Op-Ed by Harvard Ayers
From the very first, it looked like a done deal.
In February 2015, Duke Energy gave notice to the N.C. Utilities Commission that it planned to build a gas-fired power plant at the current Asheville coal power plant site. Four months later, the N.C. General Assembly approved, and Gov. Pat McCrory signed, the innocuous-sounding Mountain Energy Act, sponsored by state Sen. Tom Apodaca (R-Henderson), which essentially greased the skids for a short, 45-day decision on Duke’s request. The normal time for such a decision is about 180 days, which is much better, considering the controversial nature of this request.
The normal six-month investigation includes a several-day evidentiary hearing that usually involves expert witnesses on both sides — that expert testimony must be addressed in writing by the utilities commission itself when it makes its decision. The 45-day Apodaca schedule does not allow for such a carefully-structured approach. The only hearing for Duke Energy customers was held on one evening, Jan. 26, in Asheville. A total of 51 people testified at this packed hearing before the utilities commission. Forty-seven of us were opposed to the Duke natural gas project. The Apodaca Act does not obligate the utilities commission to respond to these heart-felt public concerns.
Another means of input to the process is through intervening by an organization or an individual. Three individuals and five N.C. organizations intervened, filing motions critical of the Duke project. The organizations which I represent, The Climate Times and NC WARN, are interveners.
There are very serious problems with Duke Energy installing the Asheville natural gas power plant. First, the plant is not needed, as there is ample electrical power in relatively close proximity to Asheville, according to our power plant expert, engineer Bill Powers of San Diego. Columbia Energy of Columbia, S.C., has offered to sell Duke enough power for the entire western N.C. region. In fact, the Columbia gas power plant was built several years ago to serve the surrounding region, including Asheville, and it would cost Duke much less than building the estimated $1.1 billion plant.
Why would Duke want to add to the already-overbuilt capacity in the region, especially since the alternative would cost less? Simply put, Duke Energy customers pay for the full cost of the construction of the power plant plus an additional 10 percent profit for Duke, plus the cost of the gas fuel for the next 30-50 years. According to our expert geoscientist, David Hughes, fracked natural gas could peak in supply as early as next year, 2017, and go down in supply from there. Prices of the gas may become highly volatile even before the completion of the gas power plant scheduled for 2019 or 2020, and could rise from the current very cheap $2 per million BTUs to as much as $14 per million BTUs, which it was several years ago. Why would Duke risk such a potentially huge increase? The simple answer is, it does not affect Duke’s bottom line, or its shareholders, but is borne by Duke’s customers.