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ASHEVILLE — The Asheville Beyond Coal campaign launched into action yesterday as a national environmental organization called on residents to harness their sustainable awareness and work toward a clean energy solution for Asheville.
Bruce Nilles, senior director of the Sierra Club’s national Beyond Coal Campaign, announced the campaign’s launch Wednesday at the Western North Carolina Alliance-sponsored Green Drinks event in downtown Asheville. About 50 people ranging from those curious about the project to those who have been fighting for sustainable energy in Western North Carolina for decades gathered at the event.
The campaign aims to negotiate the “retirement” of Progress Energy’s coal-fired plant in South Asheville, which powers the region. The launch comes on the back of a national effort to transition from old coal-fired power plants to clean energy sources, such as solar and wind power.
“There’s all this incredible passion and understanding about climate change here,” Nilles said. “But when you drive into town the very first thing you see … is the giant filthy coal plant.
“It’s rather iconic.”
Organizers hope to engage and educate residents and local organizations about the effects of coal-based energy as a pollutant to air and waterways. Nilles said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deemed the coal ash ponds located in Western North Carolina as some of the most dangerous ones in the country.
Power companies store the residue from coal-burning operations in what are known as coal ash ponds, said Anna Jane Joyner, WNC Alliance community organizer, at the launch. Progress Energy has two large stores near its facility.
“This is not just about energy, it’s not just about energy use, it’s not just about sustainable energy,” said Julie Mayfield, executive director of the WNC Alliance. “But it’s about the ecological integrity of our region and trying to protect what’s left.”
Progress Energy spokesman Mike Hughes said the South Asheville plant is the sole coal-based power provider in the region and has invested $200 million in modern emission controls to lower the environmental effects of the plant. Hughes said he was unaware that the campaign had contacted the company.
Still, Asheville Beyond Coal campaign organizers want the company to do more, and Nilles said, “We have let them know, we have asked them to engage in a dialogue, and we are waiting hear back from them.”
Kelly Martin, the Sierra Club’s North Carolina campaign representative, said Asheville is a key place for the effort because of its demonstrated commitment to change.
“We have an opportunity in North Carolina,” she said, “and the opportunity is around the fact that Asheville is in this leadership position for its sustainability efforts and that the citizens here are really concerned about clean energy and concerned about being environmentally friendly.”
Nilles said kick-starting the conversation to find other ways to power the mountain area is the first step.
“What we’ve found is utilities, at the end of the day, can’t ignore public sentiment, and they can’t ignore local officials,” he said.
However, Progress Energy’s spokesman said there is more to the issue than the coal plant’s retirement.
“Those who advocate or indicate that you can trade out a coal plant for a solar plant (are) simply not telling you the whole story,” Hughes said. “It’s not apples to apples.”
He said that Progress Energy openly welcomes the discussion and respects the different perspectives on the issue, but its responsibility to provide its customers with 24-hour service is its most important commitment.
“We fully support a move to cleaner technology,” he said. “(But) we have to deal in the realities of energy demand, cost, reliability and what’s achievable.
“A threefold strategy for meeting future energy needs (is) energy efficiency, investments in renewable and more technological energy and ensuring we have state-of-the-art power systems.”
The three are “vital to ensuring we meet future demand,” he said.
So far, Nilles said, the Beyond Coal Campaign has worked with power companies to retire 110 coal-fired power plants across the country, and the companies have transitioned to clean-energy sources such as wind energy and solar power.
However, everyone conceded that the conversation would not be an easy one. Retiring a coal plant is “daunting,” Nilles said, but to make change become reality, the conversation must happen.
“It will not be an easy conversation,” Mayfield said, “and it will not be an easy solution, but we should try.”
Correction: Progress Energy has spent $200 million on emissions controls. A previous version of this story stated otherwise.