Duke Energy’s recent announcement that it’s pulling the plug on a planned 45-mile, high-voltage transmission line between upstate South Carolina and Asheville has dominated local energy headlines, and rightly so.
But even as the utility scrambled behind closed doors to rework its controversial proposal for modernizing Western North Carolina’s power generation system, Asheville City Council quietly approved another energy policy milestone.
The Community Clean Energy Policy Framework adopted by Council Oct. 27 is a blueprint for implementing the city’s 2013 pledge to transition to a clean energy economy, says Sonia Marcus, who chairs the city’s Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment.
A decade of sustainability efforts
Asheville’s formal commitment to clean energy began in 2005 with a commitment to meeting or beating the greenhouse gas reduction target spelled out in the Kyoto Protocol. Since then, initiatives such as adding hybrid vehicles to the city’s bus fleet, installing LED streetlights and the “blue bin” recycling program have all helped promote sustainability.
Limiting the focus to city operations, though, could take Asheville only so far down the road to clean energy. Carbon emissions from city government operations account for less than 2 percent of the community’s total emissions, notes Amber Weaver, Asheville’s director of sustainability. And since Duke Energy holds a monopoly on providing electric power to the region, any large-scale energy planning requires collaboration and cooperation with the mega-corporation, Marcus points out.
“Some people,” she notes, “balk at the idea that we should have a role in determining the source of our power.” But that attitude doesn’t faze Marcus, who’s also the director of sustainability for UNC Asheville. “Environmental issues affect us all, and we have to step up to say, ‘I choose to be a part of this conversation, whether or not I’m invited to be,’” she maintains.
A collaborative model
In August 2014, Marcus’ committee invited representatives of various interests to serve on an energy task force. These meetings, says Weaver, were a key part of the two-year planning effort that produced the clean energy framework.
A diverse group including residents and city staff, elected officials and business owners, gathered to brainstorm a laundry list of possible actions. Duke Energy’s Jason Walls, district manager for WNC, was an active participant, says Marcus.
Gwen Wisler, City Council’s liaison to the advisory committee, agrees. “I was pleased with Duke’s engagement in this effort,” she notes. “On some issues, we still need further dialogue; with regard to this process, their participation has been great.”
Walls, meanwhile, says: “For me, the process was about listening to our community through the work of the task force. It was a long process and an exercise in which we all learned from one another.”
Task force members, says Marcus, were asked “What should be part of this plan?” They produced a lengthy list of ideas, which ranged from retrofitting mobile homes for greater energy efficiency to lobbying the state Legislature to eliminate a ban on commercial-scale wind power generation in this part of the state. From those ideas, a more manageable list of high-priority actions spanning the next 12-18 months emerged.
Some of those actions aim to encourage wider awareness and use of existing programs. For example, the city’s development services office will train staff to steer customers applying for building permits toward current Duke Energy programs.
Leveraging those programs, notes Marcus, is “a no-brainer,” because it requires no additional funding, staff or lead time.
Meanwhile, Asheville’s sustainability office will create a green business recognition program in cooperation with the Chamber of Commerce and Duke Energy, and will oversee the Better Buildings Challenge, a U.S. Department of Energy program, to help building owners and businesses reduce energy usage. The sustainability office will also help develop a plan for creating automated, centralized control of heating, ventilation, air conditioning, lighting and other systems in city facilities.
And as Asheville continues developing “innovation districts” (which include downtown, the River Arts District, the South Slope Extension area and, in the near future, North Charlotte Street), city agencies will create development incentives, including grants, for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects in those areas.
The city will also pursue opportunities to site renewable energy facilities on city-owned property.
Blurring the boundaries
The clean energy framework, Weaver explains, provides near-term guidance for the city while laying the foundation for developing longer-term energy policy as Asheville begins work on the successor to its 2025 Plan. “The sustainability office works from the city’s sustainability management plan adopted in 2009; as the city continues incorporating [sustainability] into the fold, we’ll see topics such as climate adaptation and energy in the city’s comprehensive planning process.”
During that process, says Wisler, “We’re going to pull together various plans that already exist and see if we have any holes.”
But implementing the specifics, notes Marcus, will require cooperation with outside partners. “Like a lot of the issues we talk about in city government, whether it’s affordable housing or transportation or economic development,” the boundaries between what the city can directly control and the roles of other entities are “not strict,” she points out. The increased focus on energy policy reflects “part of a whole web, part of an ecology of social change that’s evolving.”
More work to do
Even as the local community reacts to Duke Energy’s announcement, energy policy activists caution against celebrating too soon.
“We’re glad to see that Duke Energy is responding to the concerns of people in WNC by abandoning the transmission lines, paring down the scale of this oversized project and delaying the build of a portion of the natural gas plant to give time for clean energy solutions to get in place,” says Kelly Martin of the Sierra Club’s NC Beyond Coal campaign. She calls Asheville’s clean energy framework “a great place for these solutions to take shape.”
Newly elected City Council member Julie Mayfield thinks the framework was a key factor in Duke Energy’s decision. Mayfield, who is co-director of the environmental nonprofit MountainTrue, called on Duke to work with citizen groups, nonprofits and the city to reduce demand and develop more of the region’s power from renewable sources.
Longtime energy activist Ned Ryan Doyle echoes Martin and Mayfield’s hope that Duke’s pivot toward natural gas represents an intermediate step in a transition to clean power. “Natural gas is a bridge fuel,” notes Doyle. “At the stack, it creates cleaner emissions than coal, but its net effect is arguably worse than coal’s when you take into consideration fracking’s impact on groundwater and air quality,” he explains.
And though Duke’s revised modernization plan might seem unrelated to Asheville’s clean energy framework, continues Doyle, the city’s plan “could have a bigger impact than people imagine” by providing an initial model for collaborative planning processes.
Duke Energy representative Walls seems to be on board with that, saying the framework represents the beginning of “substantive conversations with the city and other stakeholders about ways to increase renewable energy, energy efficiency and evolving technologies here locally.”
Walls also acknowledges that the utility’s mission must include demand reduction alongside finding new ways to generate power. “The city’s policy framework,” he says, “provides a starting point, the start of a road map, to form some innovative and creative ways to reduce our community’s energy needs.”
For her part, Marcus understands that her passion for energy policy doesn’t generally make for the best cocktail party conversations. “I know that a lot of people think it’s a big snore. Little things in this area, like the pay-as-you-throw initiative, sometimes get tons of attention, while huge things like the clean energy framework happen and no one’s even paying attention,” she notes, adding with a rueful laugh, “That’s the nature of policy work.”
Still, Marcus urges people to consider the drama inherent in these recent energy policy developments.
“There’s this amazing, grand story that’s playing out in front of our eyes with regard to energy. The energy infrastructure decisions made in the next 12 months will affect our community for 100 years to come. What other program or policy can we say that about? This is going to dramatically impact us and neighboring states, so it’s pretty important stuff.”
Additional Mountain Xpress coverage of Duke Energy’s recent decisions: