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City Council approves Duke Energy Substation Downtown

New! Exciting! Green!

By Leslee Kulba- Asheville City Council unanimously approved rezoning the former Hunter Volvo property on Patton Avenue for a Duke Energy Progress substation. Mayor Esther Manheimer recalled the struggles the city had had with Duke trying to site transformers downtown.

The original plan was to construct three substations; and plans for the one next to Isaac Dickson Elementary drew a crowd of about 600, several alarmed by controversial claims that the proximity to low-frequency electromagnetic radiation would have deleterious effects on children’s health and ability to tend to their studies.
Proposed now was a gas-insulated switchgear (GIS) substation.

GIS substations are more compact than traditional designs because they enclose high-voltage components in sulfur hexafluoride gas, which has a breakdown voltage three times that of air.

Since the gas must be contained, the substations end up looking more like ordinary buildings than frightening metal complexes of a bygone era.

With 5,200 square feet, the building would be two stories high, but it would appear from most angles to be only one. Using brick, metal, and translucent panels, it is designed to look like a 1920s factory. It would be protected with fences and buffered with trees and what presenter Shannon Tuch described as an “ornamental iron wall – excuse me, fence.”

The installation will only take up about a third of the lot, the unused portions of which will be subdivided off, prepped, and put up for sale. Jason Walls, representing Duke, hoped the sale of the outparcels could help offset the greater cost of the nontraditional facility.

Earlier in the evening, Walls presented council with a Duke Energy 25th Annual Power Partner Award. Only six of over 4000 customers were selected this year, and Asheville and Buncombe County were recognized for Innovation in Sustainability. Walls said the story began in 2016, when the city assembled the Energy Innovation Task Force. At first, it was intended to postpone or prevent the construction of a peaker generator at Lake Julian.

Other objectives included fostering a culture of community engagement and promoting Duke’s demand-side management programs.

Since then, Walls said the program has morphed into the Blue Horizons Project, and the construction of the peaker, initially scheduled for 2023, has been pushed “far beyond the 15-year planning horizon of the company.”

Participation in demand-side management has grown, as has investment in energy-efficient products and services for residences and businesses. Interest in solar with battery storage is increasing, and Walls wanted to call particular attention to the microgrid solar/battery installation in Hot Springs. Pending approval by the NC Utilities Commission, it would be able to supply 19 megawatts, as opposed to the initial goal of 5 megawatts, as backup should the main power supply fail.

Councilor Julie Mayfield wanted to call attention to other successes the city and county have had with Duke. One was weatherizing dozens of homes. She said Duke secured approval from the utilities commission for a new way to fund low-income home weatherization.

The responsibility, which used to fall to government bodies and nonprofits, will now be assumed by Duke. On the Hot Springs microgrid, she said the utilities commission had scheduled a public hearing that was canceled a week ago for lack of dissent. Mayfield said, “groups as diverse as the Sierra Club and the Energy Innovation Task Force and everybody in between,” had weighed-in.

In Other Matters –
At the last two council meetings, public commentary has raised concerns about nuances in the General Assembly’s effort to require Asheville City Council members to be elected via districts. Jonathan Wainscott supported efforts to hold council elections in even-numbered years, and Casey Campfield wanted the city to sue the state as other cities have done successfully.

Manheimer said she had asked Interim City Attorney Sabrina Rockoff to start looking for an expert on the subject. The city remains short on legal counsel, having had to reopen advertising for a permanent city attorney. Manheimer said something making Asheville’s situation unique was that the legislation creating the districts did not take away Asheville’s right to hold referenda. Greenville had its districting legislation overturned because the legislature had taken away that city’s right of referendum as well. “We are in unprecedented territory,” she said.

Manheimer added she did support moving elections to even years to improve voter turnout. She emphasized she supported it as an amendment if and only if the legislature refused to dispense with forcing district elections. There had, however, been no discussion about a legal challenge to the election schedule because, unlike the setting up of districts, it did not require a change to the city’s charter.

Mayfield reminded her peers, “Our previous city attorney, Robin Currin, did – we did have a briefing from her on this – I think her very last closed session – and she was very clear in saying –“
“Shhhh!” said her peers.

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