Duke Energy retired the coal-fired power plant on Lake Julian, just south of Asheville, in 2020. Now, the company is planning to put a solar farm on the site, covering a coal ash basin, landfill and part of the old plant.

North Carolina’s legislature set a goal for the state’s energy producers, mostly Duke Energy, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 70% by the end of the decade. The bipartisan law, signed by the governor in 2021, sets a goal for energy production in the state to be carbon neutral by 2050.

What You Need To Know

  • Duke Energy plans to install a 9.5MW solar farm and a 17MW battery storage facility on the site of a retired coal-fired power plant near Asheville

  • The coal-fired power plant began operating in 1964 and was retired in 2020

  • Duke Energy plans to repurpose other retired coal power plants with renewable energy or other new power generation technologies

  • North Carolina set a target of reducing greenhouse gasses in power generation 70% by the end of the decade and be carbon neutral by 2050Point 1 goes here

“To ensure the clean energy transition happens at the lowest cost to customers, with equal or greater reliability, Duke Energy is prioritizing existing plant sites for replacement generation, leveraging our current infrastructure, transmission and workforce,” said Bill Norton, spokesman for Duke Energy. 

The company also plans to add a 17MW of battery storage to store power from the solar farm on the site. 

“We see it as a big win-win for the community and it’s something that we would love to see more of as the utility continues to transition away from coal generation,” said Matt Abele, spokesman for the NC Sustainable Energy Association.

“Battery storage plays an integral role as we continue to incorporate more renewables into the grid,” he said. “Being able to dispatch that power when needed serves as a really important resiliency factor.”

In terms of solar farms, the Buncombe County project is small, projected to produce about 9.5 megawatts of power. That’s about enough energy to power 7,100 homes. For perspective, solar farms in eastern North Carolina, with large, flat parcels of land available, can produce 80 or more megawatts.

Building big solar projects in western North Carolina is hard. There’s not much land available, the terrain is mountainous and there isn’t as much infrastructure to connect to the power grid, Duke Energy’s Justin LaRoche said.

LaRoche testified about the Asheville solar project earlier this month before the North Carolina Utilities Commission. He told the commission about the challenges and benefits of putting a new solar farm, even a relatively small one, at the old coal power plant. 

“It’s a really neat transition of the site itself, going from a brownfield coal facility,” he said. “We’re excited to see the transition of this site.”

“Nine-point-five megawatts isn’t going to solve the problem there, but every little bit helps,” LaRoche told the commission. 

The City of Asheville and Buncombe County wrote to the commission to support the project. The county has a goal to use 100% renewable energy by 2042. The city has a more aggressive goal, aiming to rely completely on renewable energy by 2030.

“This project is particularly attractive due to its location on a brownfield formerly used for coal fired generation and proximity to existing transmission infrastructure,” Buncombe County sustainability officer Jeremiah LeRoy wrote to the commission. 

“Given the high cost of land in Buncombe County, the challenges of siting utility-scale solar in the mountains, and the lack of need to clear cut any existing tree canopy, this site is a perfect fit for such a project,” LeRoy said.

One big benefit of the site is that it’s already connected to the power grid. Duke already built a 560MW natural gas power plan on the site. The final phase of that project started full operations in April 2020 as the company took the old coal-fired power plant offline.

As Duke retires more of its old coal-fired power plants, the company plans to continue to repurpose the sites, with more solar, battery storage and emerging technologies like ​​new small-modular nuclear and natural gas that can be converted to use hydrogen in the future, Duke’s Norton said.

That will all be part of hitting the state’s carbon neutrality goal in the next three decades.

Clean energy goals

The state legislature, with a 2021 law that passed with broad support of both parties and the governor, set a goal for power producers to be carbon neutral by 2050. The General Assembly tasked the North Carolina Utilities Commission with approving a plan to hit that target on time.

Duke Energy, along with a number of environmental and industry groups, proposed a slew of options for how the state can hit that goal in less than 30 years. By all accounts, it will require a mix of energy sources, including solar and wind. It could also include new nuclear technologies and more traditional power generation like natural gas. 

“It’s really tough, at this very moment, to predict exactly what the grid makeup is going to be 10, 15, 20 years from now,” said Abele, with the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association. “We have a lot of solutions available to us.”

Duke has been making big investments in solar and power storage. In March, the company turned on an 11MW battery storage facility in Onslow County on the coast, paired with an existing 13MW solar farm on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.

The company said the new Onslow County battery storage is the biggest so far in North Carolina. 

“Battery storage is an important resource for our transition to cleaner energy,” said Kendal Bowman, Duke Energy’s North Carolina state president. “Pairing the energy storage system with our existing solar facility at Camp Lejeune helps strengthen the reliability of our energy grid and makes better use of our existing solar generation.”

Duke is also looking to wind power as part of North Carolina’s future energy mix. The company won a lease for an offshore wind farm in the waters southeast of Wilmington. That lease, if the company goes forward with the offshore wind farm, could generate 1,600MW of power. That’s more than a nuclear plant and enough to power almost 375,000 homes.