By Taft Wireback
Duke Energy’s emphasis over the past year at two power plants in the Piedmont Triad has been on cleaning up coal ash, closing basins where the waste product had been submerged and relying more heavily on natural gas to make electricity.
With a price tag of more than $409 million, the work at its Dan River and Belews Creek plants is part of Duke Energy’s request for a rate hike now being weighed by the North Carolina Utilities Commission, one estimated to cost the average household about $97 a year.
Duke Energy also made headlines this week by reaching an agreement with state regulators, environmentalists and civic groups to settle a dispute about the best way to dispose of coal ash at Belews Creek and five other plants, not including the Dan River facility.
But the work envisioned by that pact wouldn’t begin until later this year, so it is not part of the current rate deliberations.
Duke Energy’s biggest Triad milestone that is included in the current rate case?
That probably would be the utility’s progress in cleaning up coal ash at the former Dan River Steam Station, an endeavor that cost about $71 million during the last two years.
Utility contractors have largely finished the lined, ash landfill at the former coal-fired plant near Eden. And they buried all the ash there that had been held both under water in storage basins and above ground near the now-demolished plant in what the utility calls “dry stacks.”
“Ash excavation at Dan River is complete,” said Duke spokesman Bill Norton. “We are done placing ash material in the landfill, but there is a possibility that other material could be brought in to help it meet final grades for closure.”
That other material is fill dirt brought in so that before the landfill is finally closed, its surface can be properly graded by earth movers to keep stormwater from forming puddles and seeping into the waste stored below, Norton said.
“The top of the landfill has a temporary cover for the winter, with final closure to begin in March 2020,” he said of the process that includes landscaping and is overseen by the state Department of Environmental Quality. “We’ll notify DEQ once that is complete for their approval of the closure.”
With its ash removed, the now-demolished plant’s nearby storage ponds have become open fields soon to be seeded with grass for erosion control, he added.
The coal-fired plant about 35 miles north of Greensboro has been replaced by a neighboring, “combined cycle” facility that runs exclusively on natural gas. The former plant’s bygone storage ponds figured in a massive spill that sullied the plant’s namesake river on Super Bowl Sunday in February 2014.
Duke Energy also has removed a lot of coal ash at Belews Creek in Stokes County, about 30 miles to the southwest of the Dan River plant.
But the massive storage basin there is far from having seen its last days: The basin holds 12 million tons of coal ash, nearly seven times what now rests in the newly completed Dan River landfill after it was dredged from the bottom of the former plant’s storage basins.
By contrast, natural gas is the big story at Belews Creek, which has been one of the Southeast’s largest coal-fired power makers since its construction in the mid-1970s.
A gigantic capital project was just completed there to enable one of the plant’s two, electric-generating units to run on natural gas as well as coal.
The conversion was expected to cost about $175 million. It involved extending a gas pipeline more than 10 miles to the plant near Walnut Cove and included another 5-plus miles of new, internal piping within the main power making building.
“This co-firing capability allows the company to use the most cost-effective fuel,” company spokeswoman Meredith Archie said of being able to switch readily between coal and natural gas.
She said that flexibility will help keep down the average customer’s power bill while it also cuts emissions and makes it easier for Duke Energy to coordinate electricity from fossil fuels with what’s generated by solar energy and other renewable sources.
The work accomplished at Dan River and Belews Creek ranks as a factor in the utility’s petition to raise the average residential customer’s power bill just less than 7%.
The Charlotte-based utility wants the North Carolina Utilities Commission to authorize a rate hike that would boost power bills for the average household — using 1,000 kilowatt hours a month — from $108.20 currently to $116.26.
That average jump of $8.06 monthly would translate into a $96.72 annual increase for the average family.
A rate hike in the amount requested is not guaranteed. The state Utilities Commission has the power to reduce or completely reject such petitions.
In 2018, the commission trimmed Duke Energy’s most recent request for a rate hike so that some customers actually saw decreases in their bills.
In that earlier case, the commission decided that the Charlotte-based utility’s argument for greater revenues was undercut by hefty corporate tax breaks that recently had been conferred upon such industrial giants by the federal government.
Critics believe the latest rate hike is equally unwarranted, although for different reasons.
Petitioners ranging from state Attorney General Josh Stein to the Southern Environmental Law Center, North Carolina Justice Center, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and North Carolina Utility Customers Association have filed as “intervenors” in the case to raise questions about the proposed rate hike.
Durham-based energy activist Jim Warren said Duke Energy is foolish to make additional investments in natural gas, a fossil fuel, at a time when both new technology and economic realities are on the side of such renewable sources as solar energy.
Natural gas burns cleaner than coal but is still far too polluting at a time when the effects of climate change hit North Carolina and its residents ever more immediately, say Warren and other critics.
Moreover, Warren said, refinements in the science behind battery storage are making it feasible for utilities to rely more heavily on sources of renewable energy such as solar and wind power that actively generate electricity during only parts of the day.
Warren, executive director of the NC WARN watchdog group, dismisses Duke Energy’s claim that adding natural gas to the Belews Creek repertoire could enable the utility to use renewable energy more effectively by offsetting its ebbs and flows.
“That’s simply a great, big green wash,” said Warren, meaning that he believes Duke Energy is falsely claiming environmental benefits to deceive the general public.
“They simply don’t have plans to use enough solar for that to even count or matter,” he said.