Environmental and green-energy advocates are lining up against Duke Energy’s plan to build a new power plant in Asheville.
Duke has already reduced the scale of the project, which will replace coal fuel with cleaner-burning natural gas, and scrapped plans for a 45-mile power line. But critics now question the need for the plant and its reliance on a fossil fuel linked to climate change.
“It is like telling your patient with lung cancer to stop smoking a pack of cigarettes per day, but could replace them with unlimited cigar smoking,” wrote Dr. Richard Fireman, a Mars Hill physician. “Both are addicting and both lead to fatalities.”
Duke says it needs more generating capacity to meet rising demand for electricity at peak times in the Asheville region, where it serves 160,000 customers.
Two gas-fired units of 280 megawatts each would replace an existing 379 megawatt coal plant. Duke also wants approval to build a third, 186-megawatt unit if needed by 2023.
Detailed critiques of the plan are being submitted on paper without the expert testimony at hearings that are typical for such projects. Legislation enacted last year ordered an unusually quick 45-day approval process by the state Utilities Commission, making a final decision due by early March.
A key indicator of which way the case may go will come next Monday . That’s when the commission’s Public Staff, which advocates for consumers, will make its recommendations.
Duke says it will respond then to the arguments of other parties in the case:
Buy energy elsewhere
The owners of a 523-megawatt gas plant near Columbia, S.C., say Duke can buy the plant’s full output, ending the need for a new plant.
Columbia Energy LLC claims the $1.1 billion construction cost Duke has quoted for the Asheville plant is 60 percent higher than the market cost.
Duke has described the Asheville area as an energy island with limited ability to import electricity from outside the region.
Reduce plant’s size
State law requires utilities to prove new infrastructure is needed. Duke hasn’t done that, the Sierra Club and the Asheville advocacy group MountainTrue say.
The commission could force Duke to scale back the size of the new units, the groups say, or make Duke retire additional coal-fired plants equal as a condition of approval.
Scrap third plant
The North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association says the commission should deny Duke approval to possibly bring a third gas unit online in 2023.
Duke says the unit might not be needed if alternatives reduce peak energy demand in Asheville. That’s not the same thing as a public need, the association argues, adding that Duke could apply separately for the third unit later.
Kill the project
The fast-track approval process allows too little time to vet the project interest, say NC WARN and the Boone-based Climate Times.
The groups claim excess generating capacity already exists within Duke’s territory and say Duke could meet Asheville’s energy needs through increased energy efficiency and renewable energy.
Duke has said it intends to install a solar farm and battery storage in Asheville, and has appealed for local residents to help reduce energy usage in times of high demand.
Pressure to end the use of fossil fuels, and the advent of new technologies, added Asheville financial analyst Brad Rouse, “may make the (new) plant economically obsolete on its first day of operation.”