” as some have said — it is simply a request to participate in a proceeding where important decisions are being made about the region’s energy future.
For now, we are awaiting more information from Duke about the basis for its proposal and will be giving that a careful review with the help of energy experts and will provide our own analysis to the commission. If warranted, we will provide alternative recommendations to the Utilities Commission that we believe better serve the public good.
Ultimately, the commission will decide whether Duke’s proposal is the best way to provide power to the utility’s Western North Carolina customers.
It bears repeating: None of this will bring back the threat of a transmission line. Advocacy won’t turn back the clock on the retirement of the existing coal plant, a decision that simply makes economic sense for Duke and its customers. Nor will our intervention delay a decision by the commission.
We as a community should applaud Duke for doing good but also continue to push for it to do better. Duke has made a commitment to our community to be an active partner in helping our region move beyond coal, and I am optimistic that it will keep its promise.
But when Duke Energy goes before the Utilities Commission to make its case, we’ll be there to make sure you have a voice at the table.