Concerned citizens in Buncombe County have long made it clear that moving toward a sustainable and cleaner energy future is a priority for this area. Still, at the inaugural meeting of the new Energy Innovation Task Force on May 13, Paul Szurek of Biltmore Farms spoke for many when he characterized the challenges that shared vision faces. “It’s hard for leopards to change their spots,” Szurek told fellow task force members and about 25 members of the public. “Our public utility rate-making creates enormous incentives for utilities to justify spending money and then collecting a return on that. It’s not a market-based return, it’s an academically determined return that the utilities collect from rate payers.”
Despite those powerful incentives to continue doing business as usual, Duke Energy has entered into a unique partnership to change its spots by collaborating with the city of Asheville, Buncombe County and a range of community interests to find ways to slow the growth of energy demand. And as important as the success of the effort is to this area, it’s relevant on a much broader scale as well, according to Asheville City Council member Julie Mayfield. “What we are trying to do here, and the particular posture of our situation with the kind of utility we have and the partners at the table, has not been done anywhere else in country,” Mayfield said.
Duke Energy announced plans last year to modernize its western Carolinas infrastructure. “There were some fits and starts along the way,” recalled Mayfield, referring to a proposed high-voltage transmission line that mobilized intense public opposition. Eventually, Duke brought forward a plan to replace its existing coal plant at Lake Julian in Arden with two natural gas units. The utility also asked regulators to approve a third “peaking” generating unit to be built in 2023 if energy demand continues to grow. At the same time, Mayfield explained, “A key third part of their announcement was their willingness to engage in a conversation, a very intentional conversation, with the city and the county, in order to delay or to avoid that peaking unit.”
Beyond avoiding the need for the third unit, said Buncombe County Commissioner Brownie Newman, “We see this as an opportunity to kick off a lot of other clean energy projects and programs that … people in Asheville and Buncombe County want to see anyway to promote larger objectives around being a clean energy community.”
A group of task force members and advisors recently returned from a four-day workshop at the Rocky Mountain Institute with an outline for next steps. Between now and the end of this year, Mayfield said, the task force will create a two-year work plan for its efforts through 2018. The group’s monthly sessions will be open to the public; members of the public can also apply to serve on subcommittees focused around specific tasks.
Reducing the amount of energy the area uses during periods of peak demand will be a critical aspect of the work of the task force. Western North Carolina experiences its highest demand for electricity on cold winter mornings, according to Duke Energy’s Jason Walls, who manages government and community relations for Asheville and Buncombe County. One task force subcommittee will work on quantifying an appropriate target for reducing peak demand.
“How do we connect with people who aren’t engaged with this work each and every day?” Walls asked. Another subcommittee, this one devoted to marketing and communications, will be charged with answering that question. According to Mayfield, facilitators at the RMI workshop emphasized that the project will be “enormously more successful if we can brand it.” The branding effort will require resources, and one of the jobs of the task force will be to figure out where funds to support its various initiatives will come from.
A third subcommittee will focus on technical analysis for programs for solar installations, battery storage for energy generated by renewable sources, electric vehicle infrastructure, advanced utility metering and others.
Because task force members and those in the community who care about energy issues bring a wide variety of technical knowledge to the work of the group, Mayfield suggested that the group’s June meeting include an overview of energy terms and fundamental concepts. “It’s okay to ask questions,” she stressed.
After the 16 task force members (Energy Innovation Task Force charts WNC’s future, May 13 http://avl.mx/2lj) introduced themselves and explained the constituency they represent, a number of members of the public addressed the task force during the public comment period.
Richard Fireman, of the Alliance for Energy Democracy (who has written opinion articles published by Xpress), said he wished the same group of partners and the same level of commitment could have come together for the Community Energy Advisory Council, a 2007 effort to influence energy policy. Based on that experience, Fireman said that an active communications and media outreach strategy will be critical to a successful outcome this time around.
“Don’t make this effort about the personal behavior of consumers,” urged Emma Greenbaum of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. To have an impact, she said, the task force needs to encourage the development of programs that are convenient to sign up for and use, even for people who are not focused on climate change or environmental issues.
Environmental advocacy nonprofit MountainTrue’s Joan Walker echoed Greenbaum’s comments, saying, “We need to focus on changing behavior by removing barriers to participation.” Walker also suggested involving state regulators in the process, perhaps by inviting a member of the Public Staff of the North Carolina Utilities Commission to participate in meetings of the task force.
During the regulatory review of Duke Energy’s proposal for its Lake Julian plant modernization, industry consultant Brad Rouse analyzed Duke’s application on behalf of MountainTrue and the Sierra Club. At the meeting, Rouse advocated for additional data collection to better understand the growth of peak energy demand. Rouse also spoke of faith-based initiatives he believes can make a positive difference in energy use. “Energy efficiency programs in low-income communities can be part of the mission field of the church,” he said.
Local consultant Grant Millin commented that the task force should use collaborative technology tools to share information with other communities who are pursuing similar energy-related goals.
Ned Ryan Doyle, a community activist who occasionally reports and comments on energy issues for Xpress, said he first came to this area in 1979 to develop solar energy and green building projects. The task force, he declared, “is the finest opportunity WNC has had to get something done to develop a cleaner, lower-carbon approach to meeting our energy needs.” Doyle asked the community to help get the process off the ground. “There will be plenty of room for criticism down the road,” he said. “Right now, all of North America is watching. We need to get this thing off on the right foot.”