Commissioners debate Duke solar farm: ‘smug’ or smart

NOT ALWAYS SUNNY: Buncombe County Democrats argued about perceived transparency issues regarding a partnership with Duke Energy to conduct a feasibility study for a solar farm in Woodfin. Photo by Dan Hesse

On the heels of seven hours of budget presentations, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners voted to approve a memorandum of understanding with Duke Energy. That agreement regards a proposed solar farm on the site of the old landfill in Woodfin. Duke Energy, in principle, has agreed to foot the bill for the $27,000 feasibility study that will glean more information about the potential of the site. However, the issue ultimately divided the board’s Democrats, as questions about vetting partners arose.

Power struggle

At issue was the process of tapping Duke Energy to be the partner, a development that led Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara to question the methodology. “I’m trying to wrap my head around why we have a memo before we have a [feasibility] study? Why wouldn’t we wait for results of the study?” the freshman Democrat asked.

Commission Chair Brownie Newman then outlined his thoughts. “We save the cost of the study if we go forward with Duke. This approach allows the project to be developed at no cost to taxpayers. I think that partnering with Duke is a good solution. I don’t see a reason not to do it,” he said.

Beach-Ferrara didn’t appear happy with that explanation and pressed further, asking, “Has there been an open process for other financiers? Has there been dialogue with other entities interested in the project?

Newman, who works in the solar industry, explained: “As I’ve said from the beginning, any company I’m involved with would not be involved. I reached out to other companies to see if there was interest. There were some that said they would be happy to talk. These companies are always looking for business development opportunities.

“From my perspective, none are in the same position as Duke is to offer fully funded development. I think one concern about our site compared to other projects not on landfills is that if we were working with a different partner … a year down the road a project might appear less attractive than other business opportunities.”

Commissioner Ellen Frost was also charged up about the process. “I think going forward we want to be clear how we do business. Everyone is all for this, but I feel we crossed first base, skipped the other bases and now we are rounding home,” she argued.

“Outside looking in, it looks like a smug deal already done. I think going forward in the process we have to remember what we did here when we approach other things.”

Beach-Ferrara then reiterated her support for the project, in theory. “I am not averse to be in dialogue with Duke. I have concerns the process has been rushed. … I just think we owe it to be thorough and transparent. My concerns rest with the process.”

With that, the board approved the memorandum of understanding by a vote of 4-3, with Beach-Ferrara, Frost and Commissioner Robert Pressley voting against it.

It’s not the first time Newman has been accused of moving forward with energy-related issues without a clear understanding from the rest of the board. In April 2016, Republicans were miffed that he was the de facto commissioner who would be seated on the newly formed Energy Innovation Task Force, another partnership with Duke Energy.

Commissioners also held a budget workshop earlier in the day. Xpress will have a recap of that meeting later.

Commissioners next meet on Tuesday, June 6, to hold a public hearing on the proposed budget.


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About Dan Hesse
I grew up outside of Atlanta and moved to WNC in 2001 to attend Montreat College. After college, I worked at NewsRadio 570 WWNC as an anchor/reporter and covered Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners starting in 2004. During that time I also completed WCU's Master of Public Administration program. You can reach me at

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7 thoughts on “Commissioners debate Duke solar farm: ‘smug’ or smart

  1. Don

    let’s be really clear -and real- here… no matter how close it cuts to the bone. When Brownie says this process involved/ involves no one he’s in “involved with” ….. well, that’s simply not true. Every solar farm/project Brownie finances -in way or another- sells the output of that solar footprint to Duke Energy. Period. You keep happy those you do business with. Period. That’s the unfortunate reality here, and why Councilperson Frost and Beach-Ferrara are correct in their questioning of the process… or lack of due process. The feasibility study is a red herring… it’s an unnecessary expense (that Duke Energy is so very willing to cover…. jeez…. are we that gullible?) that provides the requisite cover for Brownie and Duke Power. Welcome to the real world everyone. Sad. Sigh.

    • bsummers

      I was thinking the same thing. But just to be completely fair, isn’t it true that any solar project that doesn’t have a prior arrangement with some institution – a municipality, the military, a business like Google or Apple etc. – is going to have to sell their electricity to Duke?

      • Don

        yes, every solar project here in WNC, even Google’s solar farm (they have quite a large one down in Rutherford County) sells their power to Duke Energy. It’s called a monopoly. Still, Duke knows who the key players are in this rapidly growing “industry” (really, it’s more of an investment business as it employees very few people once the solar farm is constructed) here in NC….. Brownie being one of them.. And of course, Brownie is a highly positioned/ influential politician as well… something Duke Energy places a very high value in/on …for all the very obvious reasons. He/Brownie should have simply recused himself from the entire process at the onset of it…. and why we now have Councilpersons Frost and Beach-Ferrara feeling a wee bit uncomfortable with the process.

          • Lulz

            Too many conflicts of interests on Newman’s part that warrant scrutiny. But that one will take an active electorate in bringing about. I say the next round of tax increases and the obvious funneling of money to the connected should be the awakening many need.

        • Lulz

          Substitute Newman for any conservative and you and I both know what would happen. Newman is a crook. Pure and simple. He needs to be investigated for corruption. Period.

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