The Green Scene

Progress Energy’s bid to build an oil-fired power plant in Woodfin ground to a halt about a year ago after hundreds of residents decried the potential health and environmental impacts during a public hearing held by the town’s Zoning Board of Adjustment. That same night, the agency rejected the utility’s request for a conditional-use permit, sending the Fortune 250 company back to the drawing board.

Making progress? An aerial view of Progress Energy’s coal-burning power plant in Skyland. While coal and nuclear make up the bulk of the company’s fuel sources, plans are on the horizon to bring more renewable-energy sources into the mix. Xpress File Photo

Longtime community activist Ned Doyle, who founded the annual Southern Energy & Environment Expo, was among those who turned out to speak against the plant. With his booming voice and jovial demeanor, Doyle is a natural for radio; milling about with a microphone and recorder, he captured the statements of power-plant opponents. (Doyle also spearheaded a campaign that aimed to render the plant unnecessary by soliciting conservation pledges from community members, to reduce local demand for electricity.)

More recently, Doyle’s radio show, Our Southern Community, featured a series about transitioning to a clean-energy future, and his first guest was none other than Robert Sipes, Progress Energy’s vice president of the western region.

That a utility-industry executive would chat at length on the air with a dyed-in-the-wool environmental activist who was touting “green” long before it became fashionable may itself be a sign of changing times. “This type of open dialogue is a new development,” Doyle wrote in a later e-mail. “I was pleasantly surprised at the candor of the discussion itself, in terms of being frank and dealing with the legitimate issues that face the utilities today.”

Sipes talked about his company’s new approaches to energy efficiency and openness to adopting more renewable energy sources (at present, 81 percent of the company’s output is derived from coal and nuclear; 18 percent from oil or gas).

For nearly 100 years, Progress Energy has operated on the simple premise that the more electricity it sold, the more money it would make. Helping the company’s bottom line has been the fact that it doesn’t have to worry about “externalities” such as asthma rates or the environmental repercussions of its operations. Now, however, the company is developing substantial programs meant to reduce the amount of power its customers use. In part, the shift was precipitated by the General Assembly’s passage last summer of Senate Bill 3, which requires utilities to derive 12.5 percent of their power from renewable sources and energy-saving programs by 2012.

In his interview with Doyle, Sipes focused on the company’s conservation efforts, but he cautioned that energy demand, propelled by an average of 30,000 new customers each year, continues to rise—and according to company projections, the need for new power plants will probably crop up again.

“The situation that prompted the need for the Woodfin plant has not gone away,” Sipes warned. “That capacity that we’re currently purchasing from [American Electric Power] will go away at the end of 2009. What we’ve done to buy ourselves some time is to arrange for some purchases from other utilities to … ‘buy through’ that issue.”

Sipes also said the company is in the process of reviewing “several photovoltaic-solar projects, several solar-thermal projects and … some hog- and chicken-waste [burning] projects.” By 2012, according to a shareholders’ report, Progress Energy expects to purchase some 1 million megawatt-hours of alternative-source energy and to double the amount of power saved through energy-efficiency programs.

In late April, Progress Energy filed several proposals with the state Utilities Commission for programs to help manage peak energy loads and provide incentives for conservation. One is a demand-side management program that would reduce peak energy loads by tweaking system voltage for short periods of time.

According to the company’s 2008 shareholder’s report, however, “Energy-efficiency programs and renewable energy, while critical, will not be enough to meet future energy demand. Progress Energy will require new baseload generation … toward the end of the next decade.” The report also notes, “Nuclear power is the best large-scale, cost-effective generation technology available today to address the need for new baseload generation while addressing global climate change.”

Did someone say “nuclear”?

On Sunday, June 1, Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research will give a free talk in UNCA’s Owen Conference Center, starting at 8 p.m. Makhijani is the author of Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy (Ieer Press, 2007). The talk is sponsored by the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a grass-roots group promoting non-nuclear energy policy.

To learn more about this event, call 675-1792. To listen to Doyle’s radio program, visit www.wncw.org and click on “podcasts.”

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