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.
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.