Why did Duke Energy change course on power line?

Asheville Citizen-Times, november 10, 2015
Large corporations tend to operate like ocean liners: Once they get moving in a certain direction, it’s awfully hard for them to steer in another.

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.”

Two or three factors probably heightened concerns among residents potentially affected by the line. The first is that instead of studying two or three corridors for the line, Duke released a map of possible routes with more than 40 segments that rambled through just about every other corner of Henderson and Polk counties. Company officials say they have to consider every reasonable alternative. They might wish they didn’t. The effect of considering so many options was that thousands more people worried about the possibility of the line being built near them instead of just figuring it was someone else’s problem.

It didn’t help that most of the push to stop burning coal at the Skyland plant, located on Lake Julian off Long Shoals Road, has been from Buncombe County residents. However, most Buncombe residents would not have been affected by any of the power line routes. People to the south along the proposed routes might have felt they wouldn’t get anything positive out of the deal.

There is also Duke’s recent history with coal ash. It wasn’t the main issue, but it probably made people along the transmission line corridors even more skeptical of Duke and more worried about environmental impacts.

Utilities can and do get unpopular projects through the regulatory process. But public opinion is an important consideration for the power line project because the state General Assembly, to facilitate plans to end coal burning at the Skyland plant, earlier this year extended a deadline already in state law for coal ash cleanup. A bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, gave Duke three more years to clean up ash, to 2022. It also allowed Duke to sidestep a requirement that it switch to “dry” handling of ash, saving the utility millions of dollars, since Duke planned to stop burning coal in Skyland anyway.

If people submitted more than 9,000 comments on the power line proposals, you’d have to guess at least some would challenge Duke’s plans in court. A lawsuit might have been resolved before 2022, but it might not have happened in time for Duke to comply with the deadlines in state law. Apodaca and other state legislators were very helpful in getting the deadline extended once, but that was before controversy over the transmission line erupted. Apodaca said last week he and Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, got a large volume of constituent calls and complaints on the issue over the past few months.

Even if Duke did not need legislators’ help on this issue, sooner or later it will on another. Practically all companies want to keep their customers and government officials happy. That’s even more important when you are a heavily regulated public utility.