A Coal Conundrum: A proposed power plant fuels North Carolina’s global warming debate

by Amy Kingsley

When Cindy Moore spied the plot of land in Pender County – woodsy, quiet and cutting-board flat – onto which she eventually moved her manufactured home, she had one request ignored by both God and nature.

“My land was low like theirs,” she points to a collection of trucks where a house once stood. “I said I wanted my house to look like it was on a hill. So I paid to have all the dirt hauled in.”

Man was able to achieve only so much, geologically speaking, in Maple Hill, a community snug in the Carolinas’ coastal plain, low under the horizon and drained by both the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Fear River. So Moore finished the job with construction: She set her home atop a brick foundation larger and sturdier than any other along her strip of country road.        

That was in 1993. On Sept. 16, 1999, Moore, her two children and her neighbors went to sleep under hurricane threat. Floyd, a massive system that had rammed the Bahamas as a Category Four, was lashing its way up the East Coast.

As she lay in bed that night, Moore listened to the rain and wind, heard the branches wrenched off trees by a storm that had by then weakened to a Category Two. She and her children heard debris scuttling around outside in their yard; the lights went off.

In the morning, Moore, always an early riser, opened her front door.

“The water was so high,” she says, “It looked like we were in the middle of the ocean.”

Moore’s house, elevated as it was, escaped much of the early damage. Stunned by the devastation, Moore rallied family and friends. She recruited citizens who plunged into the toxic soup – filled with sewage, tree limbs, trash and drowned hogs – to rescue elderly residents and those living at the lowest elevations.

When Moore recounts Hurricane Floyd, she refers to the storm and its aftermath variously as an act of God or, when she reflects on the toll extracted during the last seven years, as a monster. Recently, though, Moore and the world scientific community have begun to see storms like Hurricane Floyd in a different light – less as acts of God than the potential consequences of human industrialization.

“There is observational evidence for an increase of intense tropical cyclone activity in the North Atlantic since about 1970, correlated with increases of tropical sea surface temperatures,” stated the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Hurricane Floyd – whether the wrath of some deity, a random swirl of overpowered thunderstorms or a byproduct of global warming as sure as shrinking glaciers – has defined Moore’s life for the better part of seven years. And it motivated the Pender County native, lately stricken by severe asthma she attributes to mildew, to travel to Raleigh for a hearing about Duke Energy’s plans to expand a coal-fired power plant in the foothills near Charlotte. Moore, the chair of the Pender County chapter of North Carolina Fair Share, opposes the company’s plans.

“Something has to be done if this global warming is causing storms like Floyd,” she says. “Everything was fine here. We had a storm just last year. It’s raining so much, I just want to know: What’s happening?”

In early February the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its fourth and most definitive report to date on the issue of global warming. Measurements of ice cores and greenhouse gases had rendered almost irrefutable evidence: Humans are almost certainly responsible for a surge in carbon dioxide that scientists predict will eventually roast our planet like a Georgia peanut.

Scientists, environmentalists and the odd former presidential candidate aren’t the only ones jumping on the global warming bandwagon. Duke Energy CEO James Rogers testified before Congress in the same week he appeared before the NC Utilities Commission in defense of the Cliffside project.

As part of the industry-activist amalgam US Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), Rogers stated not only his belief in the phenomenon of global warming but also his desire, as CEO of a major energy corporation, to do something about it.

USCAP came down in favor of a cap-and-trade system whereby carbon-emitting utilities could trade excess greenhouse gases on the open market. Rogers admitted on Jan. 19 that his company would seek exemptions to carbon regulations for the Cliffside plant – even a cap-and-trade system.

“And we’re going to argue that we ought to have an allocation here and I think [Cliffside] gets grandfathered for another reason,” Rogers said. “I think it gets grandfathered because it’s perceived by the government as a clean coal plant.”

Duke Energy’s plan to add two 800-megawatt generators to their plant at Cliffside was not, according to spokesperson Paige Sheehan, undertaken lightly. The proposal for two new pulverized coal generators came about after the company, realizing it was adding 40-60,000 customers a year, digitally modeled a number of power generation options. If the company is allowed to build the two new units at Cliffside, they will shut down four old units that collectively produce 198 megawatts.

Cliffside will be what is known as a baseload plant. Those are the power industry’s equivalent of a Boeing 747, large facilities designed to meet the population’s essential needs. The last time Duke built a baseload plant was some 20 years ago; they last built a coal-fired baseload plant more than 30 years ago.

“Clearly we have not had this conversation in several years,” Sheehan says.

“Conversation” is a rather polite term for the exchange that’s played out over the past year and a half, since Duke Energy first filed its application for a certificate of public convenience and necessity, a requisite but onerous step toward power plant construction.

Duke Energy in general, and Cliffside in particular, are part of a trend. About 150 applications for coal-fired power plants await disposition across the United States. Coal is the most popular source of energy in emerging economic powerhouses like China and India.

Some environmentalists suspect the run on coal is an attempt by big energy to dodge carbon regulations Congress is currently in the process of writing. Sheehan says the move is purely economic. Coal boomed in the 1970s and was replaced in the 1980s by nuclear power, which was in turn supplanted by natural gas. The availability of coal, coupled with its relative affordability, has CEOs rethinking its place in their energy portfolios.

But it’s a development environmentalists find troubling, particularly in light of heightened awareness of global warming. Old technology coal-fired plants contributed vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

Cliffside as it is proposed is a super critical pulverized coal plant – a technology lodged between old-time subcritical and newfangled integrated gasification combined cycle. Cliffside will emit 11 million tons of carbon dioxide a year once it is fully operational, said Jim Warren of NC Waste Awareness and Reduction Network (NC WARN). The energy market has changed, especially during the last decade, Warren says.

“We are seeing an emerging efficiency and renewable energy marketplace,” he says.

That, in essence, is the crux of the case laid out by an environmental coalition allied against the Duke proposal. Lawyers for NC WARN, Environmental Defense, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Southern Environmental Law Center, among others, argue that Duke is prepared to saddle customers with an overpriced, polluting power plant because they did not sufficiently consider alternatives like efficiency and renewables.

On Jan. 17, the commission opened the floor for public comments. Moore traveled from Maple Hill to Raleigh with a grocery bag filled with prescription bottles. She dumped them out on the witness stand and told the story of her post-Floyd decline.

“Sometimes I lose complete control of my limbs,” she says. “Whenever I get the opportunity to act like a healthy person I’ll take it. I’ll take a pain pill or medicine or whatever.”

Moore rasps when she speaks, and even when she gets emotional her voice barely rises above a whisper.

She starts her pharmaceutical routine before breakfast. After her alarm sounds, she connects herself to a nebulizer for asthma treatment, then she puffs her inhalers and swallows a couple of pills for her sinuses. A few hours later, Moore takes a pain pill. She swallows another round of pills before bed.

“I take at least three pain pills per day,” she says.

Some of Moore’s medical problems emerged before Hurricane Floyd. Doctors had diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis, a diagnosis they have since rescinded, and worried over her heart. But her respiratory ailments appeared in the years after Floyd rearranged her small, mostly African-American community.

And Moore isn’t the only one suffering the storm’s after effects. Valerie Kaalund, director of the women’s studies department at Bennett College, has been researching the health outcomes of Maple Hill residents.

“Anecdotally,” she says, “folks are telling me deaths are averaging one a week.”

Moore ticks off the dead, starting with the house at the intersection of Old Maple Hill and Webbtown roads: “In the first house on the right, the lady lost her husband. Two houses down they lost their daughter. The lady on the curve lost her daughter to cancer; she was not even thirty. In the second house after the curve on the right, the lady died in her sleep. The lady behind her also died.”

Some weeks there have been as many as two or three deaths, Moore says.

Not all scientists agree with the prediction that future global warming will spawn bigger hurricanes. According to the panel’s report, that is a likely consequence of warming, meaning more than 66 percent of climate scientists concur.

Other scientists predict a less catastrophic transformation, one in which temperatures and sea level rise moderately during the next hundred years, slowly but inexorably altering the terrain.

Either way, environmentalists opposing the plan want to halt, or at least slow, Duke Energy’s plans.

“There should be no rush to make this decision,” said Stephen Smith, the executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “Our opposition to the certificate of necessity has been very forceful.”

Duke Energy has been encouraging the commission to make a decision about Cliffside, and to make that decision quickly. The NC Utilities Commission has said it will decide by Feb. 28.

The opposition has not relied solely on environmental concerns. Duke’s initial estimate of Cliffside construction costs were $2 billion, a total that will be passed on to consumers in the form of rate hikes. In October 2006, after the first round of public hearings, they revised that figure up to $3 billion. Jim Warren of NC WARN says the company has no incentive to control costs.

“The bigger the better for them as long as they can pass it off to the ratepayers,” he says.

Under cross-examination, Duke executives admitted that total did not include hundreds of millions of dollars in financing charges.

“We still think they are underestimating the cost,” Smith says. “They did not run the models correctly. They screened out energy efficiency and renewables; they can’t say for certain this is the most affordable option for consumers.”

Duke Energy officials deny accusations they didn’t consider energy efficiency.

“We did address energy efficiency,” Sheehan says. “We addressed demand-side management.”

Sheehan says those opposed to Cliffside have muddied the debate with misinformation.

“Duke is the only party involved that’s accountable for its statements at the end of the day,” she says.

Duke Energy has, as part of its pitch to the utilities commission, pledged some $50 million a year to energy efficiency programs in North Carolina, contingent on approval of the Cliffside expansion and upon changes in energy regulation. Energy efficiency programs include retrofitting homes with better insulation and appliances and updating its own facilities.

Duke Energy has proposed retiring older, dirtier coal units as it implements energy-saving measures. Cliffside in this scenario is an anchor in the ground, a foundation of the company’s cleaner, more energy-efficient future.

Even officials from Duke Energy acknowledge that promoting energy efficiency, whereby ratepayers use less electricity, has decidedly little appeal to stockholders who profit from the sale of more energy.

“Historically power companies make their money selling power,” Sheehan says. “What we all agree on is that we need to change the rules so the power company can use efficiency and conservation as a product line.”

Warren and others say the utilities commission can provide a very different incentive for Duke Energy to implement energy efficiency: Deny the certificate and force Duke Energy to invest in cleaner power sources.

“They make money by selling power,” said William Schlesinger, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke University. “But the utilities commission can make them invest in energy efficiency. They are responsible to the citizens of North Carolina.”

Throughout the debate, Duke Energy has touted its proposed Cliffside expansion as a clean coal technology, a state-of-the-art facility advanced enough to receive $125 million in clean coal tax credits from the federal government.

Schlesinger describes the plant a little differently. He says Cliffside uses outdated, Byzantine technology that promises little to no improvement in carbon emissions. Schlesinger concedes the plant will emit fewer noxious gases like mercury and sulfur dioxide.

Duke Power insists that its calculations show that only 210 megawatts can be recouped through energy efficiency, and they argue that newer, cleaner power plants that actually capture carbon dioxide can’t be built in western North Carolina.

Duke’s executives and the environmentalists on the other side of the table have spent months bickering over hypothetical population growth, carbon taxes, energy demand, environmental impact and construction costs.

Both sides consider the fight over Cliffside a fork in the proverbial road. To energy executives, approval of the certificate will secure North Carolina’s reputation as a business-friendly state committed to low energy costs. Environmentalists say denying the application will steer the state in a more environmentally responsible direction.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Greensboro, has already seen attitudes in the legislature shift. Harrison, one of the most environmentally progressive voices on the state House floor, introduced legislation last session that would require the state to obtain some of its electricity from renewable sources. The energy committee promptly killed her proposal.

Harrison, now chair of the energy and energy efficiency committee, resubmitted the bill this year, supported by a study that showed North Carolina could obtain up to 10 percent of its electricity from energy efficiency and renewables without raising electricity bills.

“It would just shift the ground in North Carolina,” said Michael Shore, the Southeast air quality manager for Environmental Defense.

So far the so-called renewable energy portfolio standard legislation has attracted more than 50 co-sponsors.

“There are one or two skeptics,” Harrison said about global warming. “But everyone else is convinced that this is an issue that deserves our attention.”

What legislators and activists are less sure of is Duke Energy’s inclination to abide by the spirit of state law. Duke and other utilities wield significant influence in state politics; the energy industry is the largest contributor to election coffers, and in the past they have had their way with the utilities commission, Schlesinger says.

“The utilities always prevail,” he says.

In the 1980s, Duke and Progress Energy submitted and received approval for power plants they insisted the state would need for its growing population. After spending millions on planning and construction, the utilities abandoned the projects because the population grew slower than expected.

“Nobody predicted how fast textiles would leave our region,” Sheehan said. “We were criticized for that, but the jobs left our region faster than we predicted. That was the only time concern was raised with our predictions.”

Warren says he sees a lot of similarities between that power buildup and this one. Given the uncertainty in population growth, fuel prices and carbon regulation, he says the only safe hedge against energy volatility is efficiency.

The utilities commission public staff sided with Duke Energy on Cliffside. Warren says Duke Energy influences the division, but the company has trumpeted the staff’s support as vindication.

“Duke and Progress Energy exercise what we believe is undue influence,” he says. “They have far too much clout in Raleigh.”

Harrison says her experience has been that the utilities do indeed get their way in the legislature. In July 2006, Rep. Pryor Gibson introduced a measure into a Senate environmental omnibus bill that would exempt Cliffside from air quality oversight related to its location within 100 miles of a national park. Harrison and Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat, were two of only seven legislators who voted against granting Duke Energy the pass.

Harrison, who had submitted an emergency drinking water provision to the bill, says she abandoned her own bill to take a stand against the utilities.

Both Duke Energy and representatives of environmental groups say they think they have built solid cases respectively for and against the new coal power plant. Neither group will venture a guess on how the commission will rule.

If they rule in favor of Duke Energy and approve plans for the 1,600-megawatt project, that will be a setback for those promoting energy efficiency says Gudrun Thompson, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“These plants have a sixty-year lifespan,” she says, “and it will be spewing eleven and a half tons of carbon dioxide per year with no technology on the horizon to clean it all up. I think if this plant gets built they will have very little incentive to invest in energy efficiency.”

Warren says Duke and other energy companies, emboldened by a victory on Cliffside, might squelch renewable energy and efficiency.

“If these utilities get approval,” he says, “they are going to work even harder to close off North Carolina’s emerging markets in these other technologies.”

For Duke Energy executives, “the lights would go off” in North Carolina if Cliffside weren’t approved. Sheehan says the company would likely build more natural gas power plants, which would drive up prices for the fuel favored by industry.

“People in industry don’t want us to build gas,” she says. “Because they’ll pay more for electricity and pay more for gas. It’s kind of like a double whammy.”

Cindy Moore’s father’s health started failing a few years ago. Two years ago doctors diagnosed him with cancer. Moore recalls her father, in the weeks and months after the storm, crawling under neighbors’ houses to remove insulation and wonders whether that contributed to his sickness.

“Sometimes I blame myself,” she says. “Sometimes I think ‘Cindy, if you hadn’t opened your big mouth none of this would have happened.’ But he’s the one who taught me to help people. As sick as he is, he still tries to help people.”

The community has not recovered from Floyd. In fact, to hear Moore tell it, Maple Hill is sicker than ever. Moore grew up in this community before she left for college at St. Augustine’s in Raleigh and then moved to Virginia.

When she was a child, she says she swam in roadside ditches. Algae long ago colonized the ditchwater, making it unpleasant to look at, much less swim in.

Strange looking mushrooms started growing in her yard, fleshy fungi resembling tree ears that have taken over large swaths of land. The trees in her parents’ yard host large black mushrooms with flesh almost as dense as wood.

Many Maple Hill residents have moved away to avoid another storm like Floyd.

“At the rate we’re going there won’t be a Maple Hill very much longer,” she says.

From the looks of it, the only industry thriving in Maple Hill is resale – particularly trade in the infrastructure of a once-thriving community. Her neighbor’s yard is filled with school buses, an ambulance and a fire engine.

“It just seems like it’s something new all the time,” Moore says. “I felt like if I kept helping people then maybe we would be getting somewhere. But we’re not getting anywhere. I feel like we’re dying a slow death.”

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