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Air Quality Briefing Shares Saver Tips

Duke’s rendering of the new natural-gas plant replacing the famous red and white smokestacks.

Asheville – The Land of Sky (LoS) Regional Council’s Annual State of Our Air Briefing and Press Conference, online this year, contained many affordable energy tips for consumers.

Jason Walls, who specializes in public relations for Duke Energy in Western North Carolina, began with an overview of how Duke intends to become net-zero in carbon emissions by 2050 while more reliably satisfying customers’ demand for electricity. Key investments included replacing the coal-burning Lake Julian plant and investing in utility-scale battery storage projects. Fielding questions, Wall was asked to elaborate on the technology behind the claimed reduction in mercury emissions at Lake Julian, and he explained mercury was largely a byproduct of burning coal that the new system runs on natural gas.

The next speaker, Mike Abraczinskas, director of the North Carolina Division of Air Quality (DAQ), noted the great impact the COVID-19 shutdown had had on air quality across the state. The good news is that some of the changes will be permanent, as people have gotten up-to-speed on and like conducting business online. Abraczinskas said permitting at the DAQ actually increased during the shutdown, teleworking proving to be efficient. 

Ashley Featherstone of the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency also noted air pollution levels declining even before the pandemic. She recognized Eaton Corporation for upgrading systems to realize greater efficiencies and thus reduce environmental impact. Replacing insulation and improving its HVAC systems are expected to save the company $17,239 and the environment 544,513 pounds of greenhouse gases, per year.

Sophie Mullinax presented an overview of Blue Horizons, for which she is project manager. Blue Horizons is a coalition of the City of Asheville, Buncombe County, and Duke Energy. It was formed when members of Asheville City Council realized that local government had the legitimate power to enforce carbon emission reductions only on itself and that the amount of greenhouse gases government activities could abstain from releasing was in no way going to prevent the global devastation predicted by models endorsed by the scientific consensus. Blue Horizon thus became a legal means for identifying and applying incentives to accomplish council’s goals in the private sector.

One incentive comes through Duke’s Peak Demand Challenge. Mullinax said the NC Utilities Commission requires Duke to generate well over expected demand to ensure reliable service. Ramping up and tapering off for the spikes in demand on chilly mornings, when homes and businesses are firing up, are costly for power companies and avoidable. Formerly, people were simply asked to try not to use appliances during peak hours; now, Duke Energy has a device it can install to shut off a residence’s heater, air conditioner, or water heater when systemwide usage starts to surge. Mullinax said the automatic shut offs typically only occur six to ten times a year, and she’s never heard of anybody being adversely affected. Additionally, participants get a $25 credit for signing up.

Other programs Duke offers include a free, in-home energy assessment. A technician will make a house call and look for common energy drains. Sometimes, discounts for improvements like new insulation or a new thermostat can be arranged through Duke. Regardless, all participants receive a free kit with LED lightbulbs, water savers, and weatherstripping. The house call schedule has been backed up for a couple months, but the service is also available, at cost, from private-sector companies.

For qualified low-income households, Duke Energy will dispatch a team of community volunteers with caulk guns, weather stripping, and pipe wrap to help reduce those $200-$300 winter heating bills un-weatherized mobile homes can incur. The program has been known to reduce heating bills by 40%, and with so many more people needing help with fuel this winter, it more than ever becomes important not to use finite charitable contributions “heating the outdoors.”

Duke also has a few programs to help business owners invest in more-efficient HVAC. Through the Small Business Energy Saver program, rebates are available for up to 80% of the purchase price of installed green technologies like LEDs. Through Duke’s EnergyWise program, businesses can qualify for free equipment with free installation and annual bill credits. LoS Waste Reduction Partners, however, is the agency that performs free energy audits for businesses.

Mullinax shared she was surprised to learn 30% of greenhouse gases are emitted from heating and electrifying buildings; 16% are from transportation. In the Southeast, 29% of the average home’s power bill supports heating; 21%, large appliances; 17%, heating water; 13%, air conditioning; 10%, lighting; and 10% plug-in devices.

Bill Eaker, a senior environmental planner working for LoS, hosted the meeting. He closed with a summary of what that agency is doing to help fleet owners transition to alternative fuels. LoS can assess a system and determine if biodiesel, electricity, natural gas, or propane would work best; it then helps management apply for state and federal grants, for vehicles and infrastructure. Somewhat out of the ordinary, LoS just supported training for emergency responders for incidents involving alternative-fuel vehicles.

Eaker then gave a list of actions individuals can take to reduce vehicle emissions. While all are not accessible to low- and moderate-income persons, they include walking, biking, riding transit, living closer to work or school, telecommuting, carpooling, planning ahead, driving slower, idling less, keeping the engine tuned, and buying a fuel-efficient vehicle.