by Joan Walker, Campaigns Director
Remember that time in 2015 when Duke Energy wanted to replace Asheville’s coal-fired power plant with massive transmission lines and an oversized gas-fired plant?
As you may recall, the community at large and MountainTrue were less than excited about the prospect of doubling down on fossil fuels to meet our area’s electricity demands. We saw the coal plant’s shuttering as an opportunity to reimagine our energy future and divert investments away from expensive and dirty fossil fuels to energy efficiency and renewables.
These technologies save customers like you and me on our utility bills, make our homes more comfortable, healthier places to live and create high quality local jobs. Investing in energy efficiency just makes sense. Compared to even the most efficient gas-fired power plants and renewables, efficiency remains the cheapest method of providing power — and one that Duke Energy is allowed to recover profits on just the same as they will on $893.2 million price tag for the new gas fired plant.
Together, we got a new plan from Duke and NC’s utility regulators: A smaller gas plant, no massive power lines, a commitment to 15 MW of solar and 5 MW of battery storage. A proposed additional 190 Megawatt “peaking” plant was taken off the table, and Duke Energy made a commitment (codified by utility regulators) to work with the community to find ways to avoid or delay building it through new technologies and energy efficiency and conservation initiatives.
In March 2016 an official community collaboration was launched when the City of Asheville, Buncombe County and Duke Energy brought together stakeholders from across the community to form the Energy Innovation Task Force. Since then, working groups comprised of Task Force members, community volunteers and technical experts from Rocky Mountain Institute have been researching existing Duke Energy and community programs, innovative examples from around the country, leading edge technologies, strategies for engaging communities in clean energy solutions and more.
MountainTrue’s Campaigns Director, Joan Walker, has led both the Programs and Community Engagement working groups and is playing an integral role in developing recommendations on both those fronts for Duke Energy, the City of Asheville and Buncombe County. In her role on City Council, MountainTrue Co-Director Julie Mayfield co-chairs the Task Force.
The first task of this group was to define the specific amount of peak-demand energy usage that would need to be reduced to avoid building a peaking unit. We discovered that every year, starting around 2022, Buncombe County customers would need to reduce peak electricity usage by 17 MW. That’s about the same amount of electricity that would be generated by solar panels on about 3,400 homes per year. I don’t know about you but I’d definitely rather see solar panels covering my neighbors’ roofs than paying for a power plant that would cost around $100 million dollars and be run on gas that, while better for our local environment, will still contribute to climate change and pollute air and water where the gas is extracted!
While there’s still much work to be done, we wanted to share some exciting updates on the progress that we’ve made so far and where we’re headed!
- The Program Group has delivered comprehensive recommendations for energy saving programs and projects to Duke Energy, the City of Asheville and Buncombe County.
- In addition to programs and projects, the Working Group calls on the City, County and Duke Energy to support statewide reforms like legislation allowing third-party sales of renewable energy in North Carolina and for Duke Energy to implement on-bill financing for energy efficiency. Both are proven effective, reliable ways to make renewables and energy efficiency more affordable for you and me.
- Buncombe County has made an initial commitment of $5.6 million dollars to improve the efficiency of county schools and buildings, incentivize a 5 MW solar farm and more. Buncombe County Commission Chair Brownie Newman will bring additional Task Force recommendations into the county’s budget planning process this spring and seek additional investments.
- The City of Asheville has committed to $205,000 in investments in energy efficiency, is moving forward with solar for some of its buildings, and is considering investing up to an additional $1 million in existing low-income-weatherization programs to help make those homes safer, healthier and more affordable.
- Duke Energy has announced that its investments in battery storage will exceed the committed 5MW and that Buncombe County will begin getting automatic meters in 2018. These meters will make it easier for people to understand and reduce their energy use.
- Duke Energy elevated the Task Force’s recommendations in a recent update to the NC Utilities Commission and will work with RMI and Task Force members over the next several months to identify viable, cost effective solutions for increasing efficiency in the area. Duke’s 2018 budget planning occurs in the fall, so we anticipate more clarity on their commitments at that time.
- Duke Energy has hired Shelton Group, the nation’s leading marketing communications firm focused exclusively on energy and the environment, to work with the Task Force to develop a marketing and communications campaign to engage the community at large later this year.
We’re excited to see these first steps toward a new energy future for WNC, and we recognize there’s still a lot of work to be done.
None of these actions or entities alone can meet the short term goal of permanently avoiding the 190 MW peaking plant, much less a clean-energy future that emphasizes efficiency and renewables more than dirty fossil fuels. But as they say, many hands make light work. It will take all of us taking personal action and calling for greater investments in clean energy to make those goals reality.
Join us and get engaged with the Energy Innovation Task Force; attend public meetings, serve on a working group or get on the email listserve for updates and more exciting information as the year moves on!