Duke Energy to retire Asheville coal plant

File photo by Max Cooper

Duke Energy announced that it will be retiring its Asheville power plant within four to five years. The announcement, made on the morning of Tuesday, May 19, adds that the company will invest $750 million to build a 650-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant and install solar generators at the site. Here’s the full release from Duke:

From Duke Energy

Duke Energy today announced plans to retire its Asheville, N.C., coal-fired power plant in four to five years and modernize its generation and transmission system in western North Carolina and upstate South Carolina – significantly reducing environmental impacts, improving system reliability and minimizing long-term costs to customers.

“We’ve developed an innovative plan that’s a ‘win-win-win’ for consumers, the environment and the economy,” said Lloyd Yates, Duke Energy executive vice president of market solutions and president of the Carolinas region. “With the availability and near record low cost of natural gas, this comprehensive project will transform the energy system in the region to meet the growing needs of our customers and significantly reduce emissions and water use. We’re eager to move ahead quickly on these projects and complete the key components of the plan by the end of 2019.”

The plan’s major components include retiring the 376-megawatt Asheville coal power plant, investing approximately $750 million to build a 650-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant, and installing solar generation at the site – one of the first combinations of its kind.

The plan includes investing approximately $320 million to build a transmission substation near Campobello, S.C., and connect it to the Asheville power plant with a new approximately 40-mile, 230-kiloVolt (kV) transmission line. It also includes upgrading and rebuilding additional electrical infrastructure such as transmission lines and distribution substations.

Project’s need and benefits

Electricity demand in Duke Energy Progress’ Asheville service area has doubled over the last four decades. The region currently must import about 400 megawatts of power during peak demand periods to ensure system reliability. The region’s power demand is also forecast to grow by about 15 percent over the next decade.

In addition, Duke Energy’s Asheville coal plant is one of the company’s few “must run” power plants, meaning it must operate to maintain reliability, even when it’s not economical.

This results in higher fuel costs that are passed on to North Carolina and South Carolina customers each month in their electric bills.

The new gas power plant will be able to rapidly ramp up and down to meet the region’s voltage and power demand needs as they change throughout the day.

The gas plant’s combined-cycle technology will capture and convert exhaust heat into additional electricity, and is considered one of the most efficient power plant designs available.

At today’s natural gas prices, the gas plant would be about 35 percent less expensive to operate than the existing coal plant, saving customers money.

Even with its expected higher operating levels, the gas plant is estimated to have significantly lower environmental impacts than the coal plant. (Final amounts will be determined after the company receives necessary environmental permits.)

• Sulfur dioxide is estimated to be reduced by approximately 90 to 95 percent
• Nitrogen oxide is estimated to be reduced by approximately 35 percent.
• Mercury is completely eliminated.
• Water withdrawals are estimated to be reduced by 97 percent.
• Water discharges are estimated to be reduced by 50 percent.
• Carbon dioxide emissions will be reduced by about 60 percent, on a per-megawatt hour basis, due to the efficiency of the new gas plant and the fact that natural gas burns more cleanly than coal.

The new gas plant also will help reduce carbon dioxide emissions across Duke Energy’s Carolinas power plant fleet.

Closing the Asheville coal plant and building a gas plant will make it unnecessary to invest in 126 megawatts of oil-fired generation units, to meet peak demand, and other capital investments that were planned for 2019.

Duke Energy is working with the local natural gas distribution company to upgrade an existing natural gas pipeline to serve the gas plant with a firm fuel supply.

Duke Energy will continue to move forward with removal of existing coal ash at the site, and permanent closure of the site’s ash basins.

The new transmission line and related upgrades, required for overall system reliability, will provide a more robust pathway to move additional electricity to the region to efficiently meet growing customer demand.

The power plant and electric transmission projects will create a peak construction workforce of about 800 jobs in the 2017-2019 timeframe, and generate significant local property tax revenues when brought in-service.

Based on current Buncombe County tax rates, property taxes from the gas power plant are estimated to increase between 35 and 40 percent after the site is modernized.

“We look forward to working with regulators to provide this creative solution for our customers in the region,” Yates said. “In the coming months, we’ll provide area landowners with options for the new transmission line so we can find the best possible route, with minimal impact on the environment, cultural resources, homes and businesses. Community meetings and public input will be an important part of this process.”

The Sierra Club, MountainTrue, Southern Environmental Law Center and Waterkeeper Alliance released a joint statement saying the closure of the plant signaled an end to coal ash pollution. However, the statement adds, “Folks want a bright future that supports clean energy, not a giant gas plant polluting Asheville for another 30 years. … Moves like this deeply undermine the ability to bring online clean, reliable 21st century energy options that will create good jobs right here at home.” Read the full statement below.

Sierra Club, MountainTrue, Southern Environmental Law Center and Waterkeeper Alliance

For the last three years the Asheville Beyond Coal Campaign and thousands of individuals have called on Duke Energy to transition our region off of coal. This has been a struggle to protect our health, our families and our communities. It has required tireless effort to pursue a brighter vision for Asheville. We can declare victory in securing closure of the plant, for it means an end is in sight for the air, water, and carbon pollution from this plant, but Duke’s announcement to build new gas is inconsistent with the clean energy vision we have called for.

While we applaud Duke’s decision to retire the Asheville plant, Duke failed to hear what people wanted in its place. Folks want a bright future that supports clean energy, not a giant gas plant polluting Asheville for another 30 years. North Carolina has the opportunity to be a leader in clean energy generation through aggressive investments in solar power and energy efficiency, and Duke Energy must be a partner in that effort – but moves like this deeply undermine the ability to bring online clean, reliable 21st century energy options that will create good jobs right here at home.

North Carolinians deserve clean water and home grown electricity options that invest in local communities and create jobs here in our community. North Carolina has some of the best potential in the nation to harvest the sun for our power needs but Duke Energy must be a partner in that investment if the state is ever to see the real benefits of clean energy. While the proposed solar farm is a step in the right direction, it falls far short of the investment needed to move the region to a clean energy future.

Additionally, this announcement does nothing to address evidence of unsafe air pollution from the Asheville Plant; under Duke’s proposal, the plant could continue to emit sulfur dioxide at levels that threaten public health until the coal-burning units are retired.

The retirement of the Asheville Plant is a step in the right direction, but it is a half measure, undermined by continuing reliance on an economically unpredictable and polluting source of power. Duke can do better, and our community deserves better. We will continue to use every tool at our disposal to fight for clean energy solutions for Western North Carolina.

About Carrie Eidson
Multimedia journalist and Green Scene editor at Mountain Xpress. Part-time Twitterer @mxenv but also reachable at ceidson@mountainx.com. Follow me @carrieeidson

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9 thoughts on “Duke Energy to retire Asheville coal plant

  1. Meiling Dai

    The announcement by Duke Energy that it plans to convert within a 4-6 year time span its coal-fired plant in Asheville to one powered
    by natural gas seems like a step in the right direction. At least, it will be less expensive to operate and there will be considerably
    less pollution to worry about. Given this plant was originally built in the 1960’s, this planned conversion to natural gas is a big step. The Sierra
    Club’s concern about a shift from one fossil fuel to another is understandable. But realistically, since this country
    is not as technologically advanced as some European countries which rely heavily on wind and solar power for their energy, what
    other option is there but to use natural gas together with a lesser degree of solar power?

    • bsummers

      Oh, I don’t know… How about we try to become as “advanced” as our friends in Europe?

      Really, I have to say I’m shocked to hear someone say that out loud. The United States is not “technologically advanced” enough to shift away from fossil fuels, but European countries are. That’s a depressing sentiment.

        • bsummers

          You talkin’ to me or her? I was just responding to Ms. Dai’s comment that we aren’t as “advanced” as Europe, and therefor have no choice but to keep burning fossil fuels.

  2. Coal is by far the dirtiest form of energy, so this is a great step towards carbon-neutral energy. Considering that every single person in America consumes seventeen pounds of coal a day, perhaps we shouldn’t put all of the blame on those that provide us with the electricity that powers our lifestyles. It’s very easy to point fingers, while driving your car, powering your smart devices, heating and cooling your house, consuming goods. We are conditioned to want more in a finite planet.

    • bsummers

      Coal is by far the dirtiest form of energy, so this is a great step towards carbon-neutral energy.

      Except that maybe it isn’t.

      Extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale could do more to aggravate global warming than mining coal, according to a Cornell study published in the May issue of Climatic Change Letters

      And that’s without considering the costs of potentially polluting our groundwater via fracking, increased risk of earthquakes which even the federal govt. has had to acknowledge, etc.

      Finally, before we blame consumers completely, let’s not absolve the folks that have made trillions of dollars over the decades off of telling us that we can have cheap energy with no consequences. Should we have made ourselves more aware of the real costs of our energy and consumer choices? Yes. Were we lied to repeatedly by people hoping to get rich off our ignorance? Also, yes.

      I’d suggest we be real skeptical of this latest “this new fossil fuel source is much better than that nasty old one” argument.

  3. Meiling Dai

    Fact: The United Kingdom (Britain) prides itself on substituting wind power for oil and gas to produce electricity, thereby driving down greenhouse gas emissions.
    According to European Union targets of reducing 15% of greenhouse gases by 2020, Britain met that target by 2013. And the Scandinavian
    countries (Sweden, Norway, Finland) are models for using wind power as a substitute for oil and gas to produce electricity. Finland
    is a prime example – 99% of its electricity is produced by wind power. In my comment, I said that “some (not all) European countries” have
    more advanced technology than our in using renewable energy sources to produce electricity. Duke Energy has included solar energy
    as part of its transformation from coal to gas to produce electricity. That’s a start in the right direction.

    • Fin

      Check out the Wood pellet industry. Shouldn’t swallow everything your feed. Bulldozing US forests to burn wood pellets in England.

  4. Meiling Dai

    Correction: I have been informed by Duke Energy via e-mail that changing its energy source from coal to gas at the coal-fired plant in Skyland
    is NOT a conversion; rather, they will tear down the coal-fired plant and rebuild an entirely new plant designed to use natural
    gas as its source of power, in addition to solar power – a first, to provide electricity to customers.

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