Kelly Martin and Bruce Nilles, director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. (Photo courtesy of Jenna Garland)
Kelly Martin of the Western North Carolina Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal initiative spoke at the Council of Independent Business Owners’ Friday, Feb. 7, meeting to address future goals and investments that could help wean the region off coal energy dependency.
Following last week’s Duke Energy plant coal ash spill into the Dan River near Eden, N.C., Martin’s words rang with the timeliness and urgency of the situation, reminding members of the importance of clean energy investments for the future.
“As someone who’s been looking for a transition to clean energy for the past almost two decades, it is a really, really exciting time in the electricity market,” Martin explained. “Because finally we’re seeing the cost of coal going up. So while, for decades, coal has been undoubtedly the cheapest source of electricity, the cost of fuel is going up.
“And what that has done,” she continued, “is open up the market space for clean energy. … It’s finally cheaper to get our power from wind than it is from fossil fuels, which, from the standpoint of wanting to see clean air and clean water and address tackling climate change, is an exciting thing.”
Martin explained that while the investments already in place to prevent excess pollution from being pumped into the air has reduced regional air pollution, thus reducing asthma rates in the area, the process produces a solidified byproduct, coal ash — the same pollutant that made headlines earlier this week.
“Unfortunately what has happened is that when we take out all the particles and the chemicals that were going into the air, they’re now being stored in coal ash, which is stored primarily in wet ponds and held back by earthen dams at 14 locations across the state,” she said. One of those locations is near Asheville — Duke’s Skyland plant includes one inactive and one active coal-ash pond next to Interstate 26 and the French Broad River.
“And we unfortunately had the disaster that just happened at the Dan River coal plant,” she said, mentioning the ruptured storm water pipe that caused a retired Duke Energy plant in Eden to spill just under 80,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River. The ash is “laden with things like arsenic and mercury and lead. … For those of you that are visual, it’s in the ballpark of 200 railcars of coal ash that are now in the Dan River.
“So it’s an important issue,” she continued. “To figure out how to protect our waterways. And that’s a really big ongoing issue that our state is grappling with now.”
CIBO’s agenda for the meeting posed the question, “Is one of their goals to shut down the Lake Julian power plant?” Martin said she wished to address this question before moving on with the presentation.
“When we talk about [the transition to clean energy], it makes people nervous,” she said. “It’s a really radical vision to talk about moving off of the coal plants for our electricity source in 40 years. But it is indeed happening all over the country. We’re seeing coal plants retire and no more coal plants will be built.
“The transition is one that is not happening overnight,” Martin continued. “So the analogy that I like to use is I have three small children. When they grow up I want them to be productive members of society. I want them to have awesome jobs where they contribute and find value in their work — and I’m not going to start preparing them for that when they’re 18 or in high school. … We’re investing in their educations and taking time to train them and prepare them for what’s to come in the world — and it’s not so different than how we envision moving off of coal — that we need to prepare now and make investments and advocate for energy solutions now, so that when the time is right for us to transition off of coal, we will be prepared.”
“We can’t flip the switch and no longer rely on coal plants today, but if we make the accurate and appropriate investments now, we will be prepared when that time comes.”
Following Martin’s presentation, the meeting opened up for audience questions.
Property appraiser and longtime CIBO member Mac Swicegood took a stand. “I think you’re very passionate on the subject that you speak on, and I admire you for that. The problem that I’m having is that you talked about the end of fossil fuel. … The question I’d like to propose for you is that power plants typically have to plan out 50 years to make a huge investment. In light of that, how do you see Lake Julian getting off of fossil fuel in 50 years? Because, based on our area, I don’t see that happening. Your organization should take that into consideration because we as rate-payers have to pay for your complaint.”
Martin explained that the main goal is to get off of coal, rather than fossil fuels as a whole. She said she believes the utility companies take the same stance, “because we’re not going to burn coal forever.”
“I say that one of the most compelling things is that when we invest in, for example, solar power, we are making a hedge against the rising cost of fossil fuels,” she said, mentioning that North Carolina ranks second in solar energy capacity in the country. “So we’re locking in contracts with renewable energy providers. And we know what that fuel cost is going to be. And we know what the electricity generation is going to be.
“We don’t know what the cost of coal is going to be,” Martin continued. “We don’t know what the cost of natural gas is going to be. We don’t know how high those are going to go up. So there’s actually a pretty compelling argument in the economics for locking in some of the cheaper sources of electricity in the long term.”