This is a guest blog Joan Walker, MountainTrue Campaign Director/Interim Director of Southern Region.
On January 26, in Asheville, our communities will have their only chance to speak on Duke Energy’s plans for Western North Carolina at a public hearing of the North Carolina Utilities Commission. This is the final chapter in a long campaign that has brought our communities together in the fight for a smarter, cleaner energy future.
Let’s rewind to May of 2015, when Duke Energy announced they would retire their Asheville coal-fired power plant. Those of us who have been working for years to secure that retirement experienced a confusing mix of excitement and disappointment. While our region would finally be free from our dependence on coal, Duke was planning a massive new natural gas-powered infrastructure project.
On one hand, Duke Energy’s Western Carolina’s Modernization Project would be a final end to the toxic coal ash that pollutes the French Broad River, a vital environmental and economic resource in Western North Carolina. On the other hand, Duke was proposing to double down on fossil fuels by replacing the 414-megawatt coal plant with 650 megawatts of natural-gas fired capacity along with giant transmission lines and a new substation that would have ripped through towns, farmlands, forests and other ecologically and culturally sensitive areas.
Appalled at Duke Energy’s disregard for the visual beauty of our area, our diverse ecology and natural treasures and locals property values, communities across the foothills and mountains of North and South Carolina came together and called on Duke to scale back their proposal.
MountainTrue helped put together the Carolina Land Coalition and called on Duke to justify the large scale of the project and seek more forward-facing solutions like energy efficiency and renewable technologies. Rather than doubling down on fossil fuels to meet electricity demand, the coalition called on Duke to investing ratepayers’ dollars on truly modern solutions that save customers money in the long run do less harm to our climate and local environment. Our campaign to reform Duke’s “modernization” project generated substantial press coverage, two packed utility regulator staff meetings in two states, multiple action events and over 9,000 public comments to Duke Energy.
Under incredible public pressure, Duke initially delayed their announcement of the path that their proposed new transmission line would take. Then on November 4, Duke Energy announced a revised modernization plan that scrapped the transmission lines and substations and a new configuration to the gas plant.
Rather than one 650-megawatt unit that required larger transmission lines for backup, Duke would build two 280-mw units and committed to meeting future demand through a collaborative community effort focused on “energy efficiency, demand response, renewable energy and new technologies”. Their much improved plan came with what some read as a call to action to the region: Work with us to reduce growing energy demand, or Duke would have to build “a third power [natural-gas] plant to be built…in 2023 or later dependent on success of collaborative efforts.”
Rather than going all in with communities to try to avoid the third peaking unit, Duke Energy is seeking approval for the additional capacity now. While their press announcement of their filing mentions building solar capacity and battery storage in Western North Carolina, the utility has not at this time filed for approval for these or any new energy efficiency programs.
Duke’s final application is now before the North Carolina Utilities Commission in a fast-tracked approval process laid out by the N.C. legislature in the Mountain Energy Act. MountainTrue and Sierra Club, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center are intervening in the proceedings before the N.C. Utilities Commission so that we have a voice at the table. In this abbreviated process the N.C. Utilities commission only has 45 days to make a decision after Duke filed their application on January 15 and the public will only have 11 days to review and develop their public comments before the January 26 hearing.
This is a critical time in Western North Carolina’s energy future, and an important time for people to speak up for their vision of how we want to grow and thrive as a region moving forward. This summer the people spoke and Duke Energy listened and changed their plans. This powerful precedent can play out again with the N.C. Utilities Commission if we speak in one voice for a plan that puts us on track for a clean energy future! Find more information on the hearing, submit public comments and RSVP for the hearing, visit bit.ly/fixdukesplan.