History offers lesson for Duke Energy

Greenville Online, October 18, 2015

A decade ago, as Progress Energy considered constructing a high-voltage transmission line running into Asheville, a document outlining possible routes contained a prescient warning.

“The environmental sensitivity of this area offers special challenges in the siting and design of new facilities,” the transmission study notes, and later: “Schedule is a major concern for each of the solutions. Permitting and (right-of-way) acquisition will likely take extended time due to the location, possibly five to 10 years and a solution would need to be in place by the end of 2009.”

The document also offers a cautionary tale about northern neighbors: Another power company needed a decade just to permit a high-voltage line running from West Virginia to Virginia, one partly sited on rugged federal lands and crossing the Appalachian Trail. That line was dedicated in 2006, 16 years after the project was first announced.

“Similar issues could be faced associated (sic) transmission expansion in a scenic mountain region amidst national forests and park lands,” the study notes of the Carolina mountains.

Similar issues already are being faced. Duke officials recently have said they’ve received 9,000 comments, though they still are hoping to hold to a 2020 timeline completion date for projects. But the conflict playing out over proposed power lines in Western North Carolina today also holds the potential for long delays and continued questions over whether the lines are needed — or whether better options exist.

When Duke Energy, which has since merged with Progress, took up the region’s energy issue this summer by announcing its own transmission line plans, it tipped off impassioned pushback thousands strong in both Western North Carolina and the Upstate of South Carolina.

Under pressure from letter-writing campaigns, boisterous public forums, organized protests and irritated politicians, Duke Energy officials bowed last week. At a moment when the company was expected to pick a single 45-mile transmission line route from a network of options, it instead announced it would return to the drawing board on the transmission line question.

That delay left residents and environmentalists skeptically hopeful that Duke might explore more palatable and creative energy solutions.

Concerns about rising power needs in the Duke Energy Progress western territory have been discussed for decades, with a variety of solutions offered and sometimes implemented to meet that demand, including upgrades to existing transmission lines and installation of two fast-firing peaking units in 1999 and 2000 at the Lake Julian facility.

Impacts near Asheville

Over the last decade, the region’s typical hourly energy needs have remained relatively flat, according to an analysis by the Citizen-Times. That average hourly number has hovered around 555 megawatts, according to calculations derived from data provided by Duke Energy.

But Duke officials have said the proposed upgrades are driven by peak energy needs, when thermostats are set to ward off burning or frigid temperatures.

Last year’s top demand came on an icy morning during January’s polar vortex. The company’s 160,000 customers in nine mountain counties drew 1183 megawatts of power, doubling a typical hour’s needs.

It was the highest peak usage recorded in the region, and documents indicate after that moment, Duke saw a problem. By October of last year, the Duke Energy Progress transmission department produced a document requesting that 600 megawatts of power be brought on lines stretching from the company’s eastern region.

The study concluded that, without upgrades, the energy import would overburden existing transmission lines into Asheville, including an existing 230-kilovolt transmission line that, after connecting into another power line that rises from South Carolina, passes though the town of Pisgah Forest and carries power to Lake Julian.

If ever power demand outpaced supply, Duke Energy would implement local blackouts on some customers, while allowing service to continue to others.

The solution that has since drawn the ire of a region was proposed at that time: construct a substation in the Campobello area to connect into a 500-kilovolt transmission line, one that runs from the coal-fired Rogers Energy Complex in Rutherford County (formerly known as the Cliffside Steam Station) to the Jocassee hydroelectric dam in Pickens County, South Carolina.

The plan called for a 230-kilovolt line to run between the substation and the Lake Julian plant. In July, Duke Energy released a web of possible options for that line, with varying impacts on Spartanburg and Greenville counties in the Palmetto State and Polk, Henderson and southern Buncombe counties north of the border.

But the document also indicates the project would impact areas west and north of Asheville: It calls for a new 230-kilovolt transmission line that would run 10 to 15 miles between an existing substation near Asheville’s New Liberty Church, located west of the Metropolitan Sewerage District on the French Broad River, and head southeast to a substation in Enka.

The 2015 annual report by Duke Energy Progress indicates new transmission towers would sit on a right of way that is 125 feet wide. The document does not specify a route, but it set an estimated begin-construction date for autumn 2016.

Transmission towers there are estimated to be 80 to 120 feet tall, according to the document, approaching the 140-foot estimated average height of towers planned for the Foothills.

The Duke Energy board of directors approved the transmission project, one estimated to cost $320 million, though it was not publicly announced until other energy news unfolded.

The natural gas trend in Asheville

In May, to fanfare, Duke Energy Progress announced it planned to shutter the coal-fired plant at Lake Julian in about 2020. Its two turbines there together can produce about 376 megawatts of power.

That proposal was made possible by upgrades to a PSNC Energy natural gas pipeline, and would allow the Asheville region to be served by a new 650-megawatt combined-cycle natural gas plant, joining a nationwide trend where that cheaper and abundant fuel is displacing coal and its hazardous byproduct, coal ash.

Data from the Lake Julian coal plant reported to the EPA indicates Duke Energy Progress has in recent years scaled back energy production at the facility. From 2005 to 2010, the coal plant and two peakers there generated an average of about 300 megawatts of power each hour. From 2011 onward, that hourly average dropped to 216 megawatts.

The peakers are less efficient and expensive to fire up, and are typically run only when power demand is high. They have a capacity of 324 megawatts, and are slated to remain available even after a new natural gas plant comes online.

In those numbers: a planned 650-megawatt natural gas plant, a new transmission line with at least a 600-megawatt capacity, an existing transmission line with a 750-megawatt capacity and a pair of 324-megawatt peakers, critics see a math that easily tops 2,000 megawatts of power and adds up to an unneeded energy overload, one that far outpaces even the most demanding peaks.

Duke officials, though, have said the company cannot use transmission lines to capacity, and must reserve import availability in the event a generator fails or is shut down for repair.

Currently, the existing transmission line has a 206 megawatt reserve – that is unused capacity – should one of the coal-fired burners fail. Under construction plans for the natural-gas plant, that reserve would need to cover the failure of the entire facility, according to Duke, about 650 megawatts of power.

There, critics also see a flaw in the proposal. A different design for a new plant would allow for less reserve on the lines. Among them are a technical committee that include retirees with utility backgrounds formed under the environmental group MountainTrue.

“What we’d like to see is a plant that would have groups of smaller generators that would allow Duke to have a fallback position, so they could take one offline and not affect the power capability of the Asheville area,” said Terry Schager, a member of the committee from Landrum. “If they were using smaller generators, there would be no need for a new substation and a new transmission line.”

Duke officials have said they already have entered into a natural gas contract with PSNC Energy. In the announcement last week, they indicated they are rethinking the configuration of the plant, but had previously touted it as the best design for a large, efficient plant. Waste heat from a pair of large natural-gas powered turbines is used to drive a steam turbine.

“This means the third unit has zero fuel costs, and the power production is increased by more than 30 percent,” Tom Williams, a Duke spokesman, had previously said of the configuration.

Alternatives to the Foothills transmission line and Campobello substation are under consideration, according to a statement released by the company.

Duke officials have declined further comment on the status of planning. They are extending their review until early November.

“Protect Our Land” Picnic

Residents of both Carolinas are invited to a family-friendly picnic to show unity against the Duke Energy transmission line and substation plan.

The event will feature food and entertainment, and area residents can discuss the area’s energy infrastructure.

The picnic will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. on Sunday at the Historic Henderson County Courthouse, 1 Historic Courthouse Square in Hendersonville. It is sponsored by MountainTrue and the Carolina Land Coalition.