By Tonya Maxwell
ASHEVILLE – A reworked Duke Energy natural gas plant proposal isn’t drawing protests as an earlier version did, but some area residents and groups are raising concerns ahead of a North Carolina Utilities Commission meeting on the utility’s plans.
That agency will host a public hearing on the proposal Tuesday at the Buncombe County Courthouse.
Critics say the planned natural gas-burning plant, one that would replace the coal-fired facility at Lake Julian, is being fast-tracked on a 45-day time frame that doesn’t allow for proper vetting, that it’s being overbuilt and that a possible future expansion will be unnecessary and should not be approved at this early stage.
Others, even as they applaud unplugging from coal and its toxic ash in Asheville, are critical of natural gas itself, saying the fuel isn’t as clean as its blue-flame marketing leads consumers to believe.
Under the proposal, Duke Energy Progress would build a pair of generating units, together capable of producing 560 megawatts. Known as combined-cycle units, each is coupled with a recovery system able to capture heat that would otherwise be wasted to power a steam turbine.
The company would also have the option to build a third, 186-megawatt simple-cycle generator fueled by natural gas – one without a heat recovery system – if the plan is approved by the North Carolina Utilities Commission.
Two existing peaking units, powered by fuel oil or natural gas and rated together at 324 megawatts, will remain on site and available. The coal plant is rated at 376 megawatts, meaning the facility now has about 700 megawatts of local generation available. The new plan would boost that number to nearly 1,100 megawatts if it all portions moved forward, including a solar farm.
“The bottom line is we’re shutting down a coal plant and we’re replacing that capacity and adding a limited amount of capacity to meet some of the growing load. The fact is in Buncombe County the load is expected to continue to grow and it’s growing faster than virtually any region in the Carolinas,” said Tom Williams, a Duke spokesman. “The way the federal standards work, we have to have a power plant close to the load in this area because it has to serve this control area.”
Methane, a national conversation
Natural gas is widely hailed as a bridge fuel, the only pragmatic option that balances efficiency, cost and environmental standards until technology breakthroughs allow renewables to shoulder more of the nation’s power needs.
In the last five years, Duke has built five natural gas plants throughout North Carolina. In Asheville, the company expects pollution emissions to drop drastically, with nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides falling by 35 percent and upwards of 90 percent, respectively.
“They’re highly efficient,” Williams said of the new natural gas facilities. “This plant is almost as efficient, but not quite. It’s more expensive to build because we’re building two smaller units instead of one big unit.”
Construction of those two generators is a compromise after an earlier plan drew fury throughout the region.
Duke initially wanted to build a 45-mile transmission line from South Carolina’s Upstate to Asheville, a move it said would supplement and offer redundancy for the region’s power needs. But the company abandoned that project under pressure from thousands of irate residents, many of them living within the path of proposed line routes.
But natural gas, often pitched as an environmentally sound source of power, is raising concern among some scientists who say the potency of its methane and related greenhouse effects outpace carbon dioxide by 100 times.
At last month’s climate summit in Paris, nations agreed they would try to limit global warming to well below the 2 degree Celsius mark and would strive to stay under a 1.5 degrees Celsius increase, a goal that will be hard to achieve with the uptick in natural gas, said Professor Robert Howarth of Cornell University.
Methane is a greenhouse gas, more than 100 times as potent as carbon dioxide, said Howarth, who has studied methane leaks.
“If we were to drastically cut carbon dioxide emissions today, we would still meet those ranges, but focusing on carbon dioxide alone won’t solve the problem. Methane productions will result in a much faster response by the climate,” he said. “If we cut methane emissions now, we can slow the rate of warming almost immediately and postpone that 1.5 degree target for 20, 30, up to 50 years.”
Research is showing methane leaks into the atmosphere from fracking sites and is also escaping through old, shuttered mines in a region undergoing fracking, he said. It further spills into the atmosphere during compression and from pipelines and plants.
Last summer, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules to curb methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, which is in a public comment period until March 11.
While methane leaks don’t touch off the furor of a proposed backyard transmission line, they should be considered and scrutinized, said Jim Warren of NC WARN, a Durham-based environmental group that wants to see Duke Energy produce further data on the need for the plant.
“Natural gas isn’t a bridge fuel; it’s a gang plank to an overheating planet,” Warren said. “We have a challenge on our hands and the key thing we all need to do is slow down and have a reasoned, careful and transparent public discussion about Duke Energy’s future plans. It’s not just the Asheville plant. Asheville is the tip of the spear of a big shift Duke Energy is proposing to make.”