Legislation allowing a coal-burning power plant in Buncombe County to convert to cleaner natural gas was approved in the General Assembly today and is now on its way to becoming law. Senate Bill 716, The Mountain Energy Act, would also allow Duke Energy extra time to clean up existing coal ash ponds while it reconfigures the facility.
Senator Tom Apodaca, also of Henderson County, sponsored the legislation and Representative McGrady cleared the decks for its swift and unanimous passage in the House.
“Everybody from Duke Energy … to the environmental community agrees that this is a very good thing,”
—Representative Chuck McGrady
Representative McGrady explained the bill yesterday to his colleagues in the House Public Utilities Committee:
“The Mountain Energy Act of 2015 has been introduced to facilitate the conversion of a coal-fired power plant in south Buncombe County, adjoining my county (Henderson), my district, to natural gas. Normally, you wouldn’t need to worry about changing the law to allow this to happen, but this is sort of a special circumstance because this is one of the coal-fired plants that was deemed to be a high priority for cleanup — and, therefore, it was one of the plants that is still generating “wet ash” and was required to move to “dry ash” — also had an expedited removal of the ash from the ponds.
“Duke Energy, after looking at the issue, with some prodding from Senator Apodaca, decided that the better way to go here, actually, was to — rather than go from wet ash to dry ash — to move from coal to natural gas. And, to my knowledge, everybody supports what is going on here. It’s a win-win all respects.
“We’re going to be generating more power and not needing to import it. The air quality impacts are demonstrably better. And, so, we introduce this legislation to allow this to move forward.
“It does only two things: it first sets up an expedited process for the Public Utilities Commission to consider the application to make this conversion; and, two, it changes those provision in the Coal Ash Management Act, that we passed a year ago, to allow them more time — since they don’t need to move to dry ash — more time to remove the ash from the basins that are there. So, that’s what the bill does.
“The only change between the Senate bill and what’s before you is that the Senate bill had no provisions for notice or any public hearing, and I felt like that was probably a bad precedent, so we have added back in a provision for public notice and a public hearing that would be held in the Buncombe County area. And, to my knowledge, again, the Utilities Commission’s staff has worked with us on this, Duke Energy has worked on this, a range of environmental organizations, and I believe they’re all supportive, and particularly supportive and are comfortable with the provision we’ve added with respect to public notice and public hearing.
“And I’ve actually told the Senator these were being included and the fact that I’m standing up here tells you that he has no problem with what is being put forward. So, I would ask you to give the bill a favorable recommendation and I’m certainly available to take any questions.”
The official summary for Senate Bill 716 explains what the legislation does in even greater detail:
Senate Bill 716 would: (1) direct the North Carolina Utilities Commission (Commission) to render an expedited decision, under certain conditions, on an application for a certificate of public convenience and necessity for an applicant to construct a generating facility that uses natural gas as the primary fuel; and (2) modify certain requirements under the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014 for coal combustion residuals surface impoundments and electric generating facilities located at the Asheville Steam Electric Generating Plant located in Buncombe County, if certain criteria concerning construction of a gas-fired generating facility and cessation of coal-fired facilities at the site are met.
Current law provides that prior to constructing a generating facility, a public utility must obtain a certificate of public convenience and necessity. As a condition of receiving a certificate, the utility must provide an estimate of the construction costs of the facility with the Commission. The Commission must hold a public hearing on the application for a certificate within three months of the filing of the application for a certificate. Prior to the public hearing, the utility must provide notice of the hearing for four weeks in a newspaper with circulation in the area where the facility is proposed to be constructed.
The Commission may not approve the certificate if the proposed facility will not be consistent with the long-range needs of generation capacity in the State. The Commission may modify or revoke the certificate if the long-range needs for generation capacity changes, or if the certificate is otherwise no longer in the public interest.
Section 1 of Senate Bill 716 would provide an expedited process for an application to obtain a certificate of public convenience and necessity for a gas-fired generating facility to be constructed at the site of the Asheville Steam Electric Generating Plant located in Buncombe County. The Commission must render a decision on the certificate within 45 days of the application. The Commission must hold a public hearing on the certificate issued under this section, with notice of the public hearing to be given once in a newspaper with general circulation in Buncombe County. The utility must also submit an estimate of the proposed costs of constructing the gas-fired generation facility. In order to qualify for the expedited certificate process, the utility must cease operation of the coal-fired facilities at the same site, and the new gas-fired facilities may not have more than twice the capacity of the coal-fired units to be retired.
Current law designates coal combustion residuals surface impoundments (impoundments) located at the Asheville Steam Electric Generating Plant in Buncombe County, owned and operated by Duke Energy Progress, and impoundments located at three other facilities, as high-priority, and requires these impoundments to close no later than August 1, 2019, as follows:
- The impoundments must be dewatered.
- All coal combustion residuals (CCRs) must be removed from the impoundments and transferred for: (i) disposal in a combustion products landfill or coal combustion residuals landfill, industrial landfill, or municipal solid waste landfill; or (ii) use in a structural fill, or other beneficial use as allowed by law.
- Where groundwater quality is degraded as a result of the impoundment, corrective action is required to restore groundwater quality.
In addition, current law imposes various restrictions on the generation, disposal, and use of CCRs, including:
- Prohibiting the discharge of stormwater into an impoundment: (i) at an electric generating facility where the coal-fired generating units are no longer producing CCRs on or after December 31, 2018; and (ii) at an electric generating facility where the coal-fired generating units are actively producing CCRs on or after December 31, 2019.
- Requiring all electric generating facilities owned by a public utility to convert to disposal of “dry” fly ash, or retire the facility on or before December 31, 2018.
- Requiring all electric generating facilities owned by a public utility to convert to disposal of “dry” bottom ash, or retire the facility on or before December 31, 2019.
Section 2 of Senate Bill 716 would: (i) change the date by which closure of the impoundments located at the Asheville Steam Electric Generating Plant is required from August 1, 2019 to August 1, 2022; and (ii) exempt impoundments and electric generating facilities located at the Asheville Steam Electric Generating Plant located in Buncombe County from the prohibitions related to stormwater discharge and requirements for conversion to “dry” fly and bottom ash as previously described.
For additional information, please see today’s story in the Asheville Citizen-Times.