Duke faces pushback over North Carolina brownfield solar project


A brownfield solar project proposed by Duke Energy just outside of Asheville in western North Carolina has brought together some unlikely alliances. The utility and a collection of climate activists, clean energy advocates, and community leaders face off against state officials who have argued that the project is costly and unnecessary.

The 5 MW project in question was set to be constructed on a former landfill in Buncombe County, as part of the county’s goal to reach 100% renewable energy by 2030. Because of the project’s location and the fact that it would bring the county roughly 20% closer to achieving its goal, the land was offered to Duke for next to no charge, providing significant cost reduction on an already cheap resource.

The project was initially announced in late July 2020, with completion expected for the second half of 2021.

The project was also set to be part of a 2015 compromise between Duke and the community and environmental leaders it is now allied with. The utility agreed to support a 45-mile proposed transmission line through the Blue Ridge Mountains with two gas peaker plants, 15 MW of solar, and 5 MW of battery storage in or near Asheville, rather than its initial plan of a 680 MW gas plant, with all of the capacity being used to replace a coal plant being retired in the city.

These plans now face opposition from North Carolina’s Public Staff, the state entity charged with advocating for ratepayers. The staff is opposing the project, arguing that the installation would be a significant and unneeded burden on ratepayers, when compared to generating electricity from one of Duke’s existing natural gas plants.

The issue now sits before North Carolina’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC). The PUC is the same body that approved the 2015 transmission line and generation proposal, while advising the utility to start work on the renewable projects sooner rather than later.

Since then, Duke has completed a 9 MW battery in Asheville, begun development on a solar + storage microgrid in nearby Hot Springs, North Carolina, and announced plans to develop an 8-10 MW solar facility at the site of its former Asheville coal plant, once the ash dump site has been cleaned and sealed.

According to a Duke representative, the cost of building the project would cost the average residential customer 2 cents a month on a $100 utility bill. Public Staff argued that the cost should not be incurred by all of Duke’s ratepayers, since only a select few will directly benefit from the project. The entity also argues that building the plant would be well above avoided cost, which is how much Duke would spend producing a kilowatt-hour of electricity from a gas power plant.

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