By Taft Wireback
Station manager Larry Sparks leads a tour of Duke Energy’s Dan River Combined Cycle Station in Eden. Natural gas plants now produce about 18 percent of the electricity that Duke generates, up from less than 2 percent a decade ago.
The gigantic industrial operation on Eden’s suburban fringe ranks as the second most-famous power plant in Rockingham County.
It’s the only one still pumping out electricity every day to thousands of homes and businesses across the region. And it’s the one that — unlike the retired Dan River Steam Station next door — did not make headlines last year for spilling coal ash into its namesake river.
Perhaps equally important, this 2-year-old Dan River Combined Cycle Station stands out because it helped lead Duke Energy’s initiative to lessen the utility’s dependence on coal and to rely more heavily on cleaner-burning natural gas.
“We have so much more flexibility here,” new Dan River plant manager Larry Sparks said recently. “Coal and nuclear plants, you can’t turn them up or down. But natural gas, it does give us the flexibility to go up and down.
“We’re always ramping up or down to meet demand.”
Duke’s shift toward gas began in earnest about seven years ago, triggering the closure of coal-fired plants in Eden and six other North Carolina communities, replacing them with five plants that use gas as their primary fuel.
That’s good for business, good for customers and good for the environment, company spokeswoman Lisa Parrish said.
“The emission numbers speak for themselves,” Parrish said. “Since 2005, Duke Energy’s emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide in the Carolinas have plummeted as a result of our plant modernization efforts.”
Parrish notes that the combined-cycle technology at Dan River and other natural gas plants has helped the utility cut air pollutants:
Sulfur dioxide by 93 percent.
Nitrogen oxide by 67 percent.
Carbon dioxide by 25 percent.
But the utility’s new facilities in Eden and four, other Tar Heel communities do not fetch rave reviews from everybody.
Clean-energy advocate Jim Warren believes Duke is reaping a public relations bonanza by shifting from a bad fossil fuel to another that’s only a bit less problematic.
“It’s a shell game,” said Warren, executive director of the nonprofit group NC WARN, which advocates for clean energy. “They’ve really scored big by getting people to believe that they are making real progress in dealing with the carbon problem.”
In fact, Warren said, the utility retired only its smaller, older and least efficient coal plants while opening a new coal-fired plant near Rutherford and continuing to go full tilt at others, such as the massive Belews Creek plant that runs on coal about 35 miles northwest of Greensboro in Stokes County.
Natural gas is not as clean as it’s cracked up to be, but it has given the utility a wonderful opportunity to “green-wash its corporate image,” Warren contends.