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Joint Meeting: Small Is Beautiful

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By Leslee Kulba- The big event of the city-county joint meeting was an update on the Energy Innovation Task Force. The group had its origins when Duke Energy announced it would be replacing its existing coal-fired generator at Lake Julian with two greener natural-gas generators. The generators will go online in 2020, but Duke also wants to build a third, smaller generator to handle peak power for the area’s growing population. The utility’s proposal was met by resistance from environmental groups. But, as County Chair Brownie Newman explained, Duke is mandated by the federal government to reliably provide safe and sufficient power for its customers. The EITF, which consists of a formal network of stakeholders and untold volunteers, was organized to force electrical consumption downward to render the third generator unnecessary.

Newman, City Councilor Julie Mayfield, Jason Walls representing Duke, and several people from the Rocky Mountain Institute were present for the discussion. The RMI, co-founded by physicist Amory Lovins in 1982, is widely respected for its informed and pragmatic approaches to environmental stewardship. The “think-and-do tank” strives to improve the health of the world and its inhabitants not through invention or marketing so much as by sharing the best data and analysis available with all stakeholders. For that reason, RMI offers an Electricity Innovation Lab (eLab) to bring stakeholders together for collaboration. The EITF was one of twelve applicants out of sixty to be selected last year for what Mayfield described as a boot camp.

The eLab helped local leaders get on the same page with factual baselines, then RMI staff crunched numbers and offered solutions that have worked elsewhere. Virginia Lacy of RMI said for Duke’s Asheville plant customers to forestall construction of the third generator, they would collectively have to decrease power consumption by 17 megawatts. At that critical moment, somebody’s phone announced, “I’m sorry. I didn’t hear that;” to which Lacy cupped her hands to her mouth and pretended to shout, over-enunciating, “17 megawatts!”

Walls said Duke has a suite of about 83 programs to help customers reduce their use of electricity. The company will not focus only on the very best of those strategies; instead, they want to use each one as much as possible. Again, nothing new needs to be invented; great strides may be made by doing a better job of connecting customers with available resources. One of the things the EITF will be doing is expanding low-income home weatherization programs. Newman said the county already spends $2 million of taxpayer money a year paying bills for families about to have their electricity cut off. Commissioner Joe Belcher indicated the funds would be better spent on insulation and weather stripping for people who spend more on their electric bills than on rent. Mayfield added the poorest of the poor aren’t going to have internet to search Duke’s web site for programs.

Duke walked away from the eLab with a charge to “make deliberate investment in distributed/district/decentralized energy resources. DER systems typically use a smart grid to collect a few megawatts from several renewable sources to supply the needs of a small area. Duke will build solar collectors capable of providing at least 15MW; and battery storage, at least 5MW. When Councilor Cecil Bothwell asked if battery banks were becoming financially feasible, he was told despite a recent 70-percent drop in utility battery prices, the technology is still “on the high end.” While far greater strides can currently be made through conservation, the EITF will be parallel-processing all available options to leverage breakthroughs and navigate contingencies.

Commissioner Mike Fryar offered if the city were serious about conserving fuel, it would not require so many windows in its buildings. That very meeting was held in a room with two walls of windows covered in paper murals, the conversations often being drowned out by roaring vehicles or sirens.

Speaking of Power –

Commissioner Al Whitesides was among the first to speak about the African-American Heritage Commission of Asheville and Buncombe County. The commission was formed by a joint resolution in 2014 to recognize African-American history and culture. The group recently received funding for a facilitator and a visioning process to help them decide what they want to do.

Whitesides, speaking as a seventh-generation African-American resident of Buncombe County and a taxpayer, said he had quit his post on that commission because he didn’t believe it was serious. “It was more window dressing than anything;” another symbolic gesture objectifying a large portion of the population. People were not being excluded and dismissed because of their skin color, but because of poverty. Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, a gay minister by trade and so no stranger to issues of equality, offered words of condolence. Mayor Esther Manheimer said the question was, “How do you empower a body to do what they want to do?”

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