By Mitch WeissASHEVILLE, N.C. -- When the city launched an ambitious plan to slash its carbon footprint, a major obstacle stood in its way: a massive coal-fired plant on the edge of town. After some progress, Ashville decided to take another step -- passing a resolution calling on Duke Energy ( DUK) to reduce its reliance on coal, a move designed to cut carbon dioxide emissions at the company's Asheville Plant. Environmental groups praised the city's action, saying it would move Asheville from coal-fired electricity toward a clean energy future. And with the move, Asheville joined a debate playing in cities across the U.S. over coal-fired plants and their impact on the environment. "It's a dirty energy source," Sierra Club spokeswoman Kelly Martin said of coal. "It takes bold leadership to do this. Cities all over the country are taking similar action. They're saying: 'We don't want to get our electricity from coal.'" Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert said the company has been has been working closely with Asheville for years to reduce the city's carbon footprint. But the Asheville plant will continue using coal to generate electricity. "Until there is a practical way to replace the generation from that coal-fired plant, there really aren't a number of alternatives," Culbert said. And she criticized the Sierra Club, saying it misrepresented the city's resolution. "I think it's certainly one more indication that there is a national war on coal," Culbert said. In a way, Asheville's resolution is symbolic. The state -- not municipalities -- regulates utility companies. The city can't force Duke to stop using coal at the Asheville Plant. Still, supporters say it's a meaningful step as the region grapples with the threat of climate change. Scientists assert that coal plants are the major source of carbon dioxide emissions, the primary cause of global warming. For years, environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, have pushed utility companies to transition from coal to clean renewable energy sources, like solar. The groups have started campaigns in communities across the country to bring attention to the problem. Some cities -- like Los Angeles; Austin, Texas; and now Asheville -- have taken local action on climate change.
"Replacing the coal plant with homegrown clean energy will clean our air and our water and boost our economy," Martin said. "It's the right choice for Asheville and a victory for our community." The university town of 85,000 people in the Blue Ridge Mountain range had talked about the impact of global warming on the region for years. Tourism is critical to the economy in the western part of the state. People visit for hiking, fishing and whitewater rafting. Wanting to maintain the area's natural beauty, the city in 2007 began studying ways to reduce its carbon footprint. Two years later, Asheville adopted a Sustainability Management Plan, calling for an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. As part of that plan, Asheville installed more than 3,000 energy-efficient streetlights, improved the infrastructure and management of buildings, and promoted fuel conservation. But with the Duke Energy coal-fired plant, some feared Asheville would never reach its ultimate goal. So the City Council approved a resolution Oct. 22 supporting a clean energy economy -- and urging Duke Energy to help Asheville reduce its carbon footprint. "Burning coal is the largest single source of carbon emissions in the Asheville area, releasing emissions annually equivalent to 500,000 cars," the resolution said. The city said the region's "beauty, clean air and water are vital" to the region's economy, and that western North Carolina is a hub for clean energy development. The resolution also noted that North Carolina filed an enforcement action against Duke Energy in March because the Asheville plant "poses a serious danger to the health, safety and welfare" of people and "serious harm to the water resources of the state." The resolution said Duke Energy could help the city meet its carbon reduction goals by "decreasing its reliance on fossil fuels, including transitioning from coal to electricity provided by clean renewable energy sources." The city also called on Duke to continue and expand its investment in programs for renewable energy, energy efficiency and energy conservation. But the resolution didn't ask Duke to shutter the plant.
"We just can't say that by 2030 we're going to shut down the coal plant and everybody is going to get their juice from their backyard," said Duncan McPherson, chairman of Asheville's Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment. "That would be great. But I don't think that's realistic. We're going to need to work with the utility company to get there." The resolution is intended as a roadmap to a long-term plan for protecting air and water quality and to establish a partnership with Duke Energy in moving toward reducing carbon dioxide, McPherson said. "The vast majority of our electricity comes from coal right now, and if we're going to reduce that by 80%, we have to have our coal electricity providers engaged in that process," McPherson said. He's optimistic Duke Energy will agree that coal is not the long-term answer. "Their industry is shifting. They're going to need to evolve with it. I think resolutions like this -- communities like Asheville -- can really make a difference. The more they hear it, the more they see it, the more it's going to be on their radar and agenda," he said. Martin said the resolution was important because it acknowledges Asheville can't meet its carbon reduction goals unless Duke transitions from coal to clean energy. She said the Asheville coal plant is the largest source of carbon dioxide pollution in western North Carolina. "So we imagine the immediate next steps are deeper investments in renewable energy, deeper opportunities for energy efficiency -- and in the next several years a transition off of coal," she said. Duke Energy, the nation's largest utility by number of customers and market value, is turning more to solar and other forms of energy while reducing its reliance on coal, Culbert said. "By the end of this year, Duke Energy will have retired seven of the 14 coal plants in the state," she said. Still, Duke will continue using coal because it has a state-mandated responsibility to provide reliable electricity at the lowest reasonable cost.
"While we are reducing coal in the Carolinas, we can't close a plant without a practical way to replace the electricity residents and businesses depend on," Culbert said.