A 1982 coal ash basin at Duke Energy’s Lake Julian Power Plant contained 3.7 million tons of coal, nearly all of which went to the Asheville Regional Airport and into a lined landfill. The basin is now being prepared for a natural gas plant.
BILTMORE PARK – The power business is a big-money industry, and Duke Energy will invest $13 billion over the next decade in the Carolinas to keep the lights on – and keep customers happy.
Those customers have serious expectations from their electricity provider, Duke Energy CEO and President Lynn Good told a group of local leaders gathered Friday afternoon at the Hilton Hotel.
“Almost 99.9 percent of our customers care about how much they pay for their electricity,” Good said in a lighter moment. “And 99.9 percent also care about reliability. We’ve become so dependent on this resource, this 24/7, perfect power expectation.”
That demand is also what’s driving Duke’s push for a new substation on the western edge of downtown Asheville at a former Patton Avenue car dealership. The utility says demand has doubled over the past 40 years, but Duke has not added a substation in Asheville over that time frame.
While Duke is based in Charlotte and has operations in Florida, the Carolinas and the Midwest, Good is well aware of the substation issue in Asheville.
“I have been involved on the substation in Asheville for the last couple of years, because I think we tried three sites before we got to this one,” Good said in an interview after her talk. “I think it’s been a test of everyone’s patience at some level, because we’ve been trying to find something that works, and I believe we’re in a better spot as a result of this work.”
More: Duke Energy substation planned for Patton
Duke paid $7.4 million for the site, but it has not finalized plans for the substation, including what it may look like. Good said the company had a similar situation with aesthetics concerns of a substation in St. Petersburg, Florida, so it will try to make the Asheville site fit in.
“I think there’s increasing comfort that this might be a good location,” Good said. “I think we can start talking aesthetics once we’ve identified where it’s going to be. But there’s probably a limit on how aesthetically beautiful I can make it.”
During her talk, Good stressed the importance of Duke’s coming $13 billion investment in the Carolinas over the next 10 years, with monies going to efforts to drive down outages, improve communication with customers, increase energy efficiency, “and to make our system more available and ready for renewable energy.”
The investment should create 14,000 jobs in the Carolinas over that time, she said.
In Asheville, Duke will generate at least 650 jobs with its plans to tear down the coal-fired Lake Julian plant and replace it with a natural gas plant and a solar farm. The $1.1 billion project would include demolishing the two existing coal-fired generators, while a pair of gas combustion peaking units that are housed separately will remain in place.
Two new natural gas units are slated to come online in the fall of 2019. The facility would be built on the site of a coal ash pond that has been excavated.
Driven by coal ash cleanup costs, Duke Energy Progress, a subsidiary of Duke Energy, is requesting a 15 percent rate increase for North Carolina customers, which has to be approved by the N.C. Utilities Commission. That would mean $18 more per month for the typical household bill of $105.
Duke wants consumers to pay about $200 million a year to clean up the toxic byproducts of burning coal. The coal ash at the Lake Julian plant has caused problems with nearby homeowners’ water, and it’s a major concern for environmentalists.
Good said the country has about 700 coal ash basins, and Duke acquired many of its basins through mergers and acquisitions. For decades, utilities dug pits and buried the ash on site as a standard practice.
“Storage of ash should be thought of as part of the provision of electric service, ” Good said. “You build the power plant, you operate it, you decommission it, you store the waste associated with it. And all of us benefit from that stream by using the electricity.”
The average family, through its annual energy usage from a coal plant, would produce about 150 pounds of coal ash, Good said.
Duke has turned away from coal over the past decade or so, reducing carbon emissions by 30 percent since 2005 in this region, Good said. The utility is investing $5 billion in renewable energy, including $1 billion in the Carolinas.
“As early as 2005-06 we were 60 percent coal, 40 percent nuclear,” Good said of Duke’s energy production techniques. “Today we’re 30 percent coal, 25 percent natural gas and 40 percent nuke. We’ve retired half our coal units in the state.”
Duke operates 11 nuclear plants in the Carolinas, including three in North Carolina. The utility wants to keep them running as long as possible, she said.
Asheville City Councilwoman Julie Mayfield, who is also the executive director of the environmental advocacy group MountainTrue, thanked Good during her presentation for her role in forming the Energy Innovation Task Force, a local working group of Asheville, Buncombe and Duke officials considering options for energy reduction and ways to avoid construction of a third gas-fired unit at the Lake Julian facility.
Mayfield also met with Good after the CEO’s presentation.
“I like what I hear her saying,” Mayfield said after the meeting. “One of the things that really struck me is her understanding and acknowledgement of how fast the industry is changing.”
Mayfield said she’s aware that some in the solar industry feel Duke is not embracing change quickly enough, and it has taken steps to stymie solar expansion. But overall Mayfield said she came away impressed with Good’s commitment to innovation, reducing Duke’s carbon footprint and working with local entities.
In thanking Good for coming, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer delivered the day’s funniest line.
“We’ve come up with an alternate energy idea – it’s incinerating man buns,” Manheimer joked. “We think in Asheville that ought to get us a long way.”
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