Environmentalists Can't Post $98M Bond, So Regulators Dismiss Asheville Plant Appeal
Updated 4:55 p.m.
Regulators have dismissed an appeal by two environmental groups that wanted to halt a Duke Energy power plant project in Asheville. The N.C. Utilities Commission says NC WARN and The Climate Times failed to post a $98 million bond required for the appeal.
But the battle may not be over. The environmental groups say they'll take the issue to the state Court of Appeals.
"This is another round in the regulators' effort to work with Duke Energy to block NC WARN's access to the courts," Jim Warren, executive director of NC WARN, said Tuesday afternoon.
State law requires anyone appealing a commission order to post bond to cover potential losses for construction delays.
The groups have said the appeal bond was too high. They had announced plans to challenge it in the state Court of Appeals, arguing that it unconstitutionally limits access to the courts.
Now, Warren says, the groups plan to file an appeal of both the bond amount and the plant approval itself, with the Court of Appeals.
In March, the utilities commission approved Duke's request to build two new gas-fired electricity generating units in Asheville. That came after a "fast-track" approval process that state lawmakers speeded up through legislation.
The plant is part of a $1.1 billion Western North Carolina Modernization project that will include replacing the Asheville Steam Station, existing coal-fired plant on the site.
NC WARN and The Climate Times opposed the project, saying Duke overstated the need for a new plant in the North Carolina mountains. And they don't like Duke's plans to use natural gas derived from fracking.
Duke says its plans are justified. It predicts regional electricity demand will rise 17 percent over the next decade. Spokesman Tom Williams said the company wants to start construction later this year.
"We can't shut down a coal plant until we build the new plant. And these appeals ... could potentially slow that down if they continue," Williams said.
Duke hopes to close the coal plant by 2020.
Duke says the two approved units will produce 280 megawatts of electricity, fueled by natural gas. The existing plant generates 379 megawatts. Duke will pass along the costs of the new plant – plus a profit margin – to customers in their monthly bills.
Once the two new units are complete, Duke also plants to add solar panels on the site. The utilities commission did not approve Duke's application for a third, smaller unit, on the Asheville site.
Warren thinks the case eventually will be decided at the state Supreme Court.
Warren says he’s not sure how much the multimillion dollar bond would actually cost the groups, or where they might get it. The amount is too large for bail bond firms that serve court defendants. And Warren says a corporate bonding company likely wouldn't want to guarantee an appeal against a powerful corporation like Duke Energy.
Aug. 2, 2016, NCUC.net, N.C. Utilities Commission order dismissing appeal
Duke Energy web page on the Western Carolinas Modernization Project, in Asheville
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