Put Up Your Dukes

Environmental lawsuit competes with groundbreaking project for utility

Strategic sweetener or coincidence? Or the everyday shuffle of news—both good and bad—for one of the country’s largest utilities? Whatever the case, Duke Energy dominated Wednesday and Thursday with polarizing headlines: the negative being a lawsuit and public outcry over its coal ash practices, the positive being an announcement about a $30 million battery storage project. The company has also had its hands full with efforts to restore power to its 1.2 million customers affected by power outages stemming from Hurricane Irma (see video below).

Taking the common “give me the bad news first” preference, we go to Wednesday, when environmental groups from North Carolina, Indiana, and Kentucky demanded Duke release contact information for emergency responders and maps showing where coal ash would spill in the event any of the company’s containment ponds break. This is the latest in a saga dating back to 2010, when Duke was first accused of withholding pollution information. A major coal ash release in 2014 brought national media and a federal investigation into the picture. On Wednesday, the Southern Environmental Law Center sent notices of intent to sue on behalf of community organizations regarding 10 Duke Energy sites across North Carolina where aging earthen dams hold back coal ash next to rivers and lakes. All utilities are required to disclose this information.

Have you heard the good news? Duke announced a $30 million investment on Thursday. The latest addition to the company’s ‘Western Carolinas Modernization Plan’ plans to install two major battery storage systems in the Tar Heel State. The first—and larger of the duo—will be in Asheville, N.C., and will contain approximately 9 MW of lithium-ion capacity. The second is planned for Hot Springs in Madison County near the Tennessee border and is expected to hold 4 MW. Overarching project goals of the Western Carolinas Modernization Plan are to strengthen grid reliability and compensate for the closing of a coal plant by installing a 560 MW natural gas plant in Asheville, a project that was approved in February. More utility-scale battery storage projects are expected from the Duke utility tree in the next few years, as it hopes to have 75 MW worth of the renewable energy sources online by 2020.

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