Duke scales back Asheville power plant, scraps transmission line

Duke Energy’s Asheville power plant is the largest in western North Carolina and dates to 1964.
Duke Energy’s Asheville power plant is the largest in western North Carolina and dates to 1964. Duke Energy

Duke Energy said Wednesday it will scale back its plans to convert its coal-fired Asheville power plant to natural gas and scrap a bitterly fought transmission line.

The announcement is a win for the thousands of mountain residents who had questioned the need for a new 650-megawatt power plant and power lines running 45 miles from Campobello, S.C., to southern Buncombe County.

Duke said it will instead build two smaller 280-megawatt gas units and won’t need the new transmission line. A third, 190-megawatt gas unit might be added in 2023 or later if needed to meet demand for power.

The utility faces growing demand for power at peak times in the Asheville region, where it serves 160,000 customers. Peak demand for electricity soared 30 percent higher in the past two winters than in previous years.

The transmission line was needed to send energy into the area if the large power plant that was initially planned had to shut down, Duke officials said.

Duke lacked the transmission capacity to replace a large plant’s output without a new line. But it could replace the energy generated by one of the smaller units by upgrading the existing transmission system.

Phillip Brown, a teacher whose family roots run to the 1830s in the Henderson County farm community of Mills River, was among landowners who fought the line.

The line’s 140-foot towers “would have changed the entire landscape in Mills River,” Brown said. “I hope this is what victory feels like. I appreciate that Duke listened and acted like they care about what we think.”

Duke said it will work with customers to reduce peak demand through energy efficiency, voluntary cutbacks during peak times and renewable energy.

“While the previous plan was more robust and scaled for the longer term, the new plan balances the concerns raised by the community and the very real need for more electricity to serve this growing region,” Lloyd Yates, Duke’s president for the Carolinas, said in a statement.

Duke said its community collaborations in shaving power demand will include working with Asheville City Council on its clean-energy strategy.

The company will aggressively work to increase the customers enrolled in programs in which they are rewarded for allowing Duke to briefly cut power during times of peak demand, spokesman Tom Williams said.

Duke will build a utility-scale solar farm at the Asheville plant.

Joan Walker, opposition campaign coordinator for the advocacy group MountainTrue, said Duke needs to step up marketing of its energy efficiency and demand response programs.

It’s hard for customers to find specifics on the programs, she said, and customer service representatives sometimes give conflicting information.

“I don’t think it’s just up to the customer,” Walker said. “I would call on Duke Energy to help us (compile resources) and not assume that people don’t want to save money and energy.”

Duke announced in May that it would replace coal power with natural gas in Asheville. Duke said it would shut down the two coal-fired units by 2020, replacing them with a larger one fueled by natural gas.

The $1.1 billion project would reduce air emissions and increase electricity generation, with cheaper fuel, in a region that has to import energy during peak periods.

By early October, after some 9,000 mostly-hostile public comments had been filed, Duke said it would rethink the project.

“I think Duke just wildly underestimated what the reaction would be,” Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican, said in late October. “If they thought Henderson County was a rural backwater, they were greatly disappointed.”

Instead critics in the county, which is a magnet for retired professionals, cranked out detailed analyses that questioned the need for 140-foot transmission towers strung across their mountains.

Opponents also tied Duke’s continued use of natural gas to fracking and climate change.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender