Understanding the Process for Locating Electric Transmission Lines in Henderson County

On August 3, 2015

rep chuck mcGradyDuke Energy’s effort to inform the public about possible routes for a high-voltage power line didn’t satisfy most residents who attended the public information session at Blue Ridge Community College last Thursday. It was the third of three sessions that Duke Energy sponsored on the proposed new transmission line running from upstate South Carolina through Polk and/or Henderson Counties to connect with transmission lines at the soon-to-be converted coal-fired power plant in south Buncombe County.

After returning to Raleigh, I met with Duke Energy representatives and asked them to help me answer a range of questions that I heard from my neighbors in south Henderson County and my constituents in north Henderson County. What follows is a Q&A that hopefully will provide answers to many of those questions.

Overall, what is Duke Energy planning in Western North Carolina and South Carolina?

Over the past four decades, electricity use has more than doubled in and around the Asheville area. And as demand increases, Duke Energy currently has limited capacity to generate and transport energy within the Western Carolinas region. Following a comprehensive evaluation of the energy system, Duke Energy determined that building a new transmission line and substation, as well as retiring the Asheville coal units and generating electricity with new natural gas and solar is the best solution to meet future customer demand with safe, reliable, affordable and cleaner energy.

What Duke Energy calls its multi-facet project, the Western Carolinas Modernization Project, includes:


·         Retiring the 376-megawatt Asheville coal units.


·         Building an approximately 650-megawatt natural gas-fired combined-cycle power plant on the Asheville coal plant site to take advantage of historically low gas prices, and installing solar generation at the site.


·         Working with the local gas distribution company to upgrade an existing intrastate gas pipeline that will serve the region beginning in 2019 and will provide a firm fuel supply to the new combined-cycle natural gas plant.


·         Building new transmission infrastructure and upgrading related area substation infrastructure.


·         Continuing to move ahead on coal ash excavation and ash basin closure at the Asheville power plant site.


These investments are supposed to provide economical and long-term reliability for the region while reducing the environmental footprint.


Why does Duke Energy need to build additional transmission lines?

Duke Energy has a responsibility to meet its customers’ growing energy demand and to propose solutions that maintain reliable service. According to Duke Energy, the transmission infrastructure is needed to maintain system reliability, meet regulatory requirements and fulfill the growing needs of their customers. Duke Energy believes that more than the existing lines will be needed to meet the projected future energy demands in the region and regulatory requirements.


How does Duke Energy decide when to build a new transmission infrastructure?

Engineers and planners use growth and usage projections, as well as continuous monitoring of the electric system, to identify the need for expansion of the system that serves Duke Energy’s 3.9 million customers in North Carolina and South Carolina. Their forecasts indicate that demand for electricity in the region will grow by more than 15% in the next decade and demand has more than doubled since 1975 in the region.


Who is going to pay for this project and when?

The transmission projects will serve and benefit Duke Energy customers in the region and the costs will be passed through to Duke Energy and recovered through base rates over a 30-year period.

According to Duke Energy, its customers will earn a fuel savings that will more than offset the cost. With the additional transmission infrastructure, Duke Energy says it will be able to use more economical generation sources, thereby lowering the costs to their customers. The enhancement program has no cost impact to customers, according to Duke Energy.


How does Duke Energy choose transmission corridors and routes?

Duke Energy identifies potential corridors including existing transmission corridors and seeks feedback from the community. A corridor is a study area that represents the potential path of a transmission line. The specific transmission routes will be much narrower and located within negotiated easements. These specific locations will be determined at a later date following public input and further study to determine feasibility.

Duke Energy says that the process of selecting the corridors and routes is a very inclusive and comprehensive process. Duke Energy gathers information from many sources to analyze the physical, cultural and ecological characteristics of the entire study area.

Duke Energy used a team of scientists, planners, engineers and real estate specialists to develop the list of criteria used to identify potential corridors. Community input, ecological, physical, real estate and land use information will be collected and used to evaluate the corridors and determine viable routes (the actual easement areas for the new transmission lines).

Duke Energy says that it will look for corridors and routes that minimize the impact on homes, the community and the environment, while meeting the legal and engineering requirements of the project and minimizing the costs to customers.


Where will the transmission line be located?

The proposed transmission line will potentially run through Buncombe, Henderson and/or Polk counties in North Carolina, and Greenville and/or Spartanburg counties in South Carolina. Duke Energy’s goal is to minimize impacts on environmental and cultural resources, as well as homes and businesses.


What would the line look like?  

Current construction plans call for the lines to be suspended on open-framed darkened lattice steel towers. The average height of the above-ground structures will be about 140 feet, but will vary on the foothills and mountainous terrain. The conductor will be a non-reflective aluminum in order to make it less visible from a distance. Plans estimate an average of 1,000 feet between each structure.


What is the difference between the 1,000 foot corridor area and the final route?

The 1,000 foot corridor, or study area, is the area being studied for final placement of the route/easement. The final easement will be approximately 150 feet for the construction and maintenance of the Foothills transmission line.  Property owners within the 1,000 feet study area should have been contacted about the project to obtain input into the siting process.


Can Duke Energy put the lines underground?

After Duke Energy establishes the preferred transmission routes, it expects to evaluate the option of an underground transmission alternative. However, based on past evaluations, Duke Energy says that underground transmission lines have not proven to be better than overhead transmission lines because of extremely high cost and environmental concerns.

Duke Energy is required to construct in the most cost-effective manner due to the impact on customers rates. In addition, a fault in a buried line, caused by a manufacturing defect, substandard construction, or an accidental dig-in, would take much longer to repair than a fault in an overhead line. In addition, there can be significant impacts to the environment (e.g., wetlands, trees) and traffic and commerce from underground construction and maintenance. Because a transmission outage can affect a significant number of customers, some customers could experience power interruptions for 1-2 weeks while a fault is repaired. Duke Energy says it will take advantage of opportunities to co-locate the planned transmission lines with existing lines where possible.


When will the line be built?

Duke Energy is in the preliminary stages of selecting the preferred corridors for the lines. Specific routes will be defined in late 2015. Rights of way will be acquired beginning in 2016. Construction will begin in 2017, with the project expected to be in service in 2019.


Does your opinion count?

Yes, Duke Energy needs to hear your opinions and concerns. The energy challenges we face and the solutions developed to meet those challenges affect all of us. Duke Energy has pledged that it will use input from the communities through open houses and other meetings as well as a dedicated email (WCTransmissionEnhancements@duke-energy.com) and toll-free phone line (1-888-238-0303). Unless I learn otherwise, my belief is that Duke Energy is dedicated to this stakeholder-involvement process, and it needs and looks forward to hearing the recommendations.


If the transmission lines cross my property, what can I have underneath them?

Typical agricultural crops that do not reach a mature height above 12 feet (corn, tobacco, cotton, etc.) may be planted and harvested on the right of way. A property owner can build a fence across or along the easement, if it includes a gate at least 16 feet wide to allow Duke Energy trucks access to the easement. Before installing any structure within an easement, the owner must receive permission through Duke Energy’s Transmission Right of Way Use program. Existing fences may remain in place, but Duke Energy may install a gate or temporarily remove the fence during construction or maintenance of the transmission line.


How much maintenance should I expect on a transmission line easement?

Except for emergency situations, a property owner can generally expect the transmission line to be patrolled by helicopter several times a year and patrolled by foot about every five years to identify any needed repairs. Repairs that are identified during these patrols will be scheduled and completed.

Trees encroaching in the right of way will be pruned at least every four years, and danger trees outside the right of way that could fall and endanger the safe and reliable operation of the transmission line will be cut, trimmed or removed as needed. Trees planted in landscaped areas within the easement that could grow to a mature height of 12 feet will be removed.


Does Duke Energy condemn homes when they build a transmission line?

Duke Energy says that it will make every effort to negotiate an easement with property and home owners. Again the company says that it will attempt to purchase right-of-way easement in locations that cause the least impact to the property, the environment and the community.


Will this line cause health problems?

Obviously extremely low-frequency electric and magnetic fields (EMF) are all around us – not just in power lines, but also in electrical wiring in buildings, electric motors and appliances, TVs, and computers. After decades of research, scientists still have not clearly identified any effects EMF exposure might have on human health. Having looked at the issues again because of this project, I can’t definitively assess the question.


Why does Duke Energy need to upgrade the transmission system?

This is Duke Energy’s verbatim response to that question: “North Carolina and South Carolina boast a large, diverse economy with a combined population of nearly 15 million people, 318,000 businesses and a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of more than $540 billion. Also, North Carolina is 10th in the United States in electricity generated. In addition to the large population and economy of the Carolinas, both states are large geographically, with North Carolina encompassing more than 48,000 square miles, and South Carolina with more than 30,000 square miles.

The results of a thorough planning process indicate that both Duke Energy Carolinas (DEC) and Duke Energy Progress (DEP) will experience solid growth in the years ahead. Electricity sales for DEC and DEP combined are expected to increase a total of 15 percent in the next 10 years, with an expected increase of 47,000 new homes and businesses added each year.

Duke Energy is able to meet today’s energy needs in the region because of careful planning years ago. Just as we need to plan to build new roads and schools to stay ahead of growth, we must also plan to ensure the continued reliability of the electric system. Duke Energy has a responsibility to meet its customers’ growing energy demand – including the cooperatives and city-owned utilities that receive power from the company – and to propose solutions that maintain reliable service. The company plans years into the future to allow sufficient time to identify, plan, obtain required state and local approvals, and implement new transmission solutions.

Duke Energy has developed a balanced approach to meet the challenge of growth, which includes:


·         Expanding the use of alternative energy sources and renewable energy to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels


·         Expanding our energy efficiency programs and initiatives to assist our customers in making the most of their energy dollars


·          Building new infrastructure with improved technology to meet growing energy needs


As the demand for electricity continues to grow, we will have limited capacity to generate and transport energy within the western portions of our North Carolina and South Carolina service areas. Following a comprehensive evaluation of the region, Duke Energy plans to meet the increased demand through a balanced program, which includes building new transmission lines, substations and other equipment, as well as upgrading existing facilities.

This project is critical to ensuring continued reliability of the electric system and maintaining the integrity of the transmission facilities that deliver power to homes, businesses and schools in the area. The project will also enhance reliability and their ability to prevent future outages due to the increased capacity and options for routing power that will result from the addition of the new lines.

Duke Energy looks at a number of possible routes for new transmission infrastructure, considering:


·         Public input


·         Distance from homes, businesses, historic sites and public facilities


·         Visibility and length of the proposed line


·         Environmental impacts, including wetlands, soil, vegetation and wildlife


·         Economics


·         Engineering and design standards


·         Reliability


·         Construction accessibility


·         Federal and state safety standards


·         Long-range planning and effectiveness


Duke Energy will continue to work with local communities to analyze these and other factors to determine the best options for the region. We are in the very early stages of this project to help efficiently move power throughout the region”.


It is clear that we will be dealing with the issue of transmission lines for the better part of the next year.   At this point, people interested in where the transmission lines might be sited or even whether the transmission lines are needed should send all of that information or their questions to Duke Energy.   Any questions or concerns or any needs for more information about the transmission projects should be communicated directly at:


Email:  WCTransmissionEnhancements@duke-emergy.com

Call:  888-238-0373

Website: duke-energy.com/WCTransmissionEnhancements


In another 5 or 6 months, Duke Energy will announce its decision on where the transmission lines will be located.   At that point, there will be public hearings and ultimately the decision as to the transmission lines rests with the North Carolina Utilities Commission.   Some people are communicating with local officials (city council members, mayors and county commissioners) about the transmission lines.   While those public officials can certainly communicate with Duke Energy on their constituents’ behalf, local governments don’t really play a role in this process.


It may also surprise folks that your state legislators don’t play any real role in the process.   In theory, the legislature could take away Duke Energy’s power to condemn property, but that isn’t going to happen over one transmission project.   Since decisions surrounding the regulation of the energy monopoly that Duke Energy has been given are very complicated, requiring expertise not generally available to individual legislators, North Carolina law puts essentially all responsibility for making electricity-related decisions, including rate decisions, with the North Carolina Utilities Commission.


Part of the idea is to insulate these decisions from the political process, since everyone recognizes that making decisions as to where transmission lines might go, for example, shouldn’t depend on the political strength of one’s legislators.    Thus, Sen. Apodaca, Rep. Chris Whitmire and I can certainly communicate directly with Duke Energy on our constituents’ behalf, but as a practical matter we likely can’t change decisions made by NC Public Utilities Commission.


Like many of my neighbors, my family and I may be personally affected by the decision made on the siting of the transmission lines.   My family and I got letters from Duke Energy telling us of the public information sessions and more than one route goes across property owned by me or by family members.   So I guess that means that I “feel your pain” if you’re among those whose land potentially lies along one of the potential routes.


Representative Chuck McGrady

North Carolina House of Representatives

District 117

July 30, 2015


I invite you to follow me on my Facebook  and Twitter accounts for current legislative updates. Please remember that you can listen to each day’s session, committee meetings, and press conferences on the General Assembly’s website atwww.ncleg.net.   Once on the site, select “Audio,” and then make your selection: House Chamber, Senate Chamber, Appropriations Committee Room, or Press Conference Room. You can also keep track of legislative developments on my website, at nc117.com.


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