Duke Energy's Marshall coal-fired power plant on Lake Norman. Diedra Laird/Charlotte Observer

HENDERSONVILLE — Two environmental advocacy groups continued their campaign to seek changes in Duke Energy’s Western North Carolina plans with a “Protect Our Land” picnic Sunday, Oct. 18, at the Historic Henderson County Courthouse.

Organizers reported that some 200 WNC and upstate South Carolina residents attended. The Carolina Land Coalition and MountainTrue have been attempting to rally opposition to Duke’s “modernization” plans, which include an Asheville natural gas plant, a substation in Campobello, S.C., and high-voltage lines connecting them.

“This is a modernization plan that doesn’t actually include anything modern,” MountainTrue Campaign Coordinator Joan Walker told Carolina Public Press in a phone interview on Friday.

An advance email promoting Sunday’s event to MountainTrue supporters credited the environmental groups’ joint efforts in getting Duke to change its timing.

Duke recently announced a month delay in revealing its route for new transmissions lines, previously expected in early October. The energy company noted that the project has drawn more than 9,000 public comments.

“Because of your hard work, Duke is now listening,” Walker wrote to supporters. “Every part of Duke Energy’s plan is now up for negotiation.”

Concerned comments

While Walker writes that Duke had admitted it’s responding to 9,000 public comments and cited “growing opposition,” Duke’s public statements and spokespeople have used more nuanced language.

Duke’s statements have generally indicated “concerns” about some aspects of the plans, but not described outright opposition.

Tim Pettit, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, told Carolina Public Press on Friday that many of the “comments” are actually factual questions asked by people wondering about how or whether the plan would affect their property.

Other commenters are inquiring about specific aspects of Duke’s plans, seeking additional information. But many of the comments do express concerns about aspects of the plan.

“Our goal is to have the best possible plan with the least impact on property owners, the environment and the communities we serve,” said Robert Sipes, general manager of delivery operations for the Western Carolinas, in a statement earlier this month. “Concerns about the transmission line and substation – and the potential impact on tourism and mountain views we all enjoy – are significant.”

“The company is looking at all options that can meet the region’s power demand over the next 10 to 15 years – including possible alternatives to the transmission line, … substation and the configuration of the … plant,” the company said in its Oct. 8 news release regarding the delay.

Walker agreed that her group doesn’t actually know what’s in the comments. But she blames Duke for that as well.

“Duke hasn’t released those comments,” she told CPP, encouraging the company to make the comments available and bring greater transparency to its decision-making process.

The tone of remarks made in public on the subject have been clear, Walker noted. She pointed to several recent public comments sessions in the region that drew substantial crowds.

“Not a single person got up and said they thought this was a good plan,” Walker said. “Overwhelmingly those comments were opposed to the plan.”

Cleaner energy?

Addressing the crowd Sunday, Walker pointed to statistics that suggest Duke has done less than other major energy companies to improve its efficiency and reliance on cleaner energy.

“Duke is the largest investor-owned utility in the nation but lags behind on energy efficiency,” she said. “Out of the top 32 utilities, it ranks 22nd. Duke can do better.

“Instead of an over-sized power plan and a substation in South Carolina, we want Duke Energy to use the renewable energy that we have and to build even more green infrastructure. Of the same top 32 utilities, Duke Energy ranks 19th in use of clean, renewable energy.”

Duke Energy has said it remains committed to the overall goals of its modernization plan, which include replacing the old coal-burning plant in Asheville with a natural-gas one, which the company describes as burning cleaner than coal.

Pettit said that part of the plan has generally drawn strong support from those concerned about air quality and Duke isn’t rethinking plans for the plant itself, only for its configuration.

Walker said her group remains troubled by Duke’s choices on the new plant, which would be located on Lake Julian near Asheville. “We’re pleased to see the coal plant is going away,” she told CPP. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are moving in the right direction.”

She noted that while natural gas is somewhat cleaner than coal, it’s still a fossil fuel that generates greenhouse gases. Duke’s choices for the plant could also drive up utility rates for WNC customers, she warned.

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Frank Taylor is the managing editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact him at ftaylor@carolinapublicpress.org.

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