Two years ago, Asheville, Buncombe County and Duke Energy Progress began a collaborative task force to work collectively toward avoiding the need to construct another fossil fuel-fueled power plant.
Duke is already building two natural gas-fueled power plants to replace its 53-year-old coal-fired plant on Lake Julian, but a third plant, tentatively slated for construction in 2027, would address spikes in energy demand. The task force hopes to lessen peak demand and avoid the need for the extra plant.
In March, the Energy Innovation Task Force launched arguably its most concrete achievement to date, a marketing-centric pilot project designed to increase public participation in Duke’s energy efficiency programs and help connect low-income residents to affordable home efficiency upgrades. The Blue Horizons project is designed as a “comprehensive hub of energy efficiency programs” available in the region through a variety of sources, according to its website.
The project aims to streamline residents’ efforts to increase their home’s energy efficiency, giving them a one-stop shop of available resources, as well as help low-income families access efficiency improvement resources for low or no cost.
Generally, Blue Horizons is being applauded as a step in the right direction by members of the task force.
“The main achievement to date is the launch of the public campaign, which signals the move from planning to public engagement and implementation,” says Julie Mayfield, an Asheville City Council member and the city’s representative on the EITF.
But some environmental advocates and climate-conscious community leaders say the task force has been bogged down by bureaucracy, and change will have to accelerate in order to meet ambitious city and county goals.
Buncombe County passed a resolution in 2017 to use only clean and renewable energy sources for county operations by 2030, and in all homes and businesses by 2042. The city of Asheville is currently considering a pledge to hit the same goal by 2050.
“We’re trying, but we’re not going to be where we need to be,” says Richard Fireman, task force observer and a co-founder of the Alliance for Energy Democracy, which advocates for a “sustainable and democratically controlled energy system.”
The task force’s stated goals are twofold. First, avoid or delay Duke’s construction of a 190-megawatt natural gas plant in Western North Carolina, planned for 2023. Second, in the longer term, transition Duke to a “cleaner, affordable and smarter energy future, rooted in community engagement and collaboration.”
Duke is currently building two 280-megawatt natural gas-powered plants on the shores of Lake Julian in South Asheville, expected to be completed by the end of 2019. Before the N.C. Utilities Commission OK’d the new facilities in 2016, clean energy advocates bemoaned the new investments in fossil-fuel power and argued the new plants were bigger than necessary. But construction of those plants moved forward, and only the peaker plant could still be taken off the table.
Duke already delayed construction of the peaker plant from 2023 to 2027, a move Duke spokespeople credited to the work of the task force.
There is a long way to go to fully reach the task force’s end goals, but the first step, two years after the initiative’s launch, is to spread the word. That’s where Blue Horizons comes in.
Brighter days ahead
Blue Horizons, run by two employees operating out of the Green Built Alliance, has a two-tiered approach to increasing community engagement with more energy efficient practices.
The website, BlueHorizonsProject.com, is essentially a one-stop shop for those looking to increase their home’s efficiency or learn more about it. For the first time, people don’t have to go down an internet rabbit hole of programs and possibilities, often through Duke, to find out what is possible for their home.
“Part of it is doing marketing and outreach on social media and via the website. But a large part of it is the energy-upgrade program, which provides free weatherization services to income-qualified residents,” says project coordinator Sophie Mullinax.
Jonathan Gach, manager of the energy upgrade program, is excited to do more than just reduce energy waste. He aims to increase people’s quality of living by making them more comfortable and healthy in their homes.
“When we’ve connected with someone who may have a hole in their roof, or they need a wheelchair ramp, or their heating and cooling system is broken, I’m the one that meets with them and identifies those opportunities for improvement and helps them apply for services that can help them with different needs,” Gach says.
At a minimum, Gach would consult with homeowners trying to make their home more efficient and send them to the company or nonprofit with the right service offering. The maximum offering might have homeowners release their utility data to Gach, who could analyze it, along with demographics, and determine what rebates or discounts the homeowner might qualify for.
Utility data also benefits Gach, who hopes to assemble a catalog of data that can help him design programs and direct where Blue Horizons’ resources are best used.
So far, the young project has helped weatherize just one home, that of Sam Quick, Jr.
Quick was raised in his 1950 Kenilworth home. Gach led a group of volunteers from UNC Asheville, the Energy Savers Network and United Community Development to weatherize, seal air leaks and install LED bulbs in the home. Quick also received a used furnace from Mountain Housing Opportunities, another connection made through Blue Horizons.
“The results of this work will be a more comfortable, energy efficient home for Mr. Quick,” Mullinax says.
The largest energy expense in any home is maintaining a comfortable temperature; sealing any air leaks, like in electrical outlets, light switches, windows and doors has the greatest impact on a home’s temperature, Gach says.
“Once you’ve sealed (the holes) up, it’s like closing the window. You can imagine somebody heating their home with a space heater and not realizing the [equivalent of a] window is open just because of all the cumulative leaks,” Gach says. “When we control the movement of the air, it also manages moisture, which has an impact on structural durability and respiratory health.”
Ultimately, Blue Horizons is simply a middleman, helping to connect potential beneficiaries or residents interested in making their home more energy efficient with Duke-run programs that can help, as well as private and nonprofit entities that specialize in improving structural energy efficiency.
For Gach, it’s about more than a saved dollar or megawatt.
“People sell these ideas or services in terms of energy savings or return on investment, but it turns out that, as the best salesman knows, price isn’t the only deciding factor. It definitely plays into it, but ultimately people want to be comfortable. They want to be healthy. And they want to make sure water is not destroying their house,” he says.
“I just really want to provide quality of living to people and I’m happy I get to do that in this line of work.”
“It’s been slow, but it’s been very productive,” says Dave Hollister, owner of Sundance Power Systems and a member of the Energy Innovation Task Force.
Brownie Newman, Buncombe County’s EITF representative and the chair of the county’s Board of Commissioners, echoes Hollister’s assessment of the bureaucratic task force.
“I would have liked for us to be further along in the process than we are now, but planning and coordination takes a lot of work. We are eager to move this into more of a community campaign phase now that we have hired staff to coordinate these efforts,” he says.
Hollister says the task force has essentially spent two years analyzing data just to push existing energy efficiency programs that Duke wasn’t effectively marketing.
“There was a decision early on, something that a few of us were definitely not aligned with, but the decision was to move ahead with a marketing program for existing Duke programs,” Hollister says. But once that was decided, he acknowledges that studying the issue and having focused conversations among community leaders has helped move the needle. Now that Blue Horizons is in place, he hopes the conversation can continue to move forward. “We’ve created some collective consciousness in the room, educated the leaders in the community and focused that energy on what the problems really are and created a marketing program to promote these existing programs to be better adopted,” he says.
One positive from those talks has been the creation of a spinoff group organized by task force member and the director of sustainability at UNC Asheville, Sonia Marcus.
“Since the beginning of this overall program, we have been emphasizing how important it would be for businesses and major institutions in the region to step up and take ownership of the campaign,” Marcus says.
So the group was created with all of the non-Duke and nongovernmental members of the EITF with the goal of adding other interested businesses and institutions to discuss how they can help solve the energy issues in the community.
“We couldn’t possibly be successful if the public understood this to be ‘just’ a government initiative or ‘just’ a Duke Energy program. I advocated very early on in my role as the SACEE representative on the committee that there needed to be buy-in and engagement in the formative stages instead of just a call at the end for institutions to hop on board,” Marcus says.
“We’ve had that, and it has made the campaign a lot stronger and the process a lot more transparent than it would have been otherwise.”
The group has had two meetings so far, and its next steps are to grow its membership.
Beyond that, the EITF has another, arguably more directly impactful claim to progress. In 2017, in part due to working with the EITF, say Newman and Hollister, Duke invested in two lithium-ion batteries for energy storage. Duke is installing a 9-megawatt battery at a substation in the Rock Hill community off Sweeten Creek Road and a 4-megawatt battery in Hot Springs.
It’s a $30 million investment as part of Duke’s Western Carolinas Modernization Plan that includes replacing Asheville’s coal-fired power plant with a natural gas plant in 2019. “We are actively looking at other opportunities to use battery technology as part of the solution in Western North Carolina,” notes Robert Sipes, a Duke Energy vice president who heads the modernization project.
“This investment will help avoid the need for the peaker plant while at the same time enabling more renewable energy deployment onto the grid,” Newman says.
Meeting the goals of the task force involves three levels of potential action:
- Demand-side management, where we limit our demand during peak use of electricity.
- Increased energy efficiency in commercial and residential properties, reducing energy waste
- Transferring to renewable energy, as both the city and county have pledged to do.
Hollister says the third item has to be the next piece the EITF works on.
“We have not even begun to address that piece. Two years in, we have not seriously addressed the elephant in the room, which is that we all want to see 100 percent renewable energy for our community,” he says.
While slow-moving, like any government-led agency or action group, the EITF appears to be making a difference. The conversation, at least, is moving forward.
“We’ve all addressed what the problem is, what’s causing the peak demand and what drives peak, we understand the market sectors we need to focus on to decrease that peak demand, we’ve created a marketing campaign that is promoting some existing programs that Duke has created, we’ve leveraged city and county dollars to work in this way as well, and we’re creating spinoff affiliate programs to empower local businesses and individuals into participating in solving this problem for our community,” Hollister says.
Now, it is up to not only the EITF but everyone to keep the momentum going.
“It’s my belief that it’s not just going to be up to the people of WNC to market these programs but it’s also going to be up to Duke to come up to the table and really promote some new programs that are going to enhance adoption, that are very enticing to get people to step up to the plate,” Hollister says.
Mayfield has some specific goals moving forward.
“We need to continue to be looking for new opportunities for pilot programs, we need to bring community solar here when that is approved, and we need to continue to push for an easier customer experience in utilizing Duke’s programs. We also need to find more resources for the campaign to support the Green Built Alliance, which is housing the campaign staff, for marketing, for more investments in efficiency, etc.,” she says.
Newman and Mayfield are both confident the task force will be successful in that mission.
“People have invested a lot of time and effort to getting us to this point. I think it’s premature to give us any grade, but it will be key for us to achieve the many goals we have set for ourselves over the next 12 months to prove that this model of community and utility collaboration can be successful,” Newman says.