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 — Momentum is building in the effort to avoid construction of one of three natural gas plants Duke Energy planned to build that would replace the coal plant on Lake Julian.

At Tuesday’s joint City Council and County Commissioners meeting, members of the Energy Innovation Task Force, comprised of local government as well as representatives from Duke Energy, and Rocky Mountain Institute announced that they have begun to research options for the taxpayers and for the environment. They hope to present a two-year plan in the next few months before the City Council hears budget proposals.

“Eyes are on us,” said Councilwoman Julie Mayfield. No other cities have worked with an energy corporation in a partnership like this, she said.

The Energy Innovation Task Force is open to the public and is so far comprised of citizens, businesses and organizations from UNCA to Biltmore Farms, New Belgium Brewing and Mission Hospital, all committed to finding affordable, clean energy solutions for the community.

Duke Energy Progress is planning to build two natural gas-powered generating units, together capable of producing 560 megawatts. Duke could build the third plant as a contingency for use during peak demand times, such as cold, winter mornings. After receiving thousands of complaints from citizens, Duke has decided to partner with the local government and community to try to come up with a way to reduce energy demand, potentially eliminating the need for a third plant.

“It’s a very expensive investment that will be used very infrequently,” said Brownie Newman, Buncombe County Commission chair.

Virginia Lacy, a Senior Consultant at Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute, presented data the nonprofit organization has compiled as it works with the task force to come up with energy-efficient and cost-saving solutions.

By 2023, the city needs to reduce its energy consumption by 17 MW. According to Lacy, “this is very doable.”

Peak energy usage in Buncombe County is 7-9 a.m. and 5-8 p.m. in the winter.

Duke Energy has an energy-saving program the task force hopes to popularize called Energy-Wise. Duke arranges for an approved contractor to install smart technology outside of a customer’s home that communicates with the air-conditioning unit or heater to cycle on and off during peak times. Overall the minutes of energy used is the same, so the bill isn’t affected. In return for enrolling, customers get yearly bill credits.

Other strategies listed on the city’s website include maximizing the area’s access to the Neighborhood Energy Saving Program, increasing participation in New Home Rebate incentive programs and creating a commercial energy-efficiency competition.

“It’s not just about the environment,” Mayfield said. “It’s about making people’s lives better.”

The city now spends $2 million annually paying for low-income families’ heat. These efforts could save taxpayer money and alleviate the burden of living in a miserably cold home by making the heating systems work more economically and effectively.

Jason Walls, Communications Manager at Duke Energy, said the company is on-board partly to set an example.

“We’re going to create a national model by working together,” Walls said at the meeting.

Duke Energy has committed to supply 5 MW of battery storage, and 15 MW solar energy.

“This is an example of the community coming together as a catalyst for change,” Lacy said. She said she anticipates the partners will have to get more buy-in from upper management at Duke Energy as the project moves forward.

The next Energy Task Force Meeting is 10 to noon Thursday in the City of Asheville Public Works Conference Room A-109.

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Amanda James is a contributing government reporter for Carolina Public Press.

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