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Asked and answered: Duke defends power line proposal

Duke Energy's Glen Snider and transmission line project manager Steve Wilson answered questions for 90 minutes on Thursday night at BRCC.  Duke Energy's Glen Snider and transmission line project manager Steve Wilson answered questions for 90 minutes on Thursday night at BRCC.

Duke Energy officials on Thursday night explained and defended their plans for a new power plant at Lake Julian and a 45-mile high-voltage transmission line linking the South Carolina Upstate and Western North Carolina, enduring a smattering of hoots before a crowd that mostly listened without interrupting the speakers.

A capacity crowd of 850 people gathered in the Blue Ridge Conference Hall to hear Duke Energy officials field questions from the Public Staff of the state Utilities Commission.

For the first time, Duke officials opened the door to allowing a greenway along the power line right of way, something Duke officials had cast doubt on before Thursday. Duke officials also said it found that following I-26 was not a viable option. Building the power line on public lands was not practical either, Duke officials said, because the terrain is too rugged.

The full staff of the county Emergency Management office — three people — joined 14 sheriff's deputies, four planning department employees and a host of volunteer parking coordinators at Blue Ridge Community College. People started streaming into the campus before 4:30 p.m.

Four microphones were set up for a panel discussion led by Chris Ayers, the executive director of the Public Staff, which is set up under state law to advocate for utility customers and to analyze and make recommendations on utility company's applications. Duke Energy plans to apply for permission to replace its coal plant at Lake Julian with a natural gas-fueled power plant and build a 45-mile transmission line from a new substation in Campobello to Lake Julian — much of it crossing Henderson County. Unlike a meeting last week of the South Carolina Public Service Commission, Thursday's meeting did not involve the North Carolina Utilities Commission, the appointed body that will ultimately act on Duke's request.

When a speaker told the Public Staff panel that Duke had not proved the need for the new plant and power line, Ayers assured the audience that the burden is on Duke to do just that before the commission.

“If they don’t, our case will state so in front of the Utilities Commission,” Ayers said. “We will make the discovery request – and there will probably hundreds of data and documents — and make any appropriate recommendation to the commission.”

All five Henderson County commissioners are attending. County Manager Steve Wyatt was the first to speak, asking everyone to take a seat so the fire marshal could ascertain whether the place was full. There were still come seats at 6 p.m.

The Duke panel — mainly resource planning director Glen Snider and transmission line planner Randy Veltri— fielded questions for an hour and a half about why the plant and transmission line is needed, whether the Asheville plant would sell power to out-of-state utilities (no, he said) and who would pay for the new plant and power lines (Duke Energy Progress and Duke Energy Carolinas customers). Peak load demand in particular, Snider said, drives the need for both the new plant and interconnectivity to South Carolina.

Questions and answers

 

How long has Duke been looking at the transmission line?

Wilson said the collaborative planning team had looked at linking the Upstate South Carolina to Western North Carolina as far back as 2008. “We really started looking at it the second half of last year,” he said. The polar vortex that drove temperatures down to zero last February drove peak demand far higher than project and "heightened our awareness to really do something to serve the growing customer load in the region … Currently we’re very dependent on the coal unit for that reliability." When it was announced that a new natural gas line would run to the N.C. mountains, Duke decided to upgrade the Lake Julian plant. "All that came together and we developed this plan, first of all to bring the transmission into the region. Middle of last year I was asked to put together a team and carry forward information to bring forward a new transmission line from the 500-kilovolt line" in South Carolina. 

What are Duke's projections for energy demand growth?

“One is what’s called our peak demand,” Snider said. A very cold winter morning or very hot summer day drives peak demand. “We have to have generation and transmission ability to meet the peak demand when the stress on the system is the greatest." Demand in Western North Carolina "has actually outstripped the rest of the region. It’s not an attractive place to live if you don’t have reliable electricity. The Western part of the state is growing faster than the eastern part of the state and it’s also got a number of aging resources.” The coal plant is close to 50 years old. “It s a combination of that load growth along with the obsolescence of some of the equipment that drives the need” for the upgrades.

What about crossing public lands?

“One of our alternatives does cross for about one mile the Green River Gamelands. We will have to go to the Council of State and get that approved.” Further east, Duke would have to cross the rugged Green River Gorge, an area that Wilson said contains endangered species.

Did Duke look at I-26?

"We specifically looked at I-26 and met with DOT," said transmission line planner Randy Veltri said. We've been trying to utilitize their controlled access easement. With the curvature of road and future expansion of I-26 we decided it was not viable” to follow the interstate highway. "Again there’s a lot grade issues, vertical and nearly vertical slopes."

What will the towers look like?

"Input we've gotten from the public and elected officials is we need to be more flexible about the types of structures we use and the placement of the structure," Wilson said. "We appreciate that. We are going to be flexible. In areas that are going to be visibility we're going to use single poles. We will work with the property owners who have critical land uses to position structures as best we can." Monopoles are about 140 feet, no different than the lattice towers. Lattice towers would be galvanized steel. Single poles are fabricated and are basically rolled steel welded together to make a 12-sided steel pole. "If we end up selecting the route that goes in front of the airport, we may have to put marker balls just for air traffic safety."

What about greenways?

For the first time publicly, Duke officials opened the door to cooperating on a greenway.

"We would love to work with the elected officials on the greenways," Wilson said. "That's a great use of a transmission resource."

What about the electromagnetic field the power lines give off?

"We actually have livestock, horses, cattle all over our system, a lot of it down in Florida," Wilson said. "There has been no reported problems with the livestock in being able to cohabitate with the transmssion line. As far as people, one of the things we try to do is stay away from businesses and homes with the route as much as we possbly can. Proximity to homes and businesses is always weighted very high in our analysis."

Has Duke looked at wind, solar and other renewable energy sources?

"Yes, " Snider said. Renewable energy is one of the fastest growing pieces of Duke's power generation capacity. "But in the Western Carolinas there are several challenges," he said. Because North Carolina law bans ridgetop development, Duke is barred from building windmills where the wind is — on mountaintops. "Solar requires in general a large amount of flat cleared land." In Eastern North Carolina, Snider added, Duke is building a solar farm that will generate 65 megawatts. It requires 500 acres. "This part of the state does not lend itself  to large tracts of flat cleared developable land," he said.