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Good stuff, or Asheville City overreaching?

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Since August, 2016, RMI, a highly-respected think tank specializing in environmental issues, has been working with the City of Asheville, Buncombe County, and Duke Energy Progress to try to postpone the construction of a third natural gas generator to handle peak-demand power at the Lake Julian Plant. If current trends continue, Duke will need the third plant to handle peak power by 2023.

To date, the efforts are reminiscent of the time former city councilman Dr. Joe Dunn asked if any of the moneys for sidewalk were actually going toward concrete. At the time, funds were going toward soft costs, like hiring consultants, planning, and engaging the community. The new funding, matched by Buncombe County, will subsidize the hiring of a third-party project manager, who, from the way members of city council were talking, may well be Sam Ruark-Eastes of Green Built Alliance.

A large part of the next phase of the program will be education and outreach. The EITF has contracted with Shelton Group to launch the Blue Horizons advertising campaign. In addition to educating members of the public about Duke’s programs for energy conservation, the program will bring partners together to “deliver a unified message” and “develop a community engagement action plan.” So as to justify the need for contracting with an advertising firm, one proposed program is listed as “Residential Demand Response Behavioral Pilot,” without elaboration. Not too long ago, Councilor Keith Young had expressed hesitancy about using public funds, via the EITF, to support what appeared to be a need for better marketing by Duke.

Duke estimates that, if only 20 percent of people eligible for its programs were to participate, peak demand could be reduced by 100 megawatts, and outcomes would fall 85 gigawatt-hours below projections by 2026. To qualify, people could install heat pumps or energy-efficient water heaters or commit to a time-of-use schedule.

The fact is, most people consider themselves too busy to read every flier enclosed with their monthly bills. So, many still don’t even know about the programs. While the EITF realizes home heating accounts for the greatest consumption of peak-demand power; attacking the largest aggregate amounts to asking very many people to make very small changes. Proposals batted about include talking up programs at community fairs and offering rebates to people who invest in smart thermostats, weatherstripping, and insulation.

At least one good thing to come out of the program is a lot of thought about fuel costs for low-income families. The poverty trap gets its name because many things are more expensive for the poor. They have high winter heating bills because they can’t afford insulation, and they can’t pay their bills off because they have so many late fees. At Buncombe County Commissioner meetings, leaders justified appropriations from the general fund for home weatherizing because it will help offset the fuel bills the county is already paying for the indigent – to heat the outdoors.

Many of RMI’s published findings could have been guessed, and in many ways, the conversations have not changed much in the last two decades. However, technological advances are now opening doors. For example, in any endeavor, a good way to offset peak demand is to set aside stores in good times. But, only recently have utility-scale batteries, that store generated electricity, become mainstream options. Smart meters and sensors were relatively unknown two generations ago.

Putting that all together, Duke has forged a partnership with Innovari for rollout in 2020. It should reduce peak load caused by commercial demand by 10 megawatts. Innovari’s Interactive Energy Platform is described as a virtual power plant that stores electric potential for on-demand distribution. The design has had success in various parts of the world, but the company’s under-reported collaboration with Duke is described as a pilot project.

To help offset peak demand, in its 2018 budget, the City of Asheville has committed $25,000 for education and training, $25,000 for green-technology installations on city property, $75,000 for an energy-efficiency audit of all city buildings, and $25,000 to “encourage” energy-efficient retrofits in private businesses. Buncombe County has dedicated $116,000 toward overhead, $385,000 toward funding the efforts of green-energy nonprofits, and additional amounts for retrofitting public buildings.

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