Monday, January 30, 2012

Charlotte to host wind-energy conference

A conference on wind energy along the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia coast is coming to sometimes-blustery Charlotte in March.

The Southeastern Coastal Wind Conference will be hosted by dozens of companies, state agencies and advocacy groups. Among them are Duke Energy, the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, Virginia Tech and Charlotte-based Nucor Steel.

Charlotte's not known for its wind power, but it is known as an "energy powerhouse," said conference co-chair Brian O'Hara, who's president of the N.C. Offshore Wind Coalition in Raleigh. O'Hara hopes for as many as 400 attendees at the March 8-9 event at the Charlotte Convention Center.

The conference will focus on the Southeast's supply chain infrastructure and labor force that could produce parts for the wind industry. Studies have estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 N.C. workers are already connected to the industry, O'Hara said.

The Department of Energy has estimated North Carolina's onshore and offshore wind resources could generate up to 10,000 megawatts by 2030. The Obama administration last year identified high-priority wind energy areas on the mid-Atlantic coast to speed up development of wind.

Duke Energy will collaborate with renewable energy consulting firm AWS Truepower and others on a DOE-funded study of wind development off the Carolinas coast, the companies said earlier this month. Swiss-owned ABB, which is building a plant in Huntersville to make high-voltage electrical cables, UNC Chapel Hill and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory are also involved.

The first two land-based wind farms proposed for North Carolina had bumpy starts. A 300-megawatt farm in coastal Pasquotank and Perquimans counties got state approval but its developer couldn't find a buyer for its energy. Environmentalists have fought an 80-megawatt proposal in Beaufort County, saying its turbines could kill migratory birds.

Enviro study out for Long Creek treatment plant

A draft environmental impact study of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities' proposed Long Creek sewage treatment plant is now online.

The $250 million plant would serve the county's relatively lightly-developed west side as well as the Gaston County towns of Belmont and Mount Holly.

Sewage from the Long Creek basin is now pumped 20 miles to the McAlpine Creek treatment plant in southern Mecklenburg. Lightly populated now (43,000 people), the basin is among the county's fastest-growing areas.

The environmental study done by Black & Veatch is now before the N.C. Division of Water Quality for review. The public will get a chance to comment on it before state and federal permits are issued.

The study concludes the Long Creek plant is the best of the alternatives considered. It would take less energy than pumping sewage across the county, for example, and allow for preservation of open space around the plant.

But a plant that dumps 25 million gallons a day of treated sewage into the Catawba won't be environmentally benign -- and upper Lake Wylie could feel some effects in dry-weather years, the report says.

Treatment plants discharge nutrients that can stimulate algae growth and rob oxygen from the water. Part of South Carolina's portion of Lake Wylie is already listed as impaired by phosphorus and chorophyll-a, an indicator of algae growth.

State regulators have already signaled they will set strict discharge limits on the new plant. The Black & Veatch study says concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus and chlorophyll-a would meet N.C. and S.C. water quality standards in most years. The new plant would release slightly more nutrients than Belmont's plant does now, it says, despite being five times larger.

In drought years, though, there would be less water in the Catawba to dilute the treated sewage. In those years, phosphorus could exceed state standards in upper Lake Wylie.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Catawba River listed as endangered

The Catawba River basin has landed on another most-endangered-places list, this one from the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The law center, which has offices in Chapel Hill, Asheville and Charleston, has represented environmental advocates and groups for 25 years. Today's release is its fourth annual list of places in the South that face "immediate, potentially irreparable threats" this year.

The Catawba, SELC says, faces threats from potentially toxic coal ash ponds at Duke Energy power plants and disruption of stream flows and fish migration by dams. It depicts water withdrawals that might not leave enough water for downstream communities, and unneeded reservoir projects that promote more water use.

None of this will be new to folks who care about the Catawba. Elevated levels of metals have been found near ash ponds at all seven of Duke's N.C. coal-fired power plants, the Observer reported this week, although it's unclear whether the metals come from ash or natural sources.

Renewal of Duke's federal hydro license to manage the Catawba, meanwhile, has been delayed for three years by conflicts over the effects of dams on the endangered shortnose sturgeon.

The Carolinas battled over water from the Catawba before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case settled in late 2010. More recently, the law center questioned the need for a new water-supply reservoir
that a project co-owned by Union County and Lancaster County, S.C., plans to build.

The national advocacy group American Rivers has also listed the Catawba in its annual endangered-rivers roundup.

North Carolina's Piedmont also made the law center's list. Exploration companies are buying leases to tap natural gas deposits in counties southwest of Raleigh. The law center says drilling at those sites could contaminate water supplies. The gas industry, it says, is pushing state legislators to lift a state ban on the drilling technique, hydraulic fracturing, that could exploit those deposits.

Here's the full list.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Ozone a problem across the Charlotte region, study finds

The unhealthy air documented by monitoring devices in Mecklenburg and Rowan counties is just as bad in neighboring counties, a study by Catawba College and Davidson College scientists shows.

Air monitors in Mecklenburg and Rowan keep the official record of the Charlotte region's ozone pollution levels, which are improving but still above federal standards. Catawba College's Center for the Environment and Cindy DeForest Hauser, who teaches chemistry at Davidson, wanted to test the air in surrounding counties.

Volunteers from seven counties - Mecklenburg, Rowan, Cabarrus, Iredell, Davidson, Gaston and York County, S.C. -- placed devices to measure ozone and nitrogen oxide levels in their backyards over an eight-week period last June and July.

Levels were the same, on average, in all seven counties. But week-by-week comparisons showed differences. Levels in unmonitored Cabarrus County, for instance, appeared higher than those in Rowan, which the American Lung Association last year deemed the nation's 17th-smoggiest county.

The take-home message: Pay attention to Air Quality Index ozone alerts, regardless of where you live in the region. "In our own outreach, we find that a lot of people in these surrounding counties don't realize there is an issue," said Center for the Environment director John Wear.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Test of underground power lines dies

Howls follow every ice storm that leaves thousands of Carolina residents stranded without power: Bury utility lines underground!

But a Duke Energy test to do just that has flopped. Duke told the N.C. Utilities Commission this week that it's ending a three-year program to bury municipal lines because no cities ever signed on.

Duke had offered matching money, totaling $1.5 million a year, to up to three N.C. cities to bury lines. They would focus on lines especially vulnerable to storms or accidents. The idea was to see if burying lines would be worth doing on a larger scale.

About 20 towns and cities expressed initial interest, but none signed on. Many cited budget problems in a weak economy.

The experiment continues in South Carolina, where Greenville signed on in 2010. Its Weather the Storm program offers up to $1,500 from Duke and the city for each resident who asks to have their power lines buried.

More than 1,300 requests had been filed by last June, and the city was assessing up to to six projects in commercial areas.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Enviro groups will sue EPA over coal ash

Ten environmental and health advocacy groups, some with North Carolina roots, said today they will sue federal regulators for delaying rules on coal ash from power plants.

Coal-fired power plants produce tons of the stuff, which contains metals that can be toxic in high doses. A 2008 deluge of ash sludge from a ruptured TVA dike in eastern Tennessee became a poster child for federal regulation.

Since then, contamination of groundwater or surface water has been documented in 36 states, the groups say. Duke Energy found elevated levels of iron and manganese, which is found in ash but also occurs naturally, around all 13 of its Carolinas ash basins but within plant boundaries. Testing continues.

Hundreds of people poured into a Charlotte meeting room for hearings on ash rules the Environmental Protection Agency proposed in 2010, including one version that would classify ash as hazardous waste. EPA estimated that option could cost utilities up to $1.5 billion a year in compliance costs.

But the agency, under intense industry pressure, has delayed issuing the rules. The environmental law firm Earthjustice, representing 10 advocacy groups, today gave notice it will file a lawsuit to force EPA's hand.

Legal action has worked in prodding EPA to action, most recently in its December issuance of long-delayed rules limiting toxic air pollution from power plants. That measure resulted from a lawsuit filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has an office in Chapel Hill.

Among the groups to be included in the ash suit are Boone-based Appalachian Voices, the French Broad Riverkeeper in Asheville and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a Tennessee group active in North Carolina.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

No clarity on who owns the Yadkin riverbed

Remember the story, a month ago, about the Yadkin riverkeeper challenging Alcoa's title to the riverbed under its Yadkin dams? The issue is still as murky as river water after a hard rain.

The backdrop to this story, of course, is the years-long battle over control of the Yadkin. Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks is among those convinced that Alcoa doesn't deserve a renewal of its federal hydro license after closing the Stanly County smelting plant its dams once powered.

Last month, Naujoks said research by Duke University law students had turned up no evidence the aluminum company actually owns the riverbed. He petitioned the N.C. Department of Administration, which manages state property, to declare that the state owns it.

Alcoa responded that it has all the legal rights it needs to operate its four Yadkin dams, which have been in place for nearly a century.

This week, Administration Secretary Moses Carey Jr. offered four pages of reasons why his department will have no part in the dispute. Naujoks' request, he said, didn't fit the legal conditions under which the department could make such a ruling. The riverkeeper, Carey added, has no legal standing as a "person aggrieved" to make such a request.

Further, Carey wrote, researching the question could require "an extensive title search, potentially going back to colonial times, at taxpayer expense." State rules also allow the secretary to refuse involvement in matters in litigation, as Alcoa is in state administrative court.

Naujoks called Carey's letter a "disappointingly bureaucratic response."

"If Alcoa has a deed, they should produce it," he said. "If they have it , and the deed is valid, we will drop the issue. If they don't produce a deed, we will pursue other legal remedies."

N.C. power plants and greenhouse gases

No surprise here, but coal-fired power plants lead the list of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in North Carolina, a new Environmental Protection Agency website shows.

The greenhouse gas site launched Wednesday. The searchable site shows sources that released 25,000 metric tons or more of the gases, which are linked to climate change, in 2010. In all, those facilities accounted for more than half the nation's total emissions.

Power plants released 72 percent of those gases. Refineries, chemical plants and other industries each produced around 5 percent.

North Carolina tied with California with the nation's 14th-largest emissions from power plants and refineries -- 71 million metric tons in 2010. The figure includes a range of gases, including methane, nitrous oxide and industrial gases, all expressed in carbon-dioxide equivalents that reflect their heat-trapping abilities.

Progress Energy's Roxboro plant, near the Virginia line north of Durham, led the N.C. list with 14.6 million metric tons. Three Duke Energy plants followed: Belews Creek northeast of Winston-Salem, with 12.5 million tons; Marshall in Catawba County, with 11.6 million tons; and Allen in Gaston County with 5 million tons.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Conservation scorecard flunks GOP legislators

The environmental values of North Carolina's legislators sank to a 12-year low in 2011, the N.C. League of Conservation Voters said today in an annual ranking.

Bills that aimed to limit regulations, cut spending by environmental agencies and expand drilling for oil and gas made it "clear this new legislature had environmental protections in their cross hairs," the advocacy group said in releasing its Conservation Scorecard.

Green-friendly scores plummeted as Republicans took control of both bodies for the first time in a century. The average score for the N.C. House in 2011 was 43 percent, the League said, compared to 67 percent in the previous session. The Senate averaged 27 percent, down from 69 percent in the 2009-10 session.

Incoming freshmen showed even starker differences with legislators they replaced. New House members averaged a score of 35 percent, compared to the 73 percent lifetime average of outgoing legislators. Senate freshmen averaged 18 percent, their predecessors 70 percent.

Legislators reconvene for this year's "short session," which is limited to measures that affect the state budget or passed one body the previous year, in May.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Green energy from an old dam

A hydro project that dates to 1919 might help Duke Energy meet its circa-2007 mandate to generate renewable energy.

Duke is in the midst of fortifying its three dams at Lake James, at the top of the Catawba River chain of reservoirs. New earthen and concrete structures on the downstream slopes of the dams will strengthen them against earthquakes.

Work is finished on two dams. But the old powerhouse below the third dam, Linville, had to be removed before work on it starts early this year. A new powerhouse, 200 feet downstream, began generating electricity in November.

The new generators are capable of producing 8.5 megawatts more than the old ones. Duke wants the N.C. Utilities Commission to register the increased capacity as a renewable energy facility under the state's 2007 green-energy law.

The law allows small hydro operations, under 10 megawatts. Larger ones -- Lake James has a total capacity of 31.5 megawatts -- are controversial because they so profoundly disrupt rivers.

It's impossible to say how much help the hydro power would be to Duke in meeting the green-energy standard, spokesman Jason Walls said. The law requires utilities to get the equivalent of 3 percent of their 2012 sales from renewable sources or energy efficiency. But hydros run mostly at peak times, so their actual generation is a sliver of their capacity.

The commission's Public Staff, which represents consumers, has agreed with Duke's request. Commission members haven't yet ruled.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Toxic releases edge up in NC

The volume of toxic chemicals N.C. industries released into the air, water or land rose nearly 4 percent in 2010, a federal report said today, ending a four-year trend of declining emissions.

The Toxics Release Inventory is the government's annual account of more than 600 chemicals that industries let go into the environment, mostly into the air. The TRI typically comes out about a year after the chemical releases it summarizes. The chemicals can cause cancer or other illnesses.

What's interesting about 2010 is that, nationally and in the Carolinas, a downward trend in releases stopped. Total U.S. releases rose 16 percent from 2009, to 3.9 billion pounds. North Carolina's went up 3.7 percent, to 66 million pounds, while South Carolina's emissions jumped 19 percent to nearly 60 million pounds.

Metal mining and chemical manufacturing led the increases nationwide. Some sectors, such as the 12 percent drop in releases electric utilities reported, continued to fall.

North Carolina ranked 19th-highest among the states, and South Carolina 21st. Top emitting N.C. counties were New Hanover, Person, Columbus, Beaufort, Catawba, Gaston, Bladen, Haywood, Bertie and Wayne.

Mecklenburg County came in 35th, with 346,570 pounds, but lead the state in releases of dioxin and dioxin-like compounds. Dioxins are man-made chemicals, released in minute quantities, that can cause skin rashes, liver damage and reduced immune function. All of the 48 grams reported in 2010 were attributed to the Gerdau Ameristeel steel mill in northern Mecklenburg.