BY JULIE MAYFIELD
On Nov. 4, Duke Energy held a press conference at the Lake Julian power plant just south of Asheville. Addressing journalists from around the region, Lloyd Yates, the company’s president for the Carolinas region, declared, “The process worked,” before unveiling a revised “modernization” plan that was drastically different from the one proposed six months before.
Gone was a 45-mile, high-voltage transmission line cutting through the countryside of Western North Carolina and upstate South Carolina, as well as a new substation in Campobello, S.C. Duke had even reduced the size of the natural gas plant that’s slated to replace the coal-fired Lake Julian plant.
Duke touted the process and thanked the public for their input. But make no mistake, this was a hard-fought victory won by the dedicated communities throughout our region that organized in opposition. This grassroots effort is a source of immense inspiration to my colleagues and me at MountainTrue.
Through the Carolina Land Coalition, MountainTrue partnered with residents, community groups and businesses from around the region to voice our concerns and ask Duke Energy to stop, re-evaluate its plans and come back with something better.
Dedicated people of every political stripe came together and took a stand for a better vision of our future. Thousands of residents and families attended public hearings and called for a plan that respects our natural heritage and our region’s beauty. In the end, Duke’s leaders credited the more than 9,000 comments they received from the community with changing their minds.
A fourth important part of Duke’s announcement is that the utility is now willing to enter into partnerships with local governments, groups like MountainTrue and others to address the region’s growing energy needs in a way that’s less destructive to our natural environment and local economies.
Switching from coal to natural gas mitigates most of the immediate harms to our local environment, such as the ongoing production of toxic coal ash and the release of sulfur dioxide, a pollutant and acid rain precursor, into the atmosphere. But it’s really just kicking the fossil fuel can a bit farther down the road.
Natural gas is mostly methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and recent studies have shown a troubling amount of methane leakage during nearly every stage of production and transport. Not to mention the devastation in communities where fracking has fouled the water and made both people and livestock sick.
This is where Duke’s new proposal actually contains an opportunity and a challenge.
While the utility has reduced the overall size of the proposed natural gas plant, it has also issued a warning: Unless something changes in Western North Carolina, Duke will need to build an additional gas-fueled, 190-megawatt peaking unit to meet growing demand. This would commit us to an even greater reliance on climate-changing fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.
But preventing the construction of this peaking unit will require more than merely asking our members to sign a pledge. It will take everyone — Duke Energy, the city of Asheville, other municipalities in the region, institutions, businesses and consumers — working side by side in fulfillment of the utility’s offer of partnership. Duke’s openness and willingness to give our community some measure of control over our energy future is precedent-setting and an opportunity not to be wasted.
For local governments, that means looking for opportunities to reduce energy use in their operations and pursuing policy solutions through smart planning like what was laid out in Asheville’s Community Clean Energy Policy Framework. This document serves as a road map for a meaningful partnership between the city and Duke Energy to increase participation in energy-efficiency programs and build more renewable infrastructure on city-owned property.
For businesses and consumers, it means adopting sustainable practices and enrolling in existing energy-efficiency programs that offer incentives for things like weatherproofing, insulating electric water heaters and installing motion sensors to turn off lights in empty offices. It also means reforming long-standing habits: turning off the lights when you walk out of a room, unplugging phone chargers and power strips when not in use and using major appliances at nonpeak times. MountainTrue has resources to help consumers cut their energy use and enroll in efficiency programs at bit.ly/MTGreenEnergy.
Duke Energy, however, may face the greatest challenge of all, because reform can’t just be about good public relations. Fossil fuels have substantial hidden costs for our climate, our communities and our health, and for an energy company, fighting the urge to pass those costs on to the public is no easy task. But Duke has offered us another path here in WNC that will hopefully get us to the clean energy future we want and need.
Duke has opened the door, and we must walk through it together. Done well, the partnership will be far more productive than continuing to fight each other through lawsuits and advocacy campaigns.
Done poorly, we’ll be breaking ground on yet another fossil fuel plant in seven years. We invite you to join us in doing this partnership well.
Newly elected City Council member Julie Mayfield is co-director of MountainTrue, a grassroots environmental group.