Duke Energy's Asheville plant. Archive photograph by Micah Wilkins/Carolina Public Press

Despite a local campaign calling for the company to work toward shutting down its primarily coal-fired power plant, a Duke representative told Asheville City Council last night that the company has no such plans anytime soon.

“Demand is growing,” Duke Energy District Manager Jason Walls said. “While technology is helping to drive energy efficiency, our region’s demand for electricity has doubled since 1975. Local generation is critically important to Western North Carolina.”

Earlier this month, the WNC Alliance published a letter from 80 local business owners calling for the company to retire the Asheville plant due to the pollution and environmental issues caused by burning coal. Other groups, like the Sierra Club, are also part of the local Beyond Coal campaign. Last night also marked the one-year anniversary of Council passing a clean energy resolution that committed the city to moving towards cleaner energy and away from coal.

But contrary to coal’s critics, Walls asserted that renewable energy has its limits in the mountains, with geography limiting the usefulness of both solar and wind power here.

“Without a way to replace the electricity that’s generated from the Asheville plant, it would be irresponsible for the company to retire those units,” he said. “Renewables are a valuable addition to the supply portfolio, but we must recognize their limitations.”

“Right now there are no plans to retire the Asheville plant,” he added. “It’s simply too important to our customers.”

Walls noted that in January 2014 Duke Energy had its highest demand ever, at a time when solar and wind would have been little use. He did add that the company has invested in considerable upgrades — including advanced scrubbers — to make the Asheville plant cleaner, and that it hopes to increase the ability of its local network to draw more power from other areas and decrease WNC’s reliance on coal-fired power.

However, Walls said that Duke plans, by mid-2015, to move all of its coal ash ponds at the plant to the Asheville Regional Airport, where they can be more safely stored, and by 2019 plans to end coal ash ponds entirely due to state legislation that will require the compnay to shift to different storage methods.

“No secret: It’s been a hot topic,” Walls said, as the coal ash spill on the Dan River earlier this year aroused outrage across the state. “This is a very cost-effective, safe way to store coal ash that’s been generated since 1964.”

Mayor Esther Manheimer asked what would happen after the 2019 deadline for getting rid of coal ash ponds.

“It will be done in a way consistent with the law that was passed,” Walls replied, adding that the company would shift to a dry form of disposing of coal ash. “It would require changes in the plant’s operations,” but Duke’s already shifting to drier methods of disposing of new ash it generates, he said.

Some Council members and representatives of environmental groups disagreed with Walls about the necessity of the coal-fired plant and the ability of Duke to retire it in favor of cleaner sources.

Council member Cecil Bothwell asserted that solar is a more workable option than Walls portrayed it as.

“Having lived off the grid on a battery-based system for 20 years, solar can do it alone,” he said. “There’s no question, it’s a question of cost.” Bothwell asked if the company was looking into new battery technology that could hasten the transition away from coal.

“We probably have a different view,” Walls said. “We don’t have the luxury of looking at it on a home-by-home basis. We have to look at it system-wide. There’s no technology that exists today to generate off-peak to use at on-peak hours.” Walls said that Duke is investing in battery technology and will continue to research it, but “the technology isn’t there today.”

“My argument isn’t that it can easily do all of the power,” Bothwell said. “But as it comes online, it has the potential to affect demand immensely.” Walls replied that it would only do so if solar happened to work at exactly the right time and he didn’t feel the company could rely on solar.

Walls also asserted that, since local governments had no power to regulate Duke, their efforts were best focussed on improving energy efficiency on their own end.

Emma Greenbaum, the Sierra Club’s organizer of the Beyond Coal campaign, took issue with Walls’ portrayal of the situation and reasserted the need to retire the plant.

“Although we do have scrubbers on this plant, the Asheville coal plant is still the largest source of toxic air pollutants” in the region, she said.

“Burning coal is the largest contributor to carbon emissions from the electric sector overall and Duke Energy’s Asheville plant is the single largest source of these emissions in our region,” she said.

Greenbaum further noted that the unusual winter weather (and the resulting strain on the power grid) that Walls referred to earlier this year was something the area would only see more of unless climate change was curbed.

“You are not alone, though it might feel like it sometimes: When Council unanimously passed the clean energy resolution last year, there were 149 plants that had been retired as part of the Beyond Coal campaign,” Greenbaum said. “We’re now at 178. That’s a huge leap in just a year, and I truly believe Asheville belongs in the ranks of such progressive cities that have retired their coal plants and brokered investments in clean energy and energy efficiency. Please show a willingness to take the long view.”

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David Forbes is a former contributing reporter to Carolina Public Press.

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