By Bruce Henderson
The N.C. Utilities Commission will let Duke Energy build two natural gas-fired units at its Asheville power plant, replacing coal, but denied Duke’s contingent request for a third gas unit.
The decision late Monday afternoon echoed the recommendations of the Public Staff, which advocates for utility customers. The independent agency had said Duke could apply for the third unit if needed in later years.
The commission’s decision came on the last day of an unusually fast 45-day approval process mandated by legislation last year. The legislation was meant to shut down Duke’s coal-fired power plant in Asheville and replace it with cleaner-burning natural gas.
Asheville residents applauded the impending end of the coal plant, whose smokestacks had towered over southern Buncombe County since 1964. But thousands of public comments later prompted Duke to scale back the initial size of the gas-fired units and to scrap a 45-mile transmission line into South Carolina.
Even then, advocates questioned the need for the size of the two 280-megawatt plants approved Monday and Duke’s continued reliance on fossil fuels linked to climate change. Construction on the units will start this year and finish by late 2019.
While pleased with the denial of a third unit, Joan Walker of Asheville-based MountainTrue said the two approved units “were unjustified and oversized and not the best use of ratepayer dollars. Natural gas prices may be low now, but we fear that over-investment in such a large plant will saddle our region’s families and businesses with higher electricity bills in the future.”
The Durham advocacy group NC WARN, which claims the fast-track approval let the project avoid in-depth scrutiny, said it will appeal the decision.
Duke had intended the denied unit to be a backup if local efforts to reduce electricity demand daily and at peak times, such as on cold winter mornings, failed. If they work, Duke said it will delay or cancel plans to seek separate approval of the extra unit.