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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Duke charts a new play

Duke Energy surprised opponents of the 45-mile transmission line through Henderson County two weeks ago when it booted a promised decision to announce its preferred power line route.

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“Our goal is to have the best possible plan with the least impact on property owners, the environment and the communities we serve,” Robert Sipes, Duke’s general manager for the Western Carolinas region, said on Oct. 8. “Concerns about the transmission line and substation – and the potential impact on tourism and mountain views we all enjoy – are significant.”
For many landowners here, the “best possible plan with the least impact” would be something other than the one Duke announced last June. Duke officials acknowledge that the overwhelming tide of opposition, not only from Henderson County but from Polk County and the South Carolina Upstate, gave them plenty to digest.
“We want the thousands of property owners and others to know we are listening, and we very much appreciate their patience,” Sipes said.
In interviews with the Hendersonville Lightning, state Sen. Tom Apodaca and Rep. Chuck McGrady said it was clear from their conversations with high-ranking Duke officials that the utility had been caught off-guard by the intensity of the opposition. As we have said in this space before, many a proponent of a disruptive land-use * has encountered Henderson County’s fierce brand of NIMBYism and slunk away bruised, battered and defeated. (* Sunflower high-rise condos, the Blue Ridge Bike Bash, the incinerator, the Green River and Dana firing ranges.)
Duke is a big enough institution to see the fight through, to be sure, but there are hints between the lines that it may not. Duke’s statement two weeks ago explicitly used the words its harshest critics have been shouting since July: “alternatives to the transmission line and substation.”
Although we have been known to smell politics where there is none, we also have sniffed right a few times. Imagine a 30-second spot airing in the bright red precincts of the Blue Ridge in October 2016 that draws a line from Gov. Pat McCrory’s old Duke Power office in Charlotte to the high-voltage lines marring a mountain view in Mills River. All of a sudden, Roy Cooper sees a way to flip the incumbent Republican’s 58-42 margin the other way around. Far-fetched? Maybe. Like we say, we’ve sniffed right before.
If this is a 60-minute football game, maybe Duke is just going back to the locker room at half time to adjust its offense to counter the overwhelming and unexpected power of the defense. Maybe the concession to look at “alternatives to the transmission line and substation” is just a cover so Duke can say later: “We did what you asked. We looked at other options. Just as we thought, they’re not practical.”
That’s not our takeaway. From up here in the cheap seats, Duke’s position looks a lot like a punt formation.