Consumer agency: Limit Duke Energy power plants

Coal ash from a Duke Energy power plant is being used as fill material at Asheville Regional Airport.
Coal ash from a Duke Energy power plant is being used as fill material at Asheville Regional Airport. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Duke Energy should be allowed to build two, but not three, new natural gas units to replace a coal-fired power plant in Asheville, says an agency that advocates for utility consumers.

The Public Staff, which advises the North Carolina Utilities Commission, has a highly influential voice in commission decisions.

Under fast-track legislation passed last year, the commission has until the end of February to rule on Duke’s $1.1 billion project.

After scaling back the project to scrap a 45-mile power line, Duke wants to replace the coal plant with two natural gas units.

Duke serves 160,000 customers in the Asheville area. Demand for electricity during peak times there has grown by 2.5 percent a year since 2000, Duke says, and is expected to grow by 17 percent over the next decade.

The Public Staff, in a document filed in advance of a staff presentation it will make Monday, agrees that two units are needed.

But Duke also seeks approval to possibly build a third, smaller gas unit, that the Public Staff found “problematic.” Duke says it would build the third unit if local efforts fail to reduce demand during peak times, such as cold winter mornings.

The Public Staff disagreed, saying Duke will have ample time later to seek separate approval for the extra unit. New technologies and alternatives might emerge by 2024, it said, when Duke’s projections say a third unit would be needed.

“In the Public Staff’s view, the better course of action at this time would be for the commission to wait and see how load growth develops in the region and whether collaboration between the company and the Asheville community results in significantly reduced electricity usage and demand,” it wrote.

The North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, one of several parties to the case, took a similar position. Other critics have questioned the need for any new construction, arguing that Duke has not justified its needs or has alternatives.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender