- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 19, 2015

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) - Duke Energy said Tuesday it will build a $750 million natural gas plant to replace its troubled coal-fired Asheville plant as the company turns to cleaner energy to generate electricity.

The Charlotte-based company also will build a solar farm on the site as part of its $1.1 billion plan to modernize and upgrade its infrastructure.

“With the availability and near record low cost of natural gas, this comprehensive project will transform the energy system in the region to meet the growing needs of our customers and significantly reduce emissions,” said Lloyd Yates, president of Duke’s Carolinas region.

The 650-megawatt natural gas plant should open by 2019. At the same time, the 376-megawatt coal plant will be retired.

Duke said carbon dioxide emissions will be reduced by 60 percent because natural gas burns more cleanly than coal. Scientists say coal plants are the major source of carbon dioxide emissions, the primary cause of global warming.

The nation’s largest electricity company also said it will invest $320 million to build a transmission substation near Campobello, South Carolina, connecting it to the Asheville power plant.

A coalition of environmentalist groups, including the Sierra Club and Southern Environmental Law Center, issued a statement, calling Duke’s announcement to retire the coal plant a good first step. They had complained for years about emissions from the plant, and had urged Duke to close it.

But the coalition wanted Duke to invest more in solar.

“North Carolina has the opportunity to be a leader in clean energy generation through aggressive investments in solar power and energy efficiency, and Duke Energy must be a partner in that effort … While the proposed solar farm is a step in the right direction, it falls far short of the investment needed to move the region to a clean energy future,” the coalition said.

Duke’s announcement comes a week after the company pleaded guilty to nine criminal violations of the federal Clean Water Act. The company admitted guilt to environmental violations at five coal-fired power plants in North Carolina, including Asheville, where pollution from the company’s coal ash pits seeped into waterways.

As part of a negotiated settlement with federal prosecutors, Duke agreed to pay $68 million in fines and $34 million on environmental projects and land conservation that will benefit rivers and wetlands in North Carolina and Virginia.

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