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EDITORIAL: Environmentalists won't take yes for an answer

When Duke Energy does its work efficiently, it’s not just a manager down the line or the investors above who get rewarded. The ratepayers do, too. In other words, all of us.

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That’s why it’s mystifying that three conservation groups have joined forces to challenge the way Duke wants to replace its Lake Julian coal-fired power plant with cleaner and more efficient natural gas generators. No one ought need reminding what a big win it was for the entire region when Duke announced a revised plan on Nov. 5 that dropped plans for a 42-mile high-voltage transmission line connector to South Carolina.
The transmission line proposal created a volume of noise that drowned out the merits of the natural gas plant, which were many. The new plant will greatly reduce air pollution. It reduces water withdrawal from Lake Julian 97 percent, making for a cleaner, colder and more livable lake. The plant is powered by a U.S.-produced resource that is expected to remain plentiful and comparatively low in cost for the foreseeable future.
What’s not to like?
Refusing to take yes for an answer, the Sierra Club, MountainTrue and the Southern Environmental Law Center are challenging a backup unit that may never be built.
Duke Energy is asking the state Utilities Commission for a permit to build two natural gas-fired units generating 280 megawatts each and a third 192-MW unit to handle potential peakload spikes after 2023. At the same time, Duke is launching a parallel track to manage demand, increase efficiency and develop renewable resources (solar generation is are part of its Lake Julian plan). Duke is working with the city of Asheville, Buncombe County and other “community partners” on the energy conservation plan, including MountainTrue.
MountainTrue calls the third unit “a bet against the success” of those measures. To the contrary, the backup generator seems to us like a perfectly reasonable hedge against the chance that the conservation measures won’t reduce demand by enough or that power demand is greater than projected or that it gets hotter or colder than we project. Asking for the third unit seems to be a good business practice and good planning by Duke, which under the law is obligated to supply reliable power at affordable rates.
We think the Henderson County Board of Commissioners was right to endorse Duke’s application to enact its Western Carolina Modernization Plan, including the 192-megawatt backup. As the last “whereas” in the board’s resolution noted, “the economy of Henderson County, indeed all aspects of our way of life, are dependent on affordable and reliable electricity supply.”
The wind is at our back, here in Henderson County and in Buncombe County, when it comes to quality growth and job creation in the next decade and beyond. We’d rather not stand in the way of Duke’s well-thought-out plan to keep the lights on in our homes, the heat and air flowing in our shops and hospitals and the machinery humming in our factories.