Duke Energy-Progress has proposed replacing its coal-fired power plant on Asheville's Lake Julian, seen here, with a complex of natural-gas plants. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

Editor’s note: This article previewed a Jan. 26, 2016, hearing that the North Carolina Utilities Commission conducted in Asheville, focusing on some of the rules that applied for this type of session. An article on the actual meeting can be viewed here.

Those hoping to participate in the state Utilities Commission hearing next week in Asheville on Duke Energy Progress’ plans for the region may find themselves swearing.

They’ll have to if they want to address the quasi-judicial hearing.

That and other rules governing the event could come as a surprise for some residents who are accustomed to speaking at a range of other public hearings.

Many public hearings only require that speakers register in advance. They’re then allotted a period of time to speak, depending on how many people sign up.

This will also be true at the Utilities Commission session, slated for 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Buncombe County Courthouse. But under the current rules of the Utilities Commission, a few wrinkles in the proceedings could depart from what many activists and other interested residents have come to expect at hearings.

Rules for witnesses

Speakers will have to be sworn in. Although that’s not unheard of at some local-government meetings in which a commission, board or council must vote to open a quasi-judicial proceeding, the implications of it for the Utilities Commission hearing could be different.

Testimony under oath is expected to be truthful. Unlike many local boards, testimony to the utility commission would be subject to cross-examination. A person who testified about anything other than their own opinions should be prepared to have their factual claims challenged during cross-examination.

And no one will be allowed to testify with a partner or group.

The Utilities Commission adopted these rules due to disruptive forms of testimony that occurred at previous hearings. Some witnesses had testified in groups, performing skits in character, or with unusual visual props that the state agency’s officials may have felt were not constructive and took away from the dignity of the proceedings.

Being placed under oath begs the question of consequences for untruthful testimony. While there’s no precedent for charging someone with offering false testimony at a hearing of this type, in theory someone who swore to tell the truth and then knowingly bore false witness could face prosecution for perjury.

Sticking to topic

The subject of testimony will also be limited to the topic of the hearing, which is Duke’s petition to build “a combined cycle natural-gas-fueled electric generation facility in Buncombe County,” the company’s “Western Carolinas Modernization Project.”

Duke previously proposed replacing its existing coal plant at Lake Julian in South Asheville with a larger natural gas plant and stringing miles of lines across the foothills region to a substation in upstate South Carolina. After that plan brought widespread condemnation, Duke revised its plans.

The present version of the modernization project would envision two smaller natural gas plant at the site, with another smaller one to follow. It also calls on residents throughout the western region to conserve energy. A smaller solar plant could later be located at the site, though its power generation would be less than 3 percent of the total at the location.

Environmental groups protested Duke’s original plan, then cautiously applauded its revision. The same groups have remained critical of aspects of the new plan and called for the company to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels further. Some have called on supporters to be present at Tuesday’s hearing.

Advocacy groups also asked the utility commission to authorize a more formal evidence-based judicial hearing on Duke’s request, but that proposal was rejected, citing rules of procedure.

According to a Jan. 15 Charlotte Observer report, because the General Assembly requires that hearings on petitions of this type be conducted within 45 days, the utilities commission decided there would not have been enough time to arrange and conduct a more formal hearing with expert witnesses.

Weather woes

Whether Tuesday’s hearing takes place could also depend on the weather. A major winter storm system is expected to strike Buncombe County and surrounding areas over the weekend, with some forecasts calling for up to 18 inches of snow accumulation. While the weather should improve by Tuesday night, lingering problems with impassable roads could affect the event.

A spokesman for the utilities commission told Carolina Public Press on Thursday that there is no backup plan per se for bad weather and that previous hearings have been conducted in adverse conditions.

On the other hand, commissioners have to travel from Raleigh to Asheville. If they can’t make it to Asheville, the session would have to be postponed. In that case, a new date would be announced.

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

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