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City discussed helping Duke site locations in 2014; substation one part of long-term regional plan

Duke Energy will delay building a power substation next to Asheville’s Isaac Dickson Elementary School, but the utility remains committed to a broader plan aimed at meeting increased demand in the area, said company spokesperson Meghan Musgrave. And it remains unclear whether — and to what degree — city leaders agreed to assist the company in locating substations within Asheville city limits.

“We have currently put a hold on developing the Hill Street site [at Dickson] and are focusing our attention on developing the Hilliard Street site,” Musgrave said.

The company’s “open to considering alternative sites,” but new substations in Asheville are part of a long-term plan — the Western Carolinas Modernization Project, Musgrave said.

If the Hilliard Street “can’t be developed” in the next few years, she added, the company would likely have to use the property next to the elementary school. Duke has also purchased a Biltmore Avenue site for a third substation.

“In the past four decades, customers’ electricity use has more than doubled in and around Asheville,” she said. “Demand … in our Western North Carolina service territory is expected to grow by more than 15 percent in the next decade.”

Substations help distribute power in the service area and can contain such equipment as transformers, towers and switches. One hasn’t been built in the city since 1975.

When electricity use hit record levels during past winter storms, the company had to import power from its system in the eastern part of the state, said James McLawhorn, director of the electric division of the North Carolina Utilities Commission. That’s “somewhat of a concern,” he said, citing safety and cost issues, as well as problems with limited capacity elsewhere in the state.

“When you have as large of a load center as Asheville is, you don’t want to have to import [power] from elsewhere,” McLawhorn said.

So more than a year ago, the utility evaluated regional demand for electricity and the condition of its existing facilities, including transmission lines and substations, Musgrave said.

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The evaluation led to Duke’s latest long-term project. It’s a “comprehensive plan critical to modernizing the aging infrastructure and ensuring the continued reliability of the electric system in the Western Carolinas and reducing our environmental footprint,” Musgrave said.

The plan calls for, among other items, building three substations in the city, closing the Asheville coal-fired power plant, replacing it with a natural-gas-fired facility, removing coal ash, building a solar farm on-site, updating the local infrastructure, and building a 40-mile transmission line from one of Duke’s South Carolina plants, Musgrave explained.

The company is also “working with [PSNC Energy] to upgrade an existing intrastate gas pipeline that will serve the region beginning in 2019,” said Duke spokesperson Catherine Butler

An existing pipeline runs from Kings Mountain to Arden; the plan calls for connecting it to the larger intrastate Transco line that runs from the Gulf of Mexico to New York, according to information from Duke Energy.

Much of the plan does not require state oversight. The N.C. Utilities Commission must certify new power-production facilities and high-voltage transmission lines that deliver more than 160 kilovolts, said Sam Watson, counsel for the agency. But no state approval is required for substations, which must otherwise meet environmental, zoning, safety and other codes, he said.

Asheville zoning does not restrict substations

City residents and parents of Dickson students have asked the city to amend its Unified Development Ordinance to keep substations away from schools, but Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer has noted that state law would have to change to give the city such authority.

In 2010, the Eastern Band of Cherokee asked Duke to drop plans to build a substation near a sacred burial site in Swain County, Watson said.

“Ultimately, the tribe and the company worked together to find an alternate location,” he said.

Asheville residents and parents of Dickson students have similarly asked Duke to reconsider the Hill Street site. But the options may be limited in the city, which has densely populated areas and land that’s more expensive than rural Swain County.

“The company completed extensive studies prior to purchasing the potential substation sites, invested millions to acquire [them] and continues to believe they are best suited for serving the growing energy needs of everyone in Asheville,” Duke spokesperson Musgrave said.

Duke paid $5.35 million for the 16.93-acre property next to the school on Dec. 18, 2014.

During the design and research stages of substations and other projects, Musgrave said, Duke staff typically meets “with planning boards and environmental agencies to share plans to meet current and future customer demand.”

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Company representatives met with Asheville city staff in 2014 and drafted a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that winter for working together to identify workable sites, for example. According to minutes from Asheville City Council’s meeting on Feb. 25, the group discussed the MOU, which also included the company’s interest in donating 48 acres to the city of Asheville. According to the meeting minutes, city council consented to “as part of the MOU between Duke Energy and the City of Asheville, the City agrees to work in good faith to support the company’s effort to locate parcels for utility substation construction and associated transmission lines to support the growing electrical demands within the city.”

It is not clear whether that memorandum of understanding was ever signed. Carolina Public Press has asked both the city of Asheville and Asheville City Schools for email records related to those early discussions. It repeated those requests on June 18.

One of the major complaints from residents and school parents has been that they weren’t informed of Duke’s proposal.

“Substations are designed, engineered and configured to fit and operate safely within communities,” Musgrave said, noting parents’ concerns about safety. Duke has said that one of the reasons it selected the property at Dickson is that its size will enable the company to place the substation well away from the school and fence it in; the area will encompass approximately a 280-by-220-foot section of the property.

Meanwhile, the company’s big-picture plans are “all connected to modernizing the energy infrastructure in the Western Carolinas,” she said.

“As Asheville continues to grow, we must upgrade and expand the energy infrastructure to power the community,” Musgrave said. “Substations are a necessary part of the growth process and a necessary component of the electrical system.”

Correction: The dimensions of the proposed substation have been corrected.

Margaret Williams

Margaret Williams is a contributing reporter to Carolina Public Press and is based in Asheville, N.C. Contact her at mvwilliams39@gmail.com.

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