By Tonya Maxwell
Duke Energy Progress is touting plans for a natural gas-fired facility that will replace the coal-powered plant at Lake Julian, but some environmental groups are criticizing a fast-tracked approval process that leaves little time for public scrutiny.
The utility company on Friday evening filed documents with the North Carolina Utilities Commission asking that the project be approved by March 1, as allowed under law for this project. The expected cost is $1.1 billion.
The plans call for the construction of two natural gas-fueled power blocks, each with a 280-megawatt capacity and the option to build a third unit able to generate 186 megawatts. All units can alternatively be powered by fuel oil should the natural gas supply, piped in by PSNC Energy, be interrupted.
The two existing coal-fired generators, with a combined 379-megawatt rating, will be demolished, while a pair of gas combustion peaking units that are housed separately and have a total generation capacity of 370 megawatts, will remain in place.
The two natural gas units are slated to come online in the fall of 2019 and would each include a combustion gas-powered turbine that can power a steam turbine with captured waste heat. The facility would be built on the site of a coal ash pond currently under excavation, known as the 1982 basin, which lies behind homes along New Rockwood Road and is about one quarter mile south of the existing coal plant.
Duke Energy Progress is also committing to solar generation of at least 15 megawatts over the next seven years, part of it sited where the coal plant now stands, while the remainder could be housed off-site in unspecified areas.
The Lake Julian site would also be home to 5 megawatts of utility-scale storage in the western region of Duke Energy Progress.
If that storage project is approved, it would be the largest of its kind in North Carolina, said Kelly Martin of the Sierra Club, and is promising in that it could be tapped to meet demand need during peak consumption.
“That’s a big piece of clean energy, and it will help to avoid the need for some of these big peaker power plants,” Martin said, but she also is concerned with the option for the third, 186-megawatt power unit.
Duke officials are asking that if current peak-power demands are not reduced, the company can build that unit by 2023.
Duke Energy Progress is in the early stages of formalizing partnerships with the city of Asheville and other communities to reduce energy use in the region, according to the filing. To begin laying groundwork for a third natural gas-fired generator, one that might not be needed, is to bet against energy conservation, Martin said.
While most groups are pleased to see Duke getting out of the coal business, Jim Warren, director of the Durham-based NC WARN, said his group is troubled by Duke’s rapid investment in natural gas, which includes not only new power plants, but the possible acquisition of Piedmont Natural Gas.
Duke has touted the switch to natural gas as a move that will save ratepayers on energy costs, but that cheap power source is balancing on a bubble poised to burst, Warren said.
More troubling for Asheville, he added, is an abbreviated timeline for approval of the natural gas plant. Under a bill sponsored by state Sen. Tom Apodaca in May and signed into law a month later, the state Utilities Commission must render a decision in 45 days from Duke’s initial filing, shortening a process that typically would take at least several months.
Those few weeks aren’t enough time for experts, the public, and even the Utilities Commission to vet a complex project and take a hard look at the environmental implications, including methane leaks during gas extraction, Warren said.
“If you look under the tent, this is not about replacing coal. They have convinced people that Asheville is going to run out power and is going to freeze in the dark,” he said, calling the plant oversized and unneeded. “This is about exporting power [across] the Carolinas.”
Duke is estimating emissions will drop significantly when the natural gas plant begins operation, including reductions of 90 to 95 percent of sulfur dioxide and a 35 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide. Mercury — which is contained in coal ash — will be eliminated and water withdrawals from Lake Julian will be reduced by 97 percent, according to the company.