How did Phillip Brown feel when he heard that Duke Energy would not be building a high-voltage transmission line through the small farm in Mills River where he grew up?
“You have no idea.”
And then silence as Brown searches for words.
Gathering himself, the farmer and father of three continues, “When you’re looking down the barrel of a gun, thinking you might lose your home, and then you hear it’s not going to happen — it was a tremendous relief. I was positively overjoyed.”
“Faced with like something like this, there’s nothing you can do but fight it.”
When the fight began, no one knew whether public opposition could possibly kill Duke Energy’s proposed Carolinas Modernization Plan, which included a 40-mile transmission line connecting a new substation in Campobello, South Carolina to a new gas-fired power generation plant replacing Duke’s existing coal-fired plant at Lake Julian in Skyland.
Of the three routes proposed for the transmission line, one would have crossed Brown’s three-acre property, where several generations of his family have lived. Another would have cut through his cousin’s property, which has been in Brown’s extended family since the 1830’s. If he was willing to fight for his land and his cousin’s, Brown realized, he should be willing to fight for all of the property owners potentially affected by the transmission line, to say nothing of the natural heritage of the region as a whole.
And so he joined forces with Concerned Citizens of Avery’s Creek and Mills River, which soon began coordinating its activities with the Carolina Land Coalition, an alliance of community groups in partnership with environmental nonprofit MountainTrue.
Brown, who grows tomatoes, sweet corn, beans and greens, had just welcomed his third child this past summer. It was a busy time. Still, he says, “I showed up and did what they needed me to do.”
With Wednesday’s announcement that Duke has pulled the plug on the transmission line and rethought its plans for the Lake Julian site, the effort seems more than worthwhile. Through the experience, Brown has gained a new appreciation for collective action: “One person doesn’t do something like this alone. And to have a win like this makes people realize: we can do this.”
Change of course
In Duke Energy’s original proposal, the utility said the transmission line was needed to provide redundancy. In case of an outage at the Lake Julian plant, or at times of peak demand, backup or additional power would come from the new substation in Campobello, located near Spartanburg, S.C.
In its announcement on Nov. 4, Duke put forward a different solution to ensure an adequate and uninterrupted supply of power: while the company had initially proposed a single 650-megawatt natural gas-powered plant at Lake Julian, it now plans to build two side-by-side 280-megawatt natural gas units, 90 megawatts less than what was originally proposed.
“While the previous plan was more robust and scaled for the longer-term, the new plan balances the concerns raised by the community and the very real need for more electricity to serve this growing region,” commented Lloyd Yates, Duke Energy’s executive vice president for market solutions and president of the Carolinas region, in a press release.
Construction of an additional 190 MW peaking unit (one used only when power demand is high) in 2023 could be delayed through greater collaboration on energy efficiency programs, renewable energy, demand-side management, and new technologies, according to the company.
Kelly Martin, senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in North Carolina, hailed Duke’s new strategy in a press release: “We’re glad to see that Duke Energy is responding to the concerns of people in WNC by abandoning the transmission lines, paring down the scale of this oversized project and delaying the build of a portion of the natural gas plant to give time for clean energy solutions to get in place.”
What comes next?
MountainTrue co-director Julie Mayfield celebrated two big wins this week: on Tuesday, she was elected to Asheville city council and on Wednesday, she cheered Duke Energy’s announcement, saying, “We came together, voiced our concerns, and Duke Energy heard our call.”
But Mayfield didn’t spend a lot of time savoring her victories, instead turning immediately to MountainTrue’s next challenge: encouraging Henderson and Polk counties to “affirmatively enter into partnership” with Duke Energy. The city of Asheville did just that at the end of October, when it adopted the Community Clean Energy Framework, which establishes parameters for a collaborative working relationship between the city and Duke Energy.
“The beauty of what Duke did yesterday,” explained Mayfield, “is that they have given communities some control over what energy production and use will look like in this area. We’ve been asking for that for a couple of years, and it’s never happened before.”
At the same time, Mayfield continued, the burden of reducing power demand and pursuing clean sources of renewable energy can’t fall only on local governments and residents. “Duke has an important role to play. We need their planning capacity, their data, their resources, their existing programs and the platform for promoting those programs.”
“The old traditional model is not going to work,” declares energy activist Ned Doyle, who sees Duke’s change of heart on the Carolinas Modernization Plan as a manifestation of a new reality. “To be legitimate, energy planning now requires cooperation and collaboration with the community. Just making a plan and announcing it as an edict is no longer acceptable.”
While Duke’s new strategy represents progress in terms of a new openness to public input, a host of issues remain in play. One big question in Doyle’s mind is who will control the power generation and distribution network of the future. He mentions the phase-out of the solar tax credit for homeowners and businesses in this year’s state budget. “Killing the solar tax credit is economic lunacy,” says Doyle, “but government is under enormous pressure to push renewable energy revenues to utilities. With utility-scale solar coming on line, companies like Duke Energy want to own and control that market.”
“We are at an intersection of economics and environmental realities. That’s why there are so many battles going on statewide and nationally right now,” Doyle explains.
An energized citizenry
After spending ten years living and working in the Washington, D.C. area before coming back home to WNC, “the last thing I wanted to do was get involved in politics,” laughs Mills River’s Phillip Brown. But now that the threat of transmission lines crossing his property has spurred him to political action, Brown knows there’s no going back.
“We’ve got to stay engaged, be ready and pay attention. If we need to do something like this again, we can. After this, large corporations know that people in WNC and upstate South Carolina will respond when faced with a challenge. In anything political, the trick is to keep people involved,” he says.
Hard as it is to stay focused, Brown warns, “If we don’t reduce our energy usage, we may have to face this again.”