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Duke Energy Progress’s petition to replace its coal plant on Lake Julian in Asheville with a complex of mostly natural gas plants received harsh criticism from customers Tuesday night at a public hearing before the state Utilities Commission at the Buncombe County Courthouse.
Nearly every speaker opposed the Charlotte-based energy giant’s plans, which it has billed as a modernization scheme for Western North Carolina, including the rapidly growing Asheville metropolitan area.
While many applauded Duke’s move away from coal and its decision in November to revise its plans, thus eliminating controversial power lines connecting the facility to a substation in South Carolina, most speakers expressed serious reservations about aspects of the new plan.
Not quite everyone who addressed the hearing was opposed to Duke’s plans. One speaker who said he represented a group of independent businesses called for approval of the petition in order to ensure sufficient power for growth that’s already coming to the Asheville area. But his was a lonely voice.
A key point that many speakers addressed was Duke’s inclusion of a third natural gas plant at the site, alongside the two main units it is proposing. Duke has said this third plant, which would help it address peak demand, might not ever be necessary, but obtaining a permit for it now would be essential to allow the full project to move forward.
Even speakers who accepted the basic premise of a natural gas facility at the site as an improvement on coal, said this third plant ought not to receive approval at this time.
Several suggested that the company could submit an application in a few years if it becomes clear the plant is actually needed. They also questioned why Duke included its contingency natural gas plant in its application, but not a solar plant that the company has also promised for the site.
Katie Hicks of Clean Water North Carolina told the Utilities Commission that its decision should be based on what’s best for the consumer, not Duke’s bottom line, though she said the proposal wouldn’t be the best solution for either.
She called for the commission to at least reject the application for the third “peaking” unit.
Other speakers called for rejection of the entire plan. Many of these speakers deplored the use of natural gas, the burning of which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.
Many of these speakers focused on the negative effects of climate change and the community’s responsibility to mitigate its effects.
Some speakers called for Duke to place natural gas facilities elsewhere to avoid hot months like December 2015.
It was not clear whether these speakers were joking or failed to realize that climate change science represents a global phenomenon, so that carbon emissions anywhere in the world have exactly the same impact on Asheville climate as emissions in Buncombe County.
While some of those concerned about climate change discussed it in terms of Duke building unnecessarily, an issue within the scope of the Utility Commission’s statutory authority, others made more emotional or moral arguments.
“Look into the part of your heart where truth lives and see if this plan feels right,” said Rowdy Keeler of Asheville.
Natural gas woes
Several of those testifying before the commission also discussed problems related to the extraction, storage and transportation of natural gas.
They noted that hydraulic fracturing has allowed the cheap removal of natural gas from the ground, but the practice has been accused of contributing to health problems in some locations. Several also pointed to an ongoing methane leak at a natural gas facility in California.
Others said relying on natural gas means building a substantial pipeline infrastructure, which could become outmoded as regulations change or alternative power sources become more attractive, leaving Duke’s customers to pay for something that’s no longer needed.
One speaker suggested that natural gas should be relied on more as a direct source for heating furnaces in Western North Carolina, instead of inefficiently burning it at a plant to create electricity that is then used for heating.
As much as those addressing the Utilities Commission disliked natural gas, they loved efficiency and renewable energy.
Speaker after speaker called for an approach relying more heavily on solar energy throughout WNC, pointing to the many success stories for residents, organizations, churches and businesses that had adopted these approaches on a small scale.
Several suggested that Duke could partner with local governments and businesses to create solar or wind operations in the area, which they said would create more jobs than the natural gas plants would.
Others noted Duke’s public statements in support of cooperation and a push for energy conservation, calling on the company to lay down concrete measures that would incentivize retrofitting buildings for better weathering.
The process itself was also a point of contention. Asheville resident Kathy Scott noted that the legislature’s actions setting up the situation amounted to fast-tracking, so that the Utilities Commission would not have all the time needed to conduct a more thorough hearing. She warned that the board risked becoming a mere tool of the power company if it didn’t reject Duke’s petition.
While many of the speakers were affiliated at some level with conservation groups including the Sierra Club and MountainTrue, both of which have been given permission to officially intervene in the case, many others of the more than 60 who signed up to speak were individual residents and Duke Energy Progress customers not affiliated with any group.
The judicial format of the hearing allowed for cross-examination of witnesses. This led to a couple tense moments as two speakers quoted from materials labeled “confidential” but apparently posted in all or part on the Utilities Commission website.
Both speakers addressed concerns about specific numbers in Duke’s application and questioned whether the plant sizes being proposed were appropriate. It was unclear from the discussion whether confidential material had been revealed or a nonconfidential document from which some material had been redacted was in question.
An attorney representing the intervening conservation groups gained an acknowledgement from one of these witnesses that those organizations had not divulged anything inappropriate.
The formality of the process also led to some points of levity. Due to commission rules, certain types of presentations were not allowed. One specifically forbidden was singing. When Kendall Hall of Fairview took the stand, she explained that she had in fact planned to sing, but would instead read her lyrics, which included a memorable warning for members of the Utility Commission not to be Duke’s “stooges.”
The Utilities Commission will meet in Raleigh on Feb. 22 to consider Duke’s petition. It will take into account the testimony from Tuesday’s session. Depending on the outcome of that meeting, Duke’s petition could be granted in full or in part, or could be denied.