The Green Scene

A proposed $72 million, 130 megawatt power plant near Woodfin could be in operation as early as December 2009. Announced by Progress Energy Dec. 1, the plant — which would occupy a former landfill site the company hopes to lease from Buncombe County — would provide electricity for 150,000 Western North Carolina customers during peak-demand times.

Community Relations Manager Ken Maxwell said Progress Energy was unable to renegotiate its contract with an out-of-state company supplying backup power. The contract expires in 2009, and the pending loss of power, coupled with an assessment of current needs, led the company to proceed with plans for a new unit, he said.

The turbines would operate only about 10 percent of the time. Powered by ultra-low-sulfur oil (which Maxwell said has only 3 percent of the sulfur content of conventional fuel), the plant would emit significantly less sulfur dioxide than a typical coal-fired unit. Asked how other hazardous emissions — nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and the like — would compare, Maxwell declined to comment, saying it’s too early in the planning stage.

The plant would be in Woodfin, close to the Craggy Correctional Facility, which houses some 1,000 male inmates.

The company expects to submit an air-permit application to the Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency within the next couple of weeks, said Maxwell. The North Carolina Utilities Commission must also sign off on the proposal.

Local watchdog groups say they’d like to see the utility explore alternatives to burning fossil fuels, which lowers air quality and increases greenhouse-gas emissions. “It’s not a good policy to build any new power plants,” says Avram Friedman, executive director of the Canary Coalition, a Sylva-based nonprofit focusing on clean-air issues. Friedman says he’d like to see a study conducted to determine whether efficiency measures could address the demand.

Communications Director Valerie True of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy agrees, noting, “Before that much money is spent, we really need to make sure there is a need for it — obviously, energy efficiency is cheapest.”

Chapel Hill-based solar-energy consultant Tom Henkel, who serves on the board of the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, says the announcement inspired him to do some number-crunching.

“I said let me see what happens if they invested in 130 megawatts of solar photovoltaics,” he reports. “A public utility can get permission to take solar tax credits, which can buy down the cost almost 80 percent.” Factoring that in, Henkel determined that over 20 years, installing a solar-powered system would be cheaper than the proposed plant. The PV system, says Henkel, would cost about 4.8 cents per kilowatt-hour produced during that period. “Meanwhile, the capital cost of the [proposed] system — without factoring in fuel — would be 3.2 cents per kilowatt-hour,” he explains. “By the time they buy the fuel, it will cost more.”

Maxwell, however, maintains that renewables are not a viable option. “The reality is, for this type of generation, there’s nothing else that will guarantee that the power will be available,” he says. “In this particular case, there is not a renewable technology that allows us to ramp up to this volume of electricity.” And as for solar, “if you had to bring it on at night, we’d have a problem.”

But Ivan Urlaub, executive and policy director at NCSEA, says an oil-burning plant is the next-most-expensive option after solar (not counting the tax credits). “The utilities bring their plants online from lowest cost to highest cost,” Urlaub explains, so the proposed plant would most likely be fired up on hot summer days, when solar technology would be appropriate, he says.

Area residents will have a chance to comment on the proposal at a public hearing on Tuesday, Jan. 16, at 4:30 p.m. in Room 204 of the Buncombe County Courthouse. People wishing to speak should arrive early to sign up. Progress Energy will host an open house earlier that day (location TBA) to give area residents a chance to learn more about the project.

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