There’s an ironic juxtaposition of the old and new along Interstate 26 as you approach Asheville, said Bruce Nilles, the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign director. The Progress Energy plant burns coal day and night to provide power to consumers across Western North Carolina, while a short distance away, along I-40 a six-acre solar farm helps power the Biltmore Estate.
On tour to highlight the environmental group’s decade-old fight against coal-fired power, Nilles stopped in Asheville on May 23 for Green Drinks, Asheville’s enviro-social hour. The focus of his presentation: Start a local conversation about retiring Progress Energy's Skyland plant, and get WNC off coal for good.
In the last 10 years, Nilles reported, the Sierra Club initiative has helped keep 168 new coal-powered plants from coming online. This year, it’s moving to the next phase: Target existing plants for retirement. And the group has the local Progress Energy facility in its sights.
At Green Drinks’ weekly host site, Posana Café, a standing-room-only crowd in the back room welcomed Nilles. First, he acknowledged the community's decidedly green identity, but remarked, “There is no way Asheville can be a leader in that arena, as long as it is tethered to a 19th century coal plant that is putting out the equivalent of 200,000 cars worth of greenhouse gases each year. [This plant] is a monster.”
A short history
Before his presentation, Nilles met with Xpress to review the campaign’s mission, accomplishments and goals.
in the U.S., coal-fired plants are responsible for roughly one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global warming by trapping the sun's heat in Earth's atmosphere, he explained. And burning coal to produce electricity releases large quantities of heavy metals and other pollutants that harm human health.
The seeds of Beyond Coal were sown during the Bush-Cheney years, when the administration restricted U.S. Environmental Protection Agency efforts to regulate greenhouse gases and approved plans for new coal-fired power plants across the nation, Nilles continued.
“That era saw over 150 proposals for new coal-fired plants,” he said. “The scale of those investments would have locked us into very dirty power for another 30 to 40 years.”
By 2002, Sierra Club had organized Beyond Coal as a way to fight back, one state at a time, Nilles recounted. That same year, in Florida, plans for eight new coal plants were under way. But after three years of “vigorous discussion” with then-Gov. Charles Crist, “[He] finally said OK, and stopped them all,” said Nilles.
In the years since, more plant projects were halted in Kentucky, Illinois, Kansas and Wisconsin. “We can do this,” said Nilles.
Progress Energy has marked some of its older coal-fired plants for retirement, said Communications Officer Scott Sutton in an interview the day before Nilles’ Green Drinks presentation. The utility has also spent more than $200 million to clean up emissions from its stacks, Sutton notes.
"The Asheville plant is the one source of electricity for 150,000 customers in 10 counties in Western North Carolina,” he continued. "We have the regulatory mandate to provide reliable electricity for the least cost possible to anyone who requests service in our service territory. How we get there is complicated, and public policy and technology discussions play into that ‘how.’”
Progress Energy aims for diverse fuel sources that guard against price increases and supply disruptions, protect the environment and are cost effective and reliable, Sutton said. “The main differences between the utility and Sierra is in the timing and the technical reality.”
“Here’s a utility that’s going to decide how to invest hundreds of millions of dollars — can we have a discussion?” said Nilles. “We’re not saying, ‘Let’s shut it down tomorrow.’ We’re saying, ‘Let’s align our values and come up with a plan that works for everybody.’”
And don’t rush to switch to natural gas, he added. Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is a controversial but increasingly common way of harvesting that fuel, which burns cleaner than coal. Fracking injects water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into underground rock formations, forcing out the natural gas but often causing groundwater contamination and other problems. "Let’s get it right,” said Nilles. “How do we transition this plant to clean energy?"
Nilles told the crowd at Posana that the U.S. needs to lead by example, the way Germany and Italy and other nations have done. "We emit more greenhouse gases than any other country," he claimed. "Shutting down the remaining 522 coal plants [nationwide] is about getting us on a downward trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions.”
Calling for a broad conversation on the challenge, Nilles stated: "The solution is not more-friendly coal mining. It’s not better-lined coal ash pits. It’s not better pollution controls. It’s a vision of no more coal. So how do we get there?"
The answer probably comes in part through the power of Sierra Club's extensive grass-roots network. Almost 170 new coal plants have been stopped in the last decade, by Nilles’ count, but 20 did get built, including the Cliffside plant in North Carolina.
"We hope Cliffside will go down as one of two of the last [U.S.] coal-fired plants built," he said. The second — Great River Energy's Spiritwood Station in North Dakota —was finished last year, cost $450 million to build, but isn’t running. “EPA’s new greenhouse gas standard for coal-fired power plants really is the end of conventional coal plants," said Nilles. “And very likely the end of new coal altogether."
But change takes time. As Sutton put it, "If we were to shut down the Asheville plant, how would we serve the daily needs? … A natural gas plant could be built in about two years; a new coal or nuclear plant would take 10-15 years to plan and build.” Renewable-energy sources like solar and wind power are attractive, he added, but the technology to turn those into main energy sources isn't ready yet. Renewables currently represent about 3 percent of Progress Energy's annual sales locally, said Sutton.
"The electric grid wasn’t built overnight," he continued, "and the transformation isn’t gonna come overnight."
At Green Drinks, Nilles countered: “Does Progress want to align itself with the community, or does it want to try to force [the old way] on the community … to require you to keep burning coal, along with the destructive mining practices in Appalachia?
"That’s the conversation we want to have," said Nilles. "This is solvable. And Progress Energy will be part of the solution."
— Contributing reporter Susan Andrew can be reached at email@example.com.