Why not natural gas for WNC electricity?

Dot Sulock Photo courtesy of Dot Sulock


Duke Energy has agreed to shut down the plant at Lake Julian that produces electricity by burning coal. That is good news!  One reason why this plant will be shut down is that importing coal to provide North Carolina’s power is expensive, and the money spent on imported coal provides jobs elsewhere. North Carolina utilities paid nearly $1.8 billion in 2012 to import 18.7 million tons of coal from six states, mainly from West Virginia and Kentucky (http://avl.mx/299).

If you go to the U.S. Energy Information Agency website about North Carolina (http://avl.mx/29a), you will learn a lot of interesting things about North Carolina. One of the things that you will learn is that North Carolina does not produce natural gas. So if Duke builds a plant burning natural gas to make electricity in Asheville, it will be the same old story. We will have to import natural gas, and the jobs will be elsewhere.

Another reason for terminating the coal-fired plant is that coal puts carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The plant at Lake Julian has good scrubbers that remove a lot of the particulates from burning coal, but the carbon dioxide is not removed. Each kilowatt-hour of electricity produced by burning coal puts more than 2 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (http://avl.mx/29b).

Most homes use 600-1,000 kWh of electricity each month. Since residential electricity costs about 10 cents per kWh, that means the electric bill for these homes is $60-$100 every month. If your electric bill is about $80 per month, you used about 800 kWh of electricity that month, and producing your electricity put about 1,600 pounds of new carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

So natural gas is “cleaner” than coal, right? Well, when it comes to carbon dioxide emissions, burning natural gas to produce electricity is still putting a lot of carbon dioxide into the air. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency at the previous link, natural gas puts 1.2 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air for each kWh of electricity generated. So the electricity for the folks with the $80 electric bill each month still puts 960 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each month. And then there is the methane.

What’s methane got to do with this? Obtaining natural gas leaks methane. A July 13, 2015, article in Scientific American (http://avl.mx/29c) points out that 1 pound of methane released into the atmosphere will cause the same amount of climate change as 28-36 pounds of carbon dioxide. According to this article, a 2012 study (http://avl.mx/29d) found that natural gas power generation can achieve climate benefits only if methane emissions are kept lower than they currently are. The study found that methane emissions were about 1.5 times EPA estimates, enough to undo the temporarily good effect of less carbon dioxide from natural gas.

Duke can get enough power to replace the coal plant from other plants and new renewables, wind and solar in particular. If you go to this link — http://avl.mx/29e — you can read the petition of Columbia Energy LLC to sell electricity from its existing 523 MW combined cycle-power generating facility to Duke to replace the existing 379 MW coal-fired plant in Asheville that Duke will be shutting down.

There are two big problems with Duke building this unnecessarily large, 752 MW gas-fired plant to replace the 379 MW coal-fired plant. First, the gas-fired plant will keep operating for its lifetime to replace its construction costs even if solar and wind could replace it much sooner.

The second problem is that, as you have probably already realized, the gas-fired plant will put more CO2 into the atmosphere than the coal fired one did: 379 MW x 2,000 pounds of CO2  per MWh burning coal = 758,000 pounds of CO2 going into the atmosphere every hour the coal-fired plant is operating. Plus, 752 MW x 1200 pounds of CO2 per MWh burning natural gas = 902,400 pounds of CO2  going into the atmosphere every hour the gas-fired plant is operating. And add to that the methane emissions from fracking to obtain the natural gas.

Wind and solar are good for the economy of North Carolina. Wind and solar create jobs in North Carolina. Wind and solar do not emit carbon dioxide or methane. If Duke makes a large financial investment now in an unnecessarily large natural gas plant, that plant will have to continue to emit carbon dioxide for many decades to justify its construction. Fossil fuel electricity is obsolete in 2016.  Let’s not keep it going in Asheville.

If any of this seems important to you, you can learn more and communicate your opinion to officials by visiting the websites of NCWARN (http://www.ncwarn.org), Mountain True (http://action.mountaintrue.org/page/speakout/fix-dukes-wnc-plan), Canary Coalition (http://www.canarycoalition.org) or Western North Carolina Sierra Club (http://www.wenoca.org).

You can also contact the N.C. Utilities Commission at  statements@ncuc.net (put docket # E-2 Sub 1089 in the subject line) and express your opinion.

Dot Sulock has been teaching math full time at UNCA for 40 years and teaches about renewable energy at UNCA and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.


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15 thoughts on “Why not natural gas for WNC electricity?

  1. boatrocker

    Interesting assertion- I do not have any easy solutions.

    I do know these following statements as facts- if any posters dispute these facts, please question your sanity:
    – Natural gas is a finite fossil fuel and still contributes to pollution
    There, that was me stating a fact.

    I really wonder what the ‘jobs/taxes/regulation is baaaad’ crowd would say to a child born 100 years from now to justify ‘me me me ‘ if they could be sent to the future in a time machine. Would they explain that short term profit is more important than clean water/air/soil for future generations or would it be simply’ Hah! I’m gonna be dead anyway, my comfort trumps any future generation’s right to a liviable planet!’.

  2. Lulz

    LOL so just like a smoking ban to “save” employees in foodservice from second hand smoke where the majority of them smoke tobacco and weed, this isn’t about the environment but the APPEARANCE and VILIFYING of something that’s seen as dirty lulz. If as you state that gas will put even more carbon emissions out, then what is the fuss about? You people are stooooopid LOL. Stoooopid. Go away. You’ve gotten rich via student debt.

          • boatrocker

            Geez does anyone actually care to explain to me why trading dependence on one finite and polluting fossil fuel for another is a good thing?

            I read these articles for answers, people, not for my health!

  3. Britt

    Hi good article. Those are facts with substance backed up by math.

    Engineers like that. Madame, since you are in an education please walk down the street to engineering department and ask the prof who teaches Engr 101 the first lesson taught on day one. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

    Energy, Work, Power all come at a cost. Be it photovoltaic, combustion, nuclear, wind, solar and any source you can name.

    Google rare earth mining to see some of the equipment used for that. Every wind turbine and solar panel would not be possible without them.

    Also, it’s another fact solar panels wear out. try a quick internet search to see what they contain and see if they’re safe of to dispose in the landfill.

    Same with the magnets in the stator and rotor in a wind turbine.

    Also, guess what, all of the light weight composite materials in wind turbines and solar panels are made from natural gas and oil.

    So the answer is not what

    • Britt

      Is not what source is clean but which source is the most cost effective and reliable.

      Green energy is a myth.

      • Dave Erb

        I’m the guy down the hall from Dot who teaches Engr 101, along with Statics, Dynamics, Circuits, Thermo, and more. NASA paid for one of my master’s degrees, in return for the composite materials research I did for them. As an automotive engineer who has worked on electric and hybrid electric powertrains for 30 years of my 35 year career, I also know a thing or two about the materials content of motors/generators. Dot and I had another of our many conversations about the electric grid as we were walking to work yesterday.

        Perfectly green energy IS a myth. That’s why very few environmentalists believe in it, and probably why talking heads can’t seem to stop ranting about it. On the other hand, dramatically greener energy is very real. In several states, it’s already the least expensive energy available, and the cost is still dropping. The distributed grid will be far more reliable than our present centralized model. I suggest you read some of the current literature, because things have changed dramatically in the last two years, let alone the last two decades. Then do the math yourself. You’ll be amazed what you’ll learn when you cut through the FUD being spread by paid shills and their parrots.

        Perfectionism is the mortal enemy of progress.

      • J.M. Westall

        I mostly agree! But all sources of energy INCLUDING the sun are finite..

  4. Britt

    Dave I can empathize with what you are saying but you’re off course. Yes cleaner technologies are available but they’re not cheaper, nor are they as available or scalable as natural gas. Solar is great but they only work 6-8 hours a day 15-20 days a month. Especially in latitudes as north as N Carolina

    I like wind, but in Texas wind producers are required by law to give ERCOT ( state entity) power that they pledge and when Ercot says they need to deliver. To avoid getting penalties and fines, wind producers build their generating stations with back up diesel fueled internal combustion engine fired gen sets. How is that green?

    Natural gas pipelines flowing towards a combined cycle natural gas plant is the way to go. Gas pipelines are a low risk, very reliable utility. Sure there are accidents but look how many miles of pipe are in the ground? the risk is very small vs the size of the infrastructure.

    You and your neighbors use and will continue to use more energy. Wind and solar cannot keep up. I’ve heard n Carolina is a lovely state, but ive also heard that Raleigh and Durham and Asheville and your other big metro areas are growing like crazy. All those new houses with service panels that will soon approach 200 amps normal size won’t like when the grid’s supply gets scarce. We like energy and our use will grow and grow. Natural gas needs to be a part of that mix. It’s just that simple.

    • Dave Erb

      NC is definitely a lovely state, and Western NC is the best part. You should visit sometime. But leave the FUD in Texas.

      It’s disingenuous to suggest that anyone advocates simply shutting down all the fossil and nuke plants. This is a debate about the quantity and timing of a monopoly’s ratepayer-guaranteed investments, not about whether we’ll still be using fossil fuel in 40 years.

      You’re wrong when you say that solar and wind aren’t cheaper. Wind provides the lowest LCOE available today in many places. Solar has won competitive wholesale supply bids as far north as Minnesota. PV has reached retail grid parity in several states, and is on a cost curve to add many more in the near future. In Hawaii, even off-grid PV (which requires expensive batteries) is close to retail parity. The Edison Institute’s “grid defection death spiral” will happen there first if utilities keep fighting user-owned PV.

      Distributed renewables are more scalable than fossil and nukes, and far quicker to implement. PV comes in 250 watt blocks, with minimal delay between purchase decision and commissioning. Compare that to gas (tens or hundreds of megawatts per module) or nuke (gigawatt modules), with their multi-year approval processes. Efficiency improvement (weatherization, LED lighting, … ) is even cheaper, quicker, and more scalable than PV.

      Intermittency isn’t an issue, because the storage is already in place. Duke has 1,775 MW of pumped storage hydro (Keowee / Jocassee / Bad Creek) 50 miles from here, since nuke plants aren’t dispatchable.

      Don’t bother raising the red herring of subsidies. All energy is subsidized, and fossil and nuke subsidies (Price-Anderson, preferential tax treatment, bargain basement mineral leases on public land, the Fifth Fleet, … ) far exceed anything given to renewables.

      Interstate 40 runs through both Asheville and Amarillo, but it’s not the same in both places. Continuing to drive in a straight line just because that’s what you’ve been doing would be very foolish here. Kind of like overbuilding gas plants.

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