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Power for the people

Does North Carolina need another electric plant?

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Energy efficiency is hot again. An Inconvenient Truth has America's most famous failure the toast of Hollywood. Even Wal-Mart has gotten on the bandwagon, pledging to sell 100 million environmentally friendly light bulbs by end of 2007. So why is Duke Energy angling for a new power plant?

North Carolina's largest electric utility wants to build two 800-megawatt coal-fired units at its Cliffside plant in Rutherford and Cleveland counties, about 60 miles west of Charlotte. It would be a mammoth undertaking, replacing four smaller -- and outdated -- units. Company literature says the units would be a "state-of-the-art" and "highly efficient" way to meet the state's growing energy demands, which the company estimates will increase by one-third in 15 years. "Duke has an obligation and a commitment to provide power to people, and we try to provide it at a cost as reasonably as we can possibly do," says Duke Energy spokeswoman Paige Sheehan.

But environmentalists say another coal-burning electric plant is far from what state residents need. A panoply of activists are fighting the $3 billion project, which could annually pump more than 11 million tons of greenhouse gas-producing carbon dioxide, as well as mercury, sulfur dioxide and other metals into the air. "We don't want to feel like we want to go backwards to committing ourselves to an old dirty technology for 50 years," says June Blotnick, executive director of the Carolinas Clean Air Coalition.

From the methods used to extract coal from the Appalachians to the air pollution it causes when burned, coal is a controversial, though prevalent, way of developing energy. So far, 23 states and the District of Columbia have set standards specifying that utilities generate a certain amount of electricity from renewable sources, says the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

North Carolina -- and the rest of the Southeast -- haven't been a part of such plans. In fact, the state ranks 46th in per capita spending on energy efficiency, according to the nonprofit, independent American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. But a state-funded study in December found that creation of renewable energy would lower pollution and create jobs without substantially increasing electric bills. According to one scenario, consumers could save a half-billion dollars in 20 years.

Unfortunately for environmentalists, a lead consultant on the study said that efficiency and renewable energy sources couldn't be developed in time to offset pressing demands, says Sheehan.

Durham's Independent Weekly reported in October that Duke Energy doesn't come close to meeting energy efficiency recommendations set forth by the National Action Plan for Energy Efficiency, which Duke Energy Carolinas President and CEO James Rogers co-chairs. The group recommended that 1 percent to 3 percent of a utility's yearly revenue go toward efficiency programs, which would be about $46 million to $50 million. Fifty million, as it happens, is the amount Duke says it plans to invest in energy conservation, if promised "appropriate regulatory treatment."

Blotnick worries what will happen to conservation efforts if the utilities commission approves the Cliffside project: Once running, she worries, there's little incentive for companies not to rely upon an energy method that cost $3 billion. "Frankly, it's not in their best interests to reduce the energies they use, because their profits are based on how much they use," says Blotnick.

Sheehan doesn't buy that. She points out that Duke has a stake in reducing peak energy demand. "We've always had an interest in helping manage use and manage load, because that helps the system operate efficiently."

Rogers warned against not approving Cliffside. In November he told the N.C. Utilities Commission that "a decision not to move forward with the Cliffside project is a decision to move forward with something else." Not going forward with the project, he added, could subject consumers to unreliable electricity supplies or volatile prices.

Sheehan says the company sees the value of efficiency measures and renewable energy. "We're in agreement with a lot of the environmental groups that there is a lot of potential out there," she says. "We absolutely agree. It's really just a matter of timing."

Consumers will pay for Cliffside one way or the other, Blotnick says, so they may as well voice an opinion now.

The N.C. Utilities Commission will hold a hearing Jan. 10 at 7 p.m. at the Public Library of Charlotte-Mecklenburg County's main location, 310 North Tryon St.

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