The Green Scene

During the first meeting of the WNC Community Energy Advisory Council on June 21, group member Michael Shore posed a tough question.

Lessons learned: Progress Energy CEO Bob McGehee told members of the Community Energy Advisory Council that the company wants public input on energy alternatives. photo by Jonathan Welch

“I was really dismayed to see the process that happened last fall and early this year,” said Shore, who works for the national nonprofit Environmental Defense. “It seems like Progress Energy was making a decision [to build a new power plant in Woodfin] without any public input. How can we have confidence that this is a sincere and genuine process?” Progress Energy Carolinas formed the group to involve community stakeholders in considering the region’s energy future.

In response, company CEO Bob McGehee made it clear that the public outcry against the Woodfin plant had caused the utility to step back and re-examine the way it makes decisions on future energy demand in Western North Carolina.

“We certainly learned a good lesson at all levels of this company,” McGehee told his audience. “If we had to do it over again, we’d do it another way.”

Progress Energy Community Relations Manager Ken Maxwell told Xpress later that Woodfin’s decision to reject a conditional-use permit for the proposed plant had been a catalyst for creating the 18-member group, which comprises clean-air advocates, public officials, business representatives and others invited by the utility. Margie Meares of the Clean Air Community Trust, Asheville City Council member Brownie Newman and Dave Hollister of Sundance Power Systems—a renewable-energy company—all have seats on the council.

“Everyone agreed we needed to have people who challenged the Woodfin project—otherwise, we’d be missing that part of the picture,” said Maxwell. One of the group’s stated objectives is providing a forum where community stakeholders can weigh in on company policies concerning energy efficiency, demand-side management and renewable-energy resources.

The first half of the meeting featured a PowerPoint presentation by Sam Waters, the utility’s director of system planning, giving an overview of the region’s electrical-power supply and explaining the company’s legal mandate to meet demand. The utility still faces the loss of an outside energy supplier in 2010, noted Waters, and something will have to be done to replace those lost reserves. “The efforts of this group will be very important to work toward deciding what we can do to meet that 2010 demand,” he said. “The answer we came to, doing business as usual, was the Woodfin combustion turbines.” Showing charts of projected population growth in Buncombe County, Waters pointed out that the region’s energy demand will follow the upward trend.

During his introductory speech, McGehee also noted that the advisory council was formed in part to “build strong community support and participation in these energy-efficiency programs. … We’re in this together.”

But some members of the grassroots environmental community took issue with the move. The day of the meeting, Canary Coalition Executive Director Avram Friedman—a key player in opposing the Woodfin plant—issued a public statement denying the advisory council’s legitimacy and announcing that he, for one, would not attend the group’s first meeting.

“I don’t want to contribute to the perception that Progress Energy is engaged in a legitimate process involving meaningful community input,” Friedman declared. “It’s important for the public to become aware that … the advisory council appointed solely by Progress Energy is a public-relations tool being used to create the perception that the corporation is involving the community.”

Friedman’s note echoed a joint statement, signed by 13 representatives of local nonprofit environmental groups, calling for a “true community-based energy task force.”

“There was no community input into the makeup of [the advisory council], and too much local expertise in sustainable energy and energy efficiency has been left on the sidelines,” the statement proclaimed. To that effect, a brand-new group—The Sustainable Energy Council of Western North Carolina—has been formed with the stated goal of improving air quality and public health. The group will also examine regional options for energy efficiency, renewable power and other alternatives.

Visit www.progress-energy.com/wnc for more on the WNC Community Energy Advisory Council; visit www.sec-wnc.org for more on The Sustainable Energy Council of WNC.

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