High tension wires: Duke Energy and Henderson County residents at odds over proposed transmission lines

Editorial update [9/21]: Xpress originally reported that Duke Energy would be unable to follow existing right of ways in WNC for the Foothills transmission line project due to Federal security concerns. Duke Energy has since clarified that this information was in regards to the existing Pisgah right of way solely and that other existing right of ways are being considered as potential routes within the scope of Duke’s study whenever feasible. The content of the article has been updated to reflect this information.


Power giant Duke Energy’s proposal for a 45-mile transmission line through Western North Carolina, part of the company’s multifaceted Western Carolinas Modernization project to upgrade and integrate the mountains with a larger regional power grid, is meeting staunch opposition from residents since the company announced its intentions in mid-July.

Homeowners, local municipalities and environmental groups in and around Henderson County have raised concerns over the economic and ecological impact of the project and are calling on Duke to consider less-invasive alternatives, such as using existing routes or burying the line underground.

Although Duke and the North Carolina Utilities Commission have been urging patience while an official proposal for the project is being finalized, community members have been speaking out about their reservations and literally taking to the streets in a vigorous display of social activism to protect their homes and livelihoods from the perceived threats.

Plotting the course

The wide-ranging Western Carolinas Modernization project aims to improve WNC’s connections to Duke’s power grid; replace the existing 376-megawatt Asheville Plant in Fletcher with a more efficient gas-powered plant; clean up existing coal ash basins around the Asheville area; and implement state-of-the-art energy-producing technologies, according to Thomas Williams, a spokesperson for Duke Energy.

Western North Carolina has historically been difficult to supply with power, he notes, due to its relative isolation from the rest of the company’s grid. “There’s not many wires to bring the power into the area, and there’s not much power generated in the area itself to meet the demand.”

According to Williams, demands for energy in the foothills of South Carolina and Western North Carolina have more than doubled since the 1970s, the last time the grid was significantly upgraded in this region. Duke saw record energy-consumption levels as temperatures plummeted during the polar vortex in the winter of 2014, when power usage briefly spiked to 1,183 megawatts, and again in the early months of 2015.

“We got very worried when we saw that [30 percent usage] increase in one year,” says Williams, who keeps a home in Fairview and saw the effects of the bitter winter. “We were pretty much right on the wire in terms of having planned rotating blackouts for a very brief period.”

In response to this scare, and partially as a result of the coal ash controversy raised by the Dan River spill in 2014, Duke decided to phase out the existing Asheville coal plant and diesel generator, which Williams describe as “dirty and inefficient.”

The new gas plant will be capable of generating at least 650 megawatts of energy at any given time — twice the capacity of the current coal plant — and will be 35 percent cheaper to operate, according to Williams. The move will also save Duke roughly $100 million dollars in ash-cleanup costs and upgrades that would have been necessary for the existing plant. Current estimates envision the gas plant to be fully operational by 2019.

Duke’s Western District encompasses Avery, Buncombe, Haywood, Madison, Yancey and Mitchell counties, as well as parts of Henderson, Jackson and McDowell counties and several areas in upstate South Carolina. In order to serve this vast region, Williams says Duke must install a 500,000-volt line to connect the Asheville plant to a new substation in Campobello, S.C. The proposal, officially titled the Foothills Transmission Line & Substation project by Duke, is necessary for moving large quantities of energy efficiently across long distances.

“Right now, Duke Energy/Progress West has no [direct] access to [the overall] system,” says Williams. “What this wire will do is give us a direct feed from that system into DEP West for the first time,” allowing Duke to transfer power to its customers throughout WNC and upstate South Carolina as needed, while also decreasing the reliance on less-efficient coal plants in other areas within Duke’s service provider network.

In anticipation of this project, Duke has identified several possible corridors through Buncombe, Henderson and Polk counties through which to run the new transmission line. “We need to be able to move power in,” says Williams, “and when you build a 650-megawatt plant that’s very efficient, that’s going to run much more often and is cleaner than a coal plant, we need to be able to ship that power out too.”

However, finding a route that serves this purpose without significantly impacting existing communities along the way has become a dicey prospect. The transmission lines would rise to approximately 140 feet, depending on the terrain, with approximately 1,000 feet between each tower. The type of lines needed for this project would require a right-of-way of anywhere from 125 to 150 feet wide, raising concerns that scenic views may be obstructed and that residents’ properties as well as ecologically sensitive areas along the route may be negatively impacted.