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

ASHEVILLE — If Duke Energy-Progress is disappointed with the N.C. Utilities Commission’s decision Monday to approve only two of the three natural gas units the company had requested permission to build at its Lake Julian site, the company’s official response did a good job of hiding it.

“We appreciate the North Carolina Utilities Commission’s thorough consideration and decision on our Western Carolinas Modernization Project,” said David Fountain, Duke Energy’s North Carolina president. “We are fully committed to creating a smarter and cleaner energy future for the region.

“We also have a unique opportunity to work with the community to reduce energy demand and invest in technology that will provide cleaner energy to power the growing region of Western North Carolina.”

Reading between the lines, Duke executives may have taken a cue from the old Meat Loaf lyric: “Two out of three ain’t bad.”

The response was a far cry from rumblings the company made after a Utilities Commission meeting Feb. 22 in Raleigh, which indicated that Duke might not retire its coal-fired operations in Buncombe County if the state balked at too much of its request.

Requested units

Duke had sought a permit for two 280-megawatt natural gas units to produce electricity and replace the aging 376-megawatt coal-fired facility at the site by 2020. Despite some objections from environmental groups and advocates for alternative energy, this part of the plan had minimal opposition. Utilities Commission staff recommended approving the two units.

Several of the environmental organizations who had intervened in Duke’s petition appeared resigned to these units being approved. The Mountain Energy Act passed by the General Assembly under the sponsorship of Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, last year to provide specific guidelines regarding the future of Duke’s operations in the region called for a move from coal to natural gas and provided no statutory support for forcing the company to convert to more carbon-neutral alternatives.

But Utilities Commission staff and conservation advocates concerned about long-term pollution and continued reliance on greenhouse-gas-producing fossil fuels had much greater problems with Duke’s request to have a green light now for a third natural-gas unit as a contingency that wouldn’t be needed before 2024, if it was needed at all.

In announcing its decision, the Utilities Commission noted that approving the two main units and rejecting the contingency unit was a nod to the concerns from both its staff and the outside groups.

A staff member told Carolina Public Press on Feb. 17 that a key issue was the potential development of new technology that might become available at less cost, greater efficiency and overall superiority to what Duke was requesting, long before the company actually needed permission.

So, they reasoned, why give Duke a blank check on a potentially outdated plant now? With an estimated two years to build a permitted unit, Duke would be able to seek a permit with more up-to-date information and reliance on the newest technology any time during the next eight years.

Advocates respond

The environmental advocacy organizations intervening in the case expressed mixed feelings about the decision in a joint statement released Monday. They reiterated their opposition to continued reliance on fossil fuels, but also applauded the state’s rejection of the contingency plant.

“We’re disappointed in the North Carolina Utilities Commission’s decision to approve Duke Energy’s plans for a huge new gas-fired power plant near Asheville,” said Gudrun Thompson, the senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who represented MountainTrue and Sierra Club in the proceedings.

“We welcome Duke’s long-overdue commitments to retire the Asheville coal plant in 2020 and clean up the leaking coal ash basins at the site. And we agree with the commission’s decision to deny Duke’s premature application for the third unit.

“But replacing the coal plant with an oversized, billion-dollar gas plant will lock the region into dependence on dirty fossil-fueled power for decades when the rest of the nation is transitioning to cleaner, cheaper energy resources.”

Katie Hicks, associate director of Clean Water for North Carolina credited the outpouring of public sentiment against the third plan for moving the Utilities Commission against approving this part of Duke’s request.

“Thanks to an overwhelming number of public comments at the January hearing in Asheville, we are glad to see the Utilities Commission deny Duke Energy’s application for a third natural gas peaking unit,” she wrote in an email to Carolina Public Press. But she also expressed disappointment with the move to natural gas, not just because of it’s carbon footprint but also because of the broader impacts of its production, transporation and use.

“The company’s decision to continue relying on fossil fuels by converting the Asheville plant to natural gas when renewables, energy efficiency and battery technologies are available now is ridiculous. Natural gas is terrible for the climate and has massive impacts on water, air and public health during extraction and transport.

“From fast-tracking this application to giving Duke Energy even more time to clean up their dangerous coal ash pits at the site, the state has failed to hold Duke Energy and its shareholders accountable for truly protecting NC residents from the health and environmental hazards of fossil fuels, and the company has shirked its responsibility as the largest electric utility in the country to be a leader in moving swiftly to a clean energy future.”

Coal ash

Phasing out of coal-fired power in Asheville will bring an end to the production of coal ash, a waste product that has traditionally been stored underwater, but has the potential for contaminating soil and water when containment facilities leak or overflow.

The best way to handle the large amount of existing coal ash at storage facilities around North Carolina remains a contentious issue for Duke. In Western North Carolina, Duke has operated coal facilities at Lake Julian in southern Buncombe County and at Cliffdale in eastern Rutherford County.

Other sites are scattered around the state. Several of them have the potential to affect drinking water for major cities in the Piedmont and Coastal Plains if coal ash gets into adjacent lakes and streams.

A major coal ash spill on the Dan River near the Virginia state line in February 2014 first drew widespread public attention to the issue in North Carolina, though environmental advocates had been expressing concerns about the potential for disaster at coal-ash storage ponds for years.

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

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