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Work at area power plants plays a role in Duke Energy's proposed rate hike

Duke Energy’s emphasis over the past year at two power plants in the Piedmont Triad has been on cleaning up coal ash, closing basins where the waste product had been submerged and relying more heavily on natural gas to make electricity.

With a price tag of more than $409 million, the work at its Dan River and Belews Creek plants is part of Duke Energy’s request for a rate hike now being weighed by the North Carolina Utilities Commission, one estimated to cost the average household about $97 a year.

Duke Energy also made headlines last week by reaching an agreement with state regulators, environmentalists and civic groups to settle a dispute about the best way to dispose of coal ash at Belews Creek and five other plants, not including the Dan River facility.

But the work envisioned by that pact wouldn’t begin until later this year, so it is not part of the current rate deliberations.

Duke Energy’s biggest Triad milestone that is included in the current rate case?

That probably would be the utility’s progress in cleaning up coal ash at the former Dan River Steam Station, an endeavor that cost about $71 million during the last two years.

Utility contractors have largely finished the lined, ash landfill at the former coal-fired plant near Eden. And they buried all the ash there that had been held both under water in storage basins and above ground near the now-demolished plant in what the utility calls “dry stacks.”

“Ash excavation at Dan River is complete,” said Duke spokesman Bill Norton. “We are done placing ash material in the landfill, but there is a possibility that other material could be brought in to help it meet final grades for closure.”

That other material is fill dirt brought in so that before the landfill is finally closed, its surface can be properly graded by earth movers to keep stormwater from forming puddles and seeping into the waste stored below, Norton said.

“The top of the landfill has a temporary cover for the winter, with final closure to begin in March 2020,” he said of the process that includes landscaping and is overseen by the state Department of Environmental Quality. “We’ll notify DEQ once that is complete for their approval of the closure.”

With its ash removed, the now-demolished plant’s nearby storage ponds have become open fields soon to be seeded with grass for erosion control, he added.

The coal-fired plant about 35 miles north of Greensboro has been replaced by a neighboring, “combined cycle” facility that runs exclusively on natural gas. The former plant’s bygone storage ponds figured in a massive spill that sullied the plant’s namesake river on Super Bowl Sunday in February 2014.

Duke Energy also has removed a lot of coal ash at Belews Creek in Stokes County, about 30 miles to the southwest of the Dan River plant.

But the massive storage basin there is far from having seen its last days: The basin holds 12 million tons of coal ash, nearly seven times what now rests in the newly completed Dan River landfill after it was dredged from the bottom of the former plant’s storage basins.

By contrast, natural gas is the big story at Belews Creek, which has been one of the Southeast’s largest coal-fired power makers since its construction in the mid-1970s.

A gigantic capital project was just completed there to enable one of the plant’s two, electric-generating units to run on natural gas as well as coal.

The conversion was expected to cost about $175 million. It involved extending a gas pipeline more than 10 miles to the plant near Walnut Cove and included another 5-plus miles of new, internal piping within the main power making building.

“This co-firing capability allows the company to use the most cost-effective fuel,” company spokeswoman Meredith Archie said of being able to switch readily between coal and natural gas.

She said that flexibility will help keep down the average customer’s power bill while it also cuts emissions and makes it easier for Duke Energy to coordinate electricity from fossil fuels with what’s generated by solar energy and other renewable sources.

The work accomplished at Dan River and Belews Creek ranks as a factor in the utility’s petition to raise the average residential customer’s power bill just less than 7%.

The Charlotte-based utility wants the North Carolina Utilities Commission to authorize a rate hike that would boost power bills for the average household — using 1,000 kilowatt hours a month — from $108.20 currently to $116.26.

That average jump of $8.06 monthly would translate into a $96.72 annual increase for the average family.

A rate hike in the amount requested is not guaranteed. The state Utilities Commission has the power to reduce or completely reject such petitions.

In 2018, the commission trimmed Duke Energy’s most recent request for a rate hike so that some customers actually saw decreases in their bills.

In that earlier case, the commission decided that the Charlotte-based utility’s argument for greater revenues was undercut by hefty corporate tax breaks that recently had been conferred upon such industrial giants by the federal government.

Critics believe the latest rate hike is equally unwarranted, although for different reasons.

Petitioners ranging from state Attorney General Josh Stein to the Southern Environmental Law Center, North Carolina Justice Center, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and North Carolina Utility Customers Association have filed as “intervenors” in the case to raise questions about the proposed rate hike.

Durham-based energy activist Jim Warren said Duke Energy is foolish to make additional investments in natural gas, a fossil fuel, at a time when both new technology and economic realities are on the side of such renewable sources as solar energy.

Natural gas burns cleaner than coal but is still far too polluting at a time when the effects of climate change hit North Carolina and its residents ever more immediately, say Warren and other critics.

Moreover, Warren said, refinements in the science behind battery storage are making it feasible for utilities to rely more heavily on sources of renewable energy such as solar and wind power that actively generate electricity during only parts of the day.

Warren, executive director of the NC WARN watchdog group, dismisses Duke Energy’s claim that adding natural gas to the Belews Creek repertoire could enable the utility to use renewable energy more effectively by offsetting its ebbs and flows.

“That’s simply a great, big green wash,” said Warren, meaning that he believes Duke Energy is falsely claiming environmental benefits to deceive the general public.

“They simply don’t have plans to use enough solar for that to even count or matter,” he said.

But Duke Energy representatives assert that as they expand their reliance particularly on solar, they can use the Stokes County plant as a complement, ramping its fossil fueled power up or down to counterbalance the ebb and flow of renewable sources throughout the day.

Warren and other critics also contend that Duke Energy should not be allowed to charge customers for cleaning up coal ash. Environmentalists argue that Duke stockholders should bear the burden because the utility was negligent for years in brushing aside warnings from scientists and others that such coal ash storage was risky and needed to end.

It is even more egregious that through the proposed rate hike, the utility would be able to earn interest on the money it has spent cleaning up, Warren added.

Not surprisingly, Duke Energy takes a different view, countering that coal ash is the end result of coal-fired power that has served its customers reliably and economically for decades.

Duke Energy’s Archie noted that the company and its shareholders have paid to restore the Dan River in the aftermath of the coal ash spill almost six years ago.

But she said “the safe closure of our ash basins, like the closure of any plant facility when we upgrade to newer and better technologies, is completely different.”

“The N.C. Utilities Commission has determined that costs to comply with environmental requirements established by state and federal regulators are part of the normal operations of an energy company,” she said.

Her colleague Norton said that Duke Energy already has “closed half of our 14 coal-fired plants in North Carolina,” with an eighth closure scheduled this month in the Asheville area.

“Of the remaining six, three — Belews Creek Steam Station, Rogers Energy Complex and Marshall Steam Station — are being upgraded to dual-fuel capacity,” Norton said of adding the natural gas option.

The utility also plans to add natural-gas capacity to the second unit at Belews Creek, but that multimillion-dollar project is not scheduled to start until this summer. So it is not a factor in Duke Energy’s current request for a rate hike.

Among the expenditures that are factors in the current rate case, the utility also spent more than $16 million starting the coal ash cleanup at Belews Creek.

That’s just more than 20% of its spending on coal ash at the Dan River site, but it only scratches the surface of what needs to be done at the Stokes County plant.

The coal ash spending at Belews Creek came on top of $147 million in other environmental work there that included installing better equipment to treat wastewater from power production as well as improvements to the handling and disposal of other byproducts from coal-fired power production.

Company officials say they did not do more coal ash cleanup at Belews Creek because of the dispute that was settled just last week over how to dispose of what’s stored there.

Instead, utility contractors focused on removing only those coal ash deposits at Belews Creek that would need to go whatever method of closure was chosen for that site. Through the end of October, that work cost Duke Energy an additional $16.2 million.

Last week’s agreement came down mainly on the side of disposing of the submerged ash in lined landfills as championed by DEQ and environmentalists. Duke Energy had hoped to save money by capping some of the ash in place, a process that it contended unsuccessfully was just as safe.

Belews Creek stopped using its storage lake for most ash disposal years ago and now either recycles or buries it in a nearby landfill. But its two units sent huge volumes to the 270-acre basin before making that transition.

The plant is known for producing ash with a carbon content that makes it perfect for recycling as an ingredient in concrete.

“Duke Energy has recycled almost as much coal ash as the steam station has produced (in 2019) — 93%,” said utility spokesman Norton.

Norton added that the percentage includes both ash dredged up from the lake and “production ash,” straight from the plant.

Ideally, the company could recycle much of the lake’s submerged ash for use in cement or concrete if it had enough time before the storage basin had to be completely removed, he said.

“But recycling the 12 million tons of basin ash isn’t feasible by state and federal closure deadlines,” he said.

Under the terms of last week’s agreement between Duke Energy, state regulators and utility critics, the Belews Creek storage basin ideally could be completely gone by late 2031.

Ryan Deal lays groundwork for future of Greensboro's arts and culture scene

GREENSBORO — Since arriving in town two months ago, Ryan Deal has taken a crash course on the city’s arts and culture scene.

He has met with more than 40 arts leaders and creators. He has visited galleries, theaters, museums and maker spaces.

He attended a Greensboro Symphony concert, an art show at GreenHill gallery and the Festival of Lights.

“My role certainly is to be out and visible and experience the creative community,” Deal said from his office in the downtown Greensboro Cultural Center, home to City Arts programs and nonprofit arts organizations.

As the city’s first chief creative economy officer, Deal also gathers fodder to further shape and celebrate the city’s creative future.

Topping concerns and needs of organizations and artists: the money, space and marketing to further spread their work to the community.

“By the spring, we will have some specific actions that we will begin laying out that address all three of those areas,” Deal said.

He said he wants to learn more and share ideas with his city government bosses and team, before he reveals them publicly.

Deal lays the groundwork to lead the city in implementing its Cultural Arts Master Plan, adopted by the City Council in December 2018.

Creating his job and the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs that he heads were two primary recommendations in the “Creative Greensboro” plan.

The plan came from the work of a volunteer community task force, appointed by the City Council and consultants the council hired to help. Council member Nancy Hoffmann and philanthropic consultant Jacquie Gilliam led the group.

With nonprofit arts organizations facing financial challenges, the plan calls for city government to take a more active, focused role in supporting local arts and culture, in collaboration with other organizations.

“This is an exciting moment in Greensboro’s story,” Deal said.

His office has taken over management of the cultural center and City Arts, part of local government that offers music, art, theater and dance. They had been under the Parks and Recreation Department.

With city budget planning soon to start for the fiscal year that begins July 1, he ponders what should happen from here.

“I think there are really fantastic, talented, innovative, creative leaders all across this community who are already doing great work,” Deal said. “I hope that we will be able to leverage opportunities that really shine the spotlight on those folks and provide some support to the great work they are trying to do. But of equal if not more importance, connect the community to that work.”

Hoffmann views “access, equity and inclusion” as Creative Greensboro’s major guiding points.

“To the extent that we can increase that, we are meeting our obligation to our citizens for opening arts and culture up to them,” Hoffmann said.

Local creative advocate Phillip Marsh, who has brought more public murals to the city, hopes the plan helps revitalize its eastern section to close the gap of economic disparity.

“We, the citizens of east Greensboro, would hope to continue to see more diversified programming for all of Greensboro,” Marsh said. “For too long in our city, it has been a case of creative programming stopping at Murrow Boulevard.”

While he agrees on the goals of access, equity and inclusion, “We all differ drastically on how close we are to achieving those goals,” Marsh said.

Deal, 38, is a practicing artist himself. He majored in vocal performance at UNCG, and performed in musical theater during 13 years in Charlotte.

He loved Greensboro and didn’t want to leave, he said. But professional opportunities in Charlotte lured him away.

His time in Charlotte included eight years in various roles with the Arts & Science Council of Charlotte-Mecklenburg and 22 months as director of advancement for the nonprofit Children’s Theatre of Charlotte.

For five years, he has served on the board of the Greensboro-based N.C. Theatre Conference.

Now he’s back in a city that has grown since his time here, earning $100,694 a year with a much easier commute.

The 30-page “Creative Greensboro” plan serves as Deal’s guidebook as the chief strategist and advocate in advancing this city’s cultural life.

“It’s not for the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs to do by ourselves,” he said. “And it’s certainly not for even any number of partners to all do in one year.”

The plan calls for creating a Cultural Affairs Commission as a policy-making and advisory board. It would work with the office to develop policies and act as a liaison to City Council.

Hoffmann wants to see that board with nine to 15 members, and in place by July 1.

Deal’s position acknowledges the relationship between arts and economic development.

A national study released in 2017 found that, in Guilford County, the nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $162.2 million in annual economic activity through spending by organizations and their audiences.

That supports the equivalent of 5,963 full-time jobs and generates nearly $15.6 million in government revenue.

The city already puts $7 million annually into support of its Cultural Center, History Museum and Science Center and related staff, programming and maintenance costs, Hoffmann said. That includes $450,000 in Community Partners grants that went to 12 organizations this fiscal year.

The plan recommends a Grants for the Arts program, with a minimum annual budget of $500,000.

That would consolidate funds now spent through the Community Partners funding program.

Organizations and artists wonder how that Grants for the Arts program will play out, Deal said.

They also expressed concern about access to spaces to create and present cultural programming.

The plan seeks a study of policies and procedures for residency and use of space in the cultural center at 200 N. Davie St., where 15 nonprofit arts organizations now rent space for $1 a year. Several have been there for decades.

“There are folks who say that they run into challenges in finding space to present their cultural programs to the community,” Deal said. “They don’t necessarily see the cultural center as the fix for that. But they hope that I’ll be a partner in thinking systematically around the availability of space throughout the community.”

Hoffman wants an appropriate amount of space given to organizations there and wonders how other burgeoning arts groups can use it. She also wants to see more activity there.

“There are times of day that it’s more active than others,” Hoffmann said. “How do you make that a robust space for much of the day? How do you get people to know it’s there and come in and have something that is appealing to them there?

Hoffmann also wonders whether some city programs duplicate those offered in the private sector.

Deal has learned that artists and organizations need help marketing their creative programming to the community to increase attendance.

“The plan talks about a calendar, but I think it’s more than a calendar,” Deal said. “There are plenty of calendars already.”

“... But what there definitely needs to be is some gasoline in the tank to drive broad community awareness of the great things that are already on those calendars or that would be on that calendar,” Deal said.

He’s also exploring adding an artist fellowship program, where a professional artist might join his office temporarily to help move the plan forward. The plan suggests that it might become a permanent fellowship that rotates throughout city departments.

Hoffmann also wants to explore the right partnership with ArtsGreensboro, the nonprofit organization that raises money to build and enhance the local arts scene. She suggests that the city could draw on its grant-making expertise.

This fiscal year, ArtsGreensboro provided $393,000 in grants to nonprofit arts organizations, artists and teachers.

Laura Way, president and chief executive officer of ArtsGreensboro, wants to partner with the city on a grant-making program to infuse more dollars into the arts community. She and Deal have met weekly.

The plan calls for a nonprofit agency with grant-making experience to serve as external grants manager for a three-year trial period.

Deal’s office would develop and oversee guidelines for using city money. The agency would match city funds 2 to 1.

ArtsGreensboro wants to be that grants manager, Way said. Its ArtsFund already aims to raise $1 million this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Deal, Way said, “is all about having a systematic approach.”

“He’s a good match for what we want to achieve as a city,” Way said.

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