State Utilities Commissioners James Patterson (l) and Bryan Beatty question Duke Energy counsel Bo Somers during state Utilities Commission hearings Monday.

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Editor’s note: The decision anticipated in this story was handed down on Feb. 29. Read about the final decision here.

Co-published with Mountain Xpress

RALEIGH — After a hearing disrupted several times by protests, the chair of the state Utilities Commission said he expects to meet a legislative deadline for a decision on Duke Energy-Progress’ conversion of its Asheville facility.

Meanwhile, Duke warned that it may not phase out its coal-fired units at the site if its petition is denied.

Utilities Commission Chairman Edward Finley Jr. said Monday that under the legislature’s 2015 Mountain Energy Act the commission had 45 days to act after Duke’s application, making Feb. 29 the deadline for a decision.

In an interview with Carolina Public Press, Finley said there doesn’t appear to be any wiggle room on the deadline in the 2015 law, but the commission has been advised that it has the option of making a decision in time to meet the deadline and then adding specifics to its order at a later date.

“I don’t want to suggest this is what will happen, but what we have done in the past is issue a ‘notice of decision’ that tells what the decision of the commission is but leaves some of the rationale and details of the order to fill in later.”

Finley declined to say whether he thought the commission, which held a public hearing in Asheville late last month, had received enough information to make a decision.

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Monday’s hearing in Raleigh got off to a rocky start when it was disrupted by protesters from the newly formed NC Power Forward. Police eventually escorted a handful of protesters out of the room. Some members of the group remained in the audience at the hearing and shouted their displeasure twice more during the proceedings before being escorted out of the building by police. None were arrested.

Before her ejection, Anna Farlessyost, a 16-year-old from Mars Hill, said she was speaking up for her generation in calling for a rejection of further expansion of fossil-fuel use.

“The reality of climate change demands that we begin the transition to 100 percent clean energy now, not 30 years from now,” she said.

The new group joins several others including NC WARN, Mountain True and Sierra Club in opposing Duke’s plans for phasing out coal burning units at the Asheville Generation Station on Lake Julian, replacing coal power with up to three natural-gas-fired units.

Opposition to the plant has centered on the size of the generating capacity requested by the utility. Duke wants to build two 280 mw combined cycle natural gas units by 2019 and a possible combustion turbine unit that would add an additional 186 megawatts of generating capacity by 2024.

The public staff of the Utilities Commission, a state agency charged with advocating on behalf of consumers, recommended accepting Duke’s plans for the two combined cycle units, but rejected the reasoning for the proposed third unit.

That recommendation cited the probability of technological developments that would affect the type of plant needed and that Duke would only need two years to build a plant, rather than the eight it would get by locking in permission for the contingent plant now.

At Monday’s hearing, Bo Somers, deputy general counsel for Duke Energy, said the company is optimistic that additional energy efficiency and alternative sources could eliminate the need for the third unit, but wants to keep the option open in case those efforts fall short.

Environmental groups said the company’s expansion plans are larger than necessary and continues a reliance on fossil fuel burning and called on the commission to reject the third unit and downsize the other two.

Gudrun Thompson, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center representing Mountain True and the Sierra Club, told commissioners that the groups “strongly support” the utility’s plans to eliminate the plant’s two coal-fired units and clean up the coal-ash basins at the site as well as the recent decision by the company to withdraw a controversial power-line project between Asheville and upstate South Carolina.

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“But unlike those decisions,” Thompson said, “Duke’s current proposal would lock in a long-term commitment to new fossil-fuel generation in Western North Carolina.”

Thompson urged the commission to take a hard look at the plan despite the tight timeline. “We know that the legislature has put this on the fast track, but Duke’s application leaves a lot of unanswered questions,” she said.

Somers criticized the opposition to the plan as ill-informed, saying reducing the size of the units would not be cost-effective and would not give Duke’s power-generation fleet the full advantage of new, more efficient units.

The company, he said, has to make decisions based on what’s best for customers throughout its service area, not just one region.

Should the groups lined up against the company’s plans in WNC prevail, Somers told the commission, the company would change its strategy, add roughly $100 million in environmental controls to the Asheville plant and continue to operate the coal-fired units.

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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