The price of progress

by Rebecca Bowe

The eerie, springtime-in-January spell that marked the beginning of 2007 abruptly ended Jan. 9 when a snow flurry whipped through Western North Carolina. Schools were let out early; traffic slowed to a crawl. But the hostile weather wasn’t enough to deter some 40 or 50 people from attending Progress Energy’s open house that night at Woodfin Elementary School. The event was held to inform the public about the company’s proposal to build a $72 million, oil-fired power plant in Woodfin, and concerned residents circled through the array of charts and graphs set up in the gymnasium, pressing company representatives for specifics.

The company has to build the plant to satisfy its legal mandate to meet demand, said Progress Energy staffer Michael Luhrs. The utility will lose 250 megawatts of power in 2009 when its contract with the Ohio-based American Electric Power expires, he explained, and a new contract with an undisclosed supplier will provide only about half that amount. The new facility would run about 10 percent of the time, Progress Energy reports, bridging the gap during periods of peak demand. “Our obligation is to have the power necessary to meet the demand,” said Luhrs. When assessing the need for a new plant, he explained, utilities explore every other option first. “It has a lot to do with how people use electricity.”

Local environmental activist Ned Doyle

Thirty days is all we ask”: Local environmental activist Ned Doyle addresses the crowd at the Jan. 16 Buncombe County Commissioners’ meeting. He was one of many speakers who requested that the commissioners postpone the vote for 30 days. photo by Jonathan Welch

Three days earlier, local environmental activists Ned Doyle and Jim Barton organized a teach-in at the West Asheville Library, arguing that alternative energy and conservation could provide the needed power. “Why should we spend more for an oil-fired power plant that we just don’t need when we have other alternatives and options?” asked Doyle, the organizer of the Southern Energy & Environment Expo, during his lively presentation.

In the coming months, the local air agency will consider whether the plant complies with the regional ambient air-quality standards, and the North Carolina Utilities Commission will determine whether the need for the facility is justified. But there is little room in the regulatory process for big-picture questions such as whether or not we should continue relying on fossil-fuels to generate electricity.

Please direct your query to the man under the basketball hoop

Although the open house presented detailed information, having so many specialized stations set up in the school gymnasium meant that conversational threads would snap if questions ranged beyond a particular staffer’s area of expertise. All night, green-shirted power-company employees were seen gesturing to one another across the room, indicating to whom people should direct their questions.

The plant’s only visible emissions would be heat waves, according to company spokespeople, and it would run on ultra-low-sulfur fuel, a relatively expensive type of oil that produces a tiny fraction of the sulfur pollution created by burning conventional fuel. The facility would be sited on 18 acres within a 78-acre, county-owned parcel, creating a buffer between the plant and the surrounding area. Enerdyne Power Systems operates a 1 MW plant on an adjacent former landfill property. The Enerdyne facility extracts methane gas from the rotting waste and burns it to produce electricity, which is sold to Progress Energy via a partnership with NC GreenPower, a statewide nonprofit promoting sustainable energy sources.

Although water would be used for cooling, it would neither be drawn from nor discharged into the nearby French Broad River, Progress Energy employee Rick Yates explained. Instead, the utility would buy municipal water. At maximum operating capacity, the plant would consume about 135 gallons per minute—roughly a gallon of water for every gallon of oil burned—and the water would be discharged as steam at the end of the process.

Not a done deal

While the general public will be given an opportunity to make comments about the proposed plant, the permitting agencies have the final say on whether it will be built. The first hurdle has already been cleared, as the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners voted 5-0 on Jan. 16 to lease the 78-acre parcel to Progress Energy for $1 a year (see “Power Plant Lease Approved” elsewhere in this issue).

But several steps remain before construction can begin (see box, “Power Plant Timeline”). Progress Energy must obtain a “certificate of public convenience and necessity” from the North Carolina Utilities Commission. “They will have to demonstrate a need and justification as to why this option is the best option,” says James McLawhorn, director of the Electric Division of the commission’s Public Staff. At press time, the company still had not submitted an application. After the application has been filed and reviewed, a public hearing will be held (probably in Asheville), and the commission should make its decision within six months, he says.

The power company must also obtain a permit from the Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency. The permitting process begins with a review of the initial application, in which the company calculates the plant’s emissions and demonstrates that it will satisfy air-quality regulations. The application was submitted in December, and between now and July, staffers Ashley Featherstone and Victor Fahrer explained, the agency will study it, check the calculations, request additional information and draft a permit. A public hearing will then be held—most likely in July, says Featherstone—and both the public comments and the draft permit will be submitted to the agency’s board for final approval.

“It’s important to understand,” notes Fahrer, “that all we look at is air-quality regulations. If the application meets the regulations, we will issue a permit.” The agency will not consider whether new fossil-fuel-powered facilities should be built at all, he notes. Nor will it examine the facility’s carbon-dioxide emissions, because although it’s a greenhouse gas linked to climate change, carbon dioxide is not considered a “criteria air pollutant” regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (According to the EPA, the average emissions rates in the U.S. for oil-powered generation are 1,672 pounds of carbon dioxide per Megawatt-hour.)

What was that number again?

Progress Energy’s massive air-permit application fills a pair of 4-inch-thick binders crammed with glossy maps, air-modeling results, an equipment outline, charts and graphics. In effect, the company submitted two applications—one for each turbine system under consideration. “We should have charged them double,” Fahrer joked.

The company is looking at using two of either General Electric’s LM 6000 or Pratt & Whitney’s “Swiftpac” model. The primary difference, say Featherstone and Fahrer, is how much power the facility could generate. Based on the information in the permit application, it could potentially generate up to 171 MW (with the Pratt & Whitney equipment) or 192 MW (with the GE turbines). But company spokesperson Ken Maxwell says that when the permit application was drafted in July, Progress Energy had estimated that they’d need more power. “While the permit may say 192, 130 [Megawatts] is our intention,” he says.

The hefty application also includes extensive air-quality modeling. “They weren’t required to do any modeling, but they went ahead and did it anyway,” probably because of the high level of public interest in the project, says Featherstone.

Such modeling is mandatory under the EPA’s Prevention of Significant Deterioration rules—special federal Clean Air Act requirements that apply to any new “major stationary source” of pollution. PSD requires utilities to use the “best available control technology”—the most effective pollution-control equipment currently on the market. Applications for such projects are subjected to a far more rigorous review process.

The EPA’s definition of a major stationary source varies depending on the locale. In designated “nonattainment” areas, where the air quality is already below what the EPA considers safe, facilities that expect to emit more than 100 tons per year of any of the criteria air pollutants are subject to PSD.

But Western North Carolina’s air quality is still considered to be in attainment, though it has teetered on the brink in the past. That raises the threshold for a major stationary source to annual emissions of more than 250 tons of any of the criteria pollutants: carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, sulfur and particulates.

If the Woodfin plant ran about 20 percent of the time (the maximum amount that would be allowed under the terms of the application), it would emit a projected 247 tons of nitrogen oxides per year, barely avoiding major-stationary-source status—and thus the requirement to use the best available control technology. (Because permits are based on a worst-case scenario, the facility would be allowed to operate more than the projected 10 percent of the time.) At that level, the plant is also projected to emit about 60 tons of carbon monoxide per year, 65 tons of particulates, 18 tons of volatile organic compounds and 2 tons of sulfur, according to the permit application. If the plant exceeded the voluntary 247-ton limit, Progress Energy would receive a notice of violation.

Joining the ranks of Buncombe’s biggest polluters

Although Progress Energy won’t be required to jump through the hoops set out by PSD, the utility will have to obtain a Title V permit. The top eight point-source air polluters in Buncombe County already fall under Title V, with Progress Energy’s coal-fired Skyland plant at No. 1. The Woodfin facility would be added to that list.

Issued by the air-quality agency and subject to federal review, Title V permits require companies to monitor their own emissions and submit regular reports to the air agency.

And although Progress Energy plans to have the Woodfin plant up and running by December of 2009, it won’t have to apply for a Title V permit until up to a year after that, as long as it demonstrates beforehand that the plant will be in compliance.

The proposed plant’s total emissions, notes Featherstone, would amount to less than the reductions in emissions at the Skyland plant during the past year alone. Thanks to the installation of pollution-control technology, the Skyland facility slashed its annual sulfur emissions from 15,545 tons to 2,235 tons in 2006.

Nonetheless, said Featherstone, “If [the Woodfin] plant was operating right here right now, it would probably be No. 4 or No. 5” on the list of top air polluters in the county.

An uncertain future

Both the air-quality agency and Progress Energy have characterized this project as having a “high level of public interest”—meaning a lot of people don’t want it. Progress Energy engineer Larry Dalton said the crowd at the open house was the most people he’d ever seen attend such an event.

At least 100 concerned community members turned out for the Jan. 16 Board of Commissioners meeting, many delivering three-minute speeches on things like climate change, public health, air pollution and energy alternatives as part of a collective plea to the commissioners not to lease the property to the Project Energy. And many local environmental activists say they plan to continue meeting and organizing to prepare for the next public hearings.

“This isn’t an isolated incident—it’s part of a program that’s happening all over the country,” Avram Friedman, executive director of The Canary Coalition, told the much smaller crowd at the Jan. 6 teach-in. New power-plant proposals are being submitted throughout the Southeast, he said, and the rush may have something to do with anticipating new, stricter laws that would clamp down on carbon emissions. “This is a wave—it’s a mass decision to invest our future in this direction,” said Friedman. “We have to begin viewing ourselves as part of a larger social movement going toward efficiency, energy conservation and renewable resources.”

For more information about Progress Energy, visit www.progress-energy.com. Meanwhile, a group of concerned citizens will hold information sessions on Saturday, Feb. 3 and Saturday, Feb. 10. For details, check www.main.nc.us or call 252-5111.


Power plant timeline

Here’s the projected timeline for the proposed Woodfin power plant, based on information from Progress Energy and regulatory agency representatives:

• WNC Regional Air Quality Agency holds public hearing on air permit—likely July 2007

• Air permit issued—summer 2007

• N.C. Utilities Commission holds public hearing in Asheville—no date set, likely fall 2007

• Utilities Commission certificate awarded—October 2007

• Construction begins—2008

• Commercial operations begin—December 2009

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One thought on “The price of progress

  1. This is insane.

    The prevailing winds here will blow this smog (heat only, my donkey) right downtown.

    And at what rate will they buy this municipal water?

    Let’s start calling this what it is… a Diesel Power Plant.

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