Duke Energy misled regulators at meeting over new Asheville-area gas plant

Jim Warren, executive director of NC WARN Photo courtesy of NC WARN

BY JIM WARREN

Monday’s meeting of the N.C. Utilities Commission perfectly demonstrated why fast-track review of Duke Energy’s application to build a $1.1 billion power plant fails the public interest and is unconstitutional.

A Duke Energy attorney laying out a one-sided, oversimplified and misleading case to commissioners is no substitute for an evidentiary hearing that allows for open debate and cross-examination of Duke officials, the commission’s public staff and experts representing other parties.

At the meeting, the Duke attorney made an hour-long statement to the commissioners to argue for approval of the new plant — following a shorter but similar presentation by the commission’s public staff. Included was Duke’s response to some of the concerns filed by intervenors. Today, NC WARN and The Climate Times filed comments with the commission, based on review of the record of the meeting by one of our technical experts, countering two of Duke’s most troubling statements made to the commission – and one very telling omission.

Duke’s Asheville area is simply not an “energy island” as its attorney claimed in arguing that power for Asheville must be generated locally. By contrast, Duke has repeatedly stated that power from the proposed natural gas units would be sent to Duke’s other service territories in both Carolinas. Duke’s Asheville region is surrounded on three sides by other Duke service regions that share power as demand ebbs and flows. Very little on the modern electricity grid is an “island.”

Contradicting himself, Duke’s attorney later maintained that the 523 MW of electricity Duke is required to buy from an existing Columbia Energy plant in South Carolina — which would be far cheaper than building new plants — isn’t an alternative. In a circular statement, the Duke attorney attempted to make commissioners believe that the only way to get the power from Columbia to Asheville would be to build a new transmission corridor directly connecting the two cities.

Neither Duke, the commissioners nor their public staff even mentioned a central point in an earlier NC WARN-Climate Times filing; there is no evidence Duke even considered making equipment upgrades that could double the carrying capacity of existing transmission lines into and out of the area — if, in fact, additional transmission capacity is even needed. Reconductoring existing lines is a standard industry practice that would put to use a glut of regional generation supply and could be achieved for a fraction of the cost of new power plants and without the controversy of building new transmission lines.

We remain very concerned by the closed, pro-Duke and unconstitutional process in this case, including the lack of regulatory scrutiny of Duke Energy assertions.

Duke Energy can and should close those Asheville coal units now. Even with the coal plants closing, nothing learned in this case to date changes our strong argument that the regulators must deny Duke’s application to build a huge natural gas power plant that is not needed, would be high-risk economically and would accelerate the global climate crisis at the worst possible time.

Jim Warren is the executive director of NC WARN, a member-based nonprofit in Durham tackling the climate crisis.

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