Through listening, Duke Energy builds a stronger and cleaner WNC

March 14, 2019

Since 1904, Duke Energy’s mission has always been to keep the lights on for its customers at an affordable rate. While that’s still the ultimate goal, a newfound collaboration with the community has inspired Duke to renew its vision for energy. Now that vision also focuses on creating the cleanest and most energy efficient system possible.

“We have always cared what our customers think. It used to just be lights on, rates low. Now it’s a clean environment. So as our customers expectations have changed, how we go about doing our business has changed,” said Duke’s district manager Jason Walls, who presides over service and communications in Buncombe, Haywood, Madison, Mitchell, Yancey, and Avery County.

“The thing that I love about this community is that we are predisposed to action. Our communities actually want to be part of helping [Duke] figure out how we meet energy needs in the future, differently than how we’ve done it in the past.”

Buncombe County in particular, home to more than 200,000 energy customers, is the most vocal and politically active of the six counties that Walls oversees, he said. But Walls also spends much time in neighboring counties, listening to members of the community and learning what’s important to them.

“We developed this better understanding of what was important to community. As we started listening and learning we realized they wanted ownership of their own destiny,” Walls said.

In the last few years, this practice has motivated Duke to revolutionize its approach to clean energy. For instance, when Duke shared plans for building a new gas-fired peaker plant at the Lake Julian facility to meet increased demand for energy and its customers disapproved, Duke decided to instead work with them on reducing energy use so that the peaker plant wouldn’t be necessary.

“The community asked for a chance to prove they were serious about curbing energy appetite,” said Walls. “So we rolled up our sleeves and worked with them. We went with a group of eight community leaders, including Brownie Newman, Cathy Ball, and Julie Mayfield, to the Rocky Mountain Institute Elab Accelerator to help transition the region to smarter and cleaner energy.”

”Out of this grew the Energy Innovation Task Force, a unique partnership between Duke, the City of Asheville, and Buncombe County that meets on a bi-monthly basis to work on our clean energy initiatives. And from this has come the Blue Horizons Project, a free community resource that helps residents and businesses curb energy use.”

Thanks to these efforts, Walls is proud to say that the peaker plant has now been pushed out beyond Duke’s 10-15 year plan. The Blue Horizons Project achieves goals like these by providing easy access to resources that allow everyone to be part of creating a clean energy future. In the long term, its goal is to transition the region to a cleaner, affordable, and smarter energy future. 

In 2015 also Duke announced its intentions to shift away from the coal-burning portions of its plants, and in 2018 announced the retirement of seven coal plants over the next 30 years. Within Western North Carolina specifically, Duke started building a new natural gas plant in 2017 that will retire the existing coal-fired units at the Arden Plant no later than January 2020.

“There’s a lot of work left to do. The first wave is getting people to sign up for programs that will reduce peak energy demand, and using technology like our Smart Meters that help customers manage their energy use.

“We’re also seeing the continued growth in solar investment. We’ve committed to installing at least 15 megawatts of solar and 5 MW of battery storage in region. Since that, we’ve already recommitted to at least 19 MW of battery storage. It just makes sense.”