Utilities Commission approves new coal-fired generator for Duke Energy

by Amy Kingsley

The debate about Duke Energy’s proposal to build two 800-megawatt coal-fired generators, pitched as a battle between environmentalists and big business, ended in a draw last week.

The NC Utilities Commission approved a certificate of public convenience and necessity on Feb. 28 for one 800-megawatt unit to be built near the border of Cleveland and Rutherford counties. Approval is contingent on Duke Energy’s retirement of four older units at the Cliffside Steam Station that together produce 198 megawatts, and the investment of 1 percent of annual profits into energy efficiency programs.

Duke submitted an application for the certificate in June 2005, sparking a firestorm of opposition from environmental groups concerned about carbon emissions from coal-burning facilities. The two generators would have emitted an average of 11.5 million tons of carbon dioxide annually – the same as a million cars. The company said population growth in North Carolina would strain the energy supply, creating need for more capacity by 2011 to be provided by the plants at Cliffside.

In their decision, the commissioners cited admissions by Duke Energy officials that the company might sell 800 megawatts of electricity produced at Cliffside. Those statements undermined Duke Energy’s case for a 1,600-megawatt addition, according to the press release.

“This one unit will still contribute to global warming and threaten the health and communities of North Carolinians,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. ”Now is the time to exercise our most promising clean energy technologies and efficiency options, not resort to outdated, polluting energy sources.”

Jim Warren, the director of the North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, released a statement describing the approval of one generator as something of a pyrrhic victory for Duke Energy.

“This should be the end of the project since Duke admitted it cannot build economically just one coal-fired unit,” he said. “If Duke tries to proceed with a single plant, it would fail the state’s ‘least cost’ requirement even more than did the two-units when compared to other generation scenarios – and especially energy efficiency.”

Duke Energy requested a decision by the end of February so they could lock in bids for building materials. Officials from the company haven’t announced whether they will proceed with the 800-megawatt Cliffside expansion.

The commission’s announcement came just one week after 18 lawmakers, led by Rep. Paul Luebke (D-Durham), submitted a letter asking commissioners to delay their decision for three months. Twenty-three legislators, including Sen. Walter Dalton (D-Rutherfordton), supportive of Duke’s proposal wrote a rebuttal to the utilities commission asking them to abide by the timeline they had promised the company.

“We will review the complete order once it is issued,” CEO James Rogers said in a statement. “We’re not making a decision until we see the final overall cost estimate for the project as well as the conditions on the environmental permit.  It is only prudent for us to make a decision after all these key facts have been reviewed and validated.”