The dam that forms Lake Julian is one of three Duke Energy dams located its coal-fired electricity plant in the Asheville area. Archive photo by Micah Wilkins/Carolina Public Press

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RALEIGH — Legislation aimed at aiding Duke Energy’s recently announced transition of its Asheville plant from coal to a combination of natural gas and solar appears to be on a fast track at the N.C. General Assembly.

The $1.1 billion conversion, announced last week, was called a win-win by company officials because the plant would be cleaner and cheaper to operate.

Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican who joined company officials at the announcement, praised the plan as an innovation.

Apodaca’s bill, the Mountain Energy Act of 2015, sailed through the Senate last week, passing 47-0 on Thursday, as the House wrapped up work on its version of the budget.

The bill would require the N.C. Utilities Commission to expedite review of the project while, at the same time, giving the company extra time to work on remediation of its coal ash impoundments at the plant. Since the Asheville plant was one of four high priority sites named in last year’s coal ash legislation, cleanup at the plant and moving the coal ash to a lined landfill would have been required by Aug. 1, 2019. The new legislation would give the company an additional three years to complete the coal ash work.

Duke expects the main work on the upgrade at the plant to be completed by the end of 2019.

Renewables fight continues

The fight over renewable energy portfolio standards for energy producers — known as REPS — and renewable energy tax credits saw rounds in both the House and Senate last week, with the House passing a compromise phase-out of the tax credits in its budget plan. The renewable tax credit would have ended this year without an extension, but the four-year extension originally envisioned by supporters was dialed back to two years with the 35 percent credit reduced to 20 percent for the second year.

Even that plan withstood a last-minute challenge when Wake County Republican Rep. Marilyn Avila tried to amend the budget to end the credit altogether. The amendment was defeated by a coalition of Democrats and the House leadership. Voting against the renewable energy credits on that vote were Western North Carolina legislators Reps. Michele Presnell, R-Yancey; Jonathan Jordan, R-Watauga; and Chris Whitmire, R-Transylvania.

Voting for it were Democratic Reps. John Ager, Susan Fisher and Brian Turner, all of Buncombe County, and Joe Sam Queen, of Haywood County. Also voting for the measure were Republican Reps. Josh Dobson, of McDowell County; Mike Hager, of Rutherford County; Chuck McGrady, of Henderson County; and Roger West, of Cherokee County.

The Senate, meanwhile, debated a freeze on the state’s renewable energy portfolio standards that had similar provisions to one in a bill already passed by the House.

That debate took place in the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday, and it saw an abrupt end via voice vote that didn’t sit well with senators on both sides of the aisle. It also landed Senate Finance chair Bob Rucho, R-Charlotte, in hot water after he declared the matter approved and refused a request for a recorded vote. The bill has since been re-referred back to the Finance Committee.

Possum politics

The floor of the Senate was the scene of yet another “Mayberry Moment” last week with a debate that could have been written for the television show decades ago.

In this case, the debate was over a statewide bill suspending state wildlife law protections for possums for a few days around New Year’s Eve. The legislation, another attempt by West to legalize the annual possum drop at Clay’s Corner near Brasstown, made it through the Senate Agricultural and Natural Resources Committee, with West testifying that the possum is gently lowered not dropped and is treated with the utmost respect.

The Senate floor debate was not so smooth, but it did include an incredulous senator from the “big city,” several musings about possums’ mountain ways and a least one “you must not be from around these parts.”

The bill, which will almost certainly be challenged by animal rights groups, passed 38-9.

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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