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.
Duke Energy’s new plan is a vast improvement. It’s better even though the new plant will continue to emit climate warming greenhouse gases and depend on fracking for gas supply.
The new plan eliminates the use of coal and it omits new transmission lines across environmentally sensitive areas of Western North Carolina. But the most meaningful part of the new plan is Duke’s challenge to us, expressed in the words of Lloyd Yates, Duke’s president of the Carolinas region.
In Duke’s Nov. 4 press release he is quoted saying: “We’re eager to ramp up our efforts in working with the community to reduce power demand across the region through energy efficiency, demand response, renewable energy and other technologies to work collectively to avoid building additional generation in the area for as long as possible.”
Yates’ statement embodies the essential elements of a truly modern plan for WNC. First, Duke wants to work with us. Collectively. Hooray! Let’s take them at their word and mobilize to help. Individuals, businesses, environmental advocates, and faith communities can all get involved. Let’s create a new grassroots organization like Habitat for Humanity, maybe calling it “Energy for Humanity.” I envision neighbors helping neighbors to improve energy efficiency and adopt renewable sources throughout our community, giving special attention to those least able to afford it.
Second, Duke challenges us to reduce our dependence on their fossil fuel generation. Hooray! This is the right thing for our region, our nation, our world, and for future generations. Duke wants to do it through renewable energy like wind and solar. Let’s help by getting local governments to ease permitting and application headaches and promote opportunities for people to pool their resources in community projects.
Duke wants to do it through demand response. Let’s get on board. Duke already pays customers to allow control of our water heaters at strategic times. I encourage everyone to sign up for this program and then ask Duke to provide more options. By making our demand for power flexible, we can help Duke reduce new power plant and transmission needs and make it easier for them to accommodate intermittent sources like solar and wind.
So what made Duke Energy, number 116 this year on the Fortune 500 list of the biggest companies in the United States, change its mind on running a large transmission line from its generating plant in Skyland to Campobello, S.C.?
Duke officials said last week they became convinced by public opposition that changing their plans to retool the Skyland plant and thus end the need for the power line was better for all concerned. Most likely, requirements in state law that Duke clean up coal ash at the plant played a role too.
Duke surely expected that such a large project would get some push back from the people affected, although Robert Sipes, Duke’s general manager for its Asheville-based western region, said company officials were “surprised by the volume and intensity of the response.”
ASHEVILLE, NC – Duke Energy today announced a dramatic reconfiguration to their Carolinas Modernization Project, scrapping a proposed 40-mile transmission line that would have cut through the counties of Buncombe, Henderson and Polk in North Carolina and Spartanburg in South Carolina; eliminating a new substation in Campobello, S.C.; and reducing the size of a proposed new natural gas plant slated to replace the current coal-fired plant at Lake Julian outside of Asheville.
At the press conference, Duke Energy laid out the specifics of their revision: Whereas the company had initially proposed a single 650-megawatt natural gas-powered plant, Duke Energy now plans to build two side-by-side 280-megawatt natural gas units, 90 megawatts less than what was originally proposed.
The company has said that they will work with the City of Asheville to fulfill the recently adopted Clean Energy Framework and that construction of an additional 190 MW peaking unit (one that is only used when power demand is at its high) in 2023 could be delayed through greater collaboration on energy efficiency programs, renewable energy, demand-side management, and new technologies.
Julie Mayfield, co-director of MountainTrue — the primary organizer of the Carolina Land Coalition:
“Eliminating transmission lines and a proposed substation is a significant win for the residents of Western North Carolina and upstate South Carolina. We came together, voiced our concerns, and Duke Energy heard our call. We applaud Duke for listening to our communities, going back to the drawing board and setting a new course that is more consistent with our values and respectful of our region’s natural heritage.
Today we can celebrate but tomorrow we go back to work. Though we are pleased the proposed plant is smaller than originally proposed, natural gas is still a major contributor to climate change, and our region is already feeling the impacts.
MountainTrue and the Carolina Land Coalition look forward to working with Duke Energy, the City of Asheville, and others throughout the region to marshal new resources and make meaningful investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency and demand reduction. Through that collaborative work, we can achieve the clean energy future we all want and need.”
Duke Energy’s latest long-term plans for the Carolinas show the company expects power demand to grow more slowly than previously projected. But plans still call for building more new generation than it did a year ago.
Critics contend Duke (NYSE:DUK) manipulated the calculation of how much reserve power it will need over the next 15 years to justify unnecessary plant construction. Charlotte-based Duke contends the larger reserves are necessary.
The latest projections are included in the Integrated Resource Plan for Duke’s two Carolinas utilities. The IRP is a report submitted annually to regulators in both states to lay out, in a general way, what the utilities see as their needs and expectations for power supply over the coming 15 years.
Utilities are required to have reserve margins in their power supply to ensure power is available in case of unexpected outages. In the Carolinas, utilities determine those margins, but their calculations must be approved by the N.C. Utilities Commission and the S.C. Public Service Commission.
For 2015, Duke Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Progress have proposed reserve margins of 17%. That is up from 14.5% in 2014.
Jim Warren, executive director of the environmental advocacy group NC WARN, says the timing of Duke’s decision that reserve margins should increase is suspicious.
“Demand is down, and we’ve complained for some time that there is a glut of juice available in the Southeast,” he says. “What better way to claim under these circumstances that you still need to build new plants than to inflate the reserves needed and claim you need a boost in standby power.”
Duke spokesman Randy Wheeless says there is no manipulation. The two Duke utilities commissioned a new study of reserve margins that showed the need for additional capacity.
One key consideration, he says, is that the utilities now find themselves in what had once been the unusual situation for Southeast utilities of hitting the highest demand of the year in the winter months rather than in the summer months.
“When you start peaking in the winter, some resources for responding to those peaks are not available as they would be in the summer,” he says.
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.
To the editor: A big thanks to Duke Energy for its decision to re-evaluate the proposed Western Carolinas Modernization Project. Though the 45-mile transmission line has been at the forefront of concern, for many it has also been the idea that moving to a gas-powered plant is somehow “modernizing.”
When we look around our world at the innovative approaches being used by other countries to supply energy to its people, it seems that we’re still living in the past. It is heartening to hear that Duke Energy is planning to step back and investigate more truly modern options. Imagine every large parking lot — schools, government buildings, malls, etc. — with shaded parking spaces topped by solar panels. Will that supply all our energy needs? Probably not, but if Duke Energy truly follows modernization approaches, it will continue to be a strong player in the energy market.
Let us all come together for a celebration rally at the Historic Henderson County Historic Courthouse from 2-5 p.m., sponsored by the Carolina Land Coalition. We can celebrate being good stewards of our fragile Earth, our island home!