North Carolina Groups Issue a Call to Conscience for Duke Energy

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There are better ways to power North Carolina than firing up a new coal plant that for the next 50 years will pump out pollutants and produce carbon emissions equivalent to annually adding 1 million cars to the road, say environmental groups, religious leaders and state residents.

On Monday, opponents of the Cliffside power plant are expecting hundreds of protesters to participate in a direct action and rally, with a march to Duke Energy’s headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., and to the governor’s office.

Their goal: Stop construction of an 825-megawatt coal plant that Duke Energy is building at its Cliffside complex near Shelby.

For over a year, the proposed plant has been the focus of protester arrests, a federal lawsuit, and now complaints to the EPA and U.S. Department of Justice.

Duke calls it an “advanced clean-coal unit,” but there’s nothing clean about it: The plant won’t be built with carbon capture capability; Duke rejected IGCC technology in favor of pulverized coal; and at least some of that coal will come from mountaintop mining, a process that is fouling streams and devastating Appalachia for cheap corporate gain.

“This plant is a relic before it’s even built, a leftover from the days before we realized that coal is filthy in every way,” says environmental author Bill McKibben. “It’s hard to imagine that the technologically savvy Tarheel State really wants to get stuck with yesterday’s technology."

When Duke Energy secured its pollution permit for the plant in January 2008, it avoided a MACT review, which would have ensured that the new plant used maximum achievable control technology for reducing mercury emissions. The environmental groups that make up the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy sued, and in December, a federal judge ruled in the alliance’s favor. The judge didn’t halt construction, but he ordered an immediate review.

Duke responded to that expected ruling by changing its emissions estimates to a much lower threshold. When the state Department of Air Quality still signed off on the permit last month, the alliance and the Canary Coalition petitioned for federal investigations.

The protesters on Monday, already 300 strong with leaders from environmental organizations, faith groups and Appalachia, will call on Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers to cancel the plant’s construction.

They are urging the company and the governor to take a different course action, one outlined in a study by Duke University Professor John Blackburn that illustrates how modest increases in energy efficiency, cogeneration and renewable power can meet the state’s energy needs and, at the same time, generate thousands of jobs and allow seven to nine large coal plants to be retired.

Blackburn suggests:

  1. Increasing energy efficiency by at least 1 percent per year through 2023 (Duke Energy’s own experts told the Public Utilities Commission that 10 percent energy efficiency was a reasonable 10-year goal at a cost of 6 cents or less per kilowatt hour)
  2. Getting a jump on the state’s renewable portfolio standard by producing at least 7.5% of electricity from new renewable sources
  3. Making modest increases in utilites’ load control programs to soften demand peaks
  4. Creating cogeneration – combined heat and power – rather than building new coal-only plants

Blackburn also notes, as Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius did yesterday when she vetoed a bill supporting two new coal plants in her state, that federal regulations will soon be tightening on greenhouse gas emitters and driving up the price of producing coal-fired power.

Duke Energy’s new Cliffside Unit 6 will replace 200MW of generation produced by four much smaller plants in the complex. The company argues that its proposal is “more cost-effective" than newer technologies. However, the plant will also emit an estimated 6 million tons of CO2 each year and slip in ahead of the expected federal emissions restrictions.

“By investing $2.4 billion of ratepayers’ money into building Cliffside, Duke Energy is committing North Carolina to another 50 years of burning coal," says Avram Friedman of the Canary Coalition. "Those financial resources are needed right now to transition toward a grid system based on energy efficiency and renewable technologies.”


UPDATE (April 20): Police arrested 44 people during the peaceful protest outside Duke Energy’s headquarters in Charlotte and at the Cliffside construction site about 60 miles away. The protesters, who had marched from the governor’s office, were accused of trespassing on the energy giant’s property.

"Did Duke hear our cries?" the organizers wrote on Twitter.  "You bet!"