By Stan Welch
In 2015, Duke Energy began a two pronged attack on one of the last coal fired power generating facilities in the Carolinas. A remarkably short three years later, a new efficient natural gas fired plant is online, and more than three million tons of coal ash have been removed from the site.
Duke Energy officials invited The Journal to tour the new facilities of the W. S. Lee Station which will officially be opened next week, but which have been producing some eight hundred megawatts of power since April.
From the top of the twin natural gas fired generators, the old coal fired plant down by the Saluda River looks antiquated and small.
The new generators are designed for efficiency, recapturing almost all of the water used in the process, and reducing emissions by eighty seven per cent.
Ryan Mosier and Emily DeRoberts, spokespersons for Duke Energy, emphasized the important role that the new Lee Steam Plant plays in Duke’s overall energy strategy. “It is essential for an energy producing company like Duke Energy to be versatile and diverse in its use of resources. This facility can power more than three quarters of a million homes in the two Carolinas. It produces energy that is distributed in both North and South Carolina. It is a quantum leap forward in a number of ways from the old Lee Steam Plant,” said Mosier.
He added that the Lee Plant is a key element in supporting Duke’s gradual but consistent transition to cleaner and more sustainable sources. “Nuclear energy is still our mainstay, but solar and other renewable sources are becoming more and more viable each day. Of course we continue to monitor technological and industrial advances in those fields, but we have to be prepared to serve our customers when those sources aren’t adequate For example, while solar is a great source of energy, during the peak morning hours when millions of people in the Carolinas are taking showers and making breakfast, solar isn’t working yet because the sun is just coming up. We have to be able to meet that demand from other sources, until solar can come on line and begin to ease that burden.”
“This new facility recognizes Duke Energy’s goal of eliminating the use of coal to generate power in South Carolina. There is no longer any coal burned to produce electricity. That alone is a great achievement. Add to that the reduced emissions and the absence of any residue from the process, and this is a great day for Duke Energy and the Carolinas,” said DeRoberts.
The facility was constructed on one part of the footprint, while trucks hauled load after load of coal ash from the old site. Those pits are currently covered with acres of tarping, awaiting permanent closure. More than three million tons of ash were transported to a lined landfill in Homer Georgia, in a concerted effort by Waste Management. “We can’t say enough about that company,” said DeRoberts. “They were professional to an extraordinary degree.”
Both Mosier and DeRoberts were adamant about the cooperation of the various parties involved in creating the new Lee Steam Plant. “From public officials to other utilities, such as Piedmont Natural Gas, to the people of Anderson County and Williamston, everyone who had a role to play did their very best and made this project the success that we fully expect it to be” said Mosier.
Williamston Mayor Mack Durham expressed the town’s gratitude for the impact the three year project has had on the town. “In addition to the removal of the carbon footprint of the plant, and the potential for an environmental event that could have seriously harmed the Saluda River, there have been other very significant impacts. The improvement in air quality due to the reduced emissions is being felt on a regional basis, and not just locally.”
“Financially, the town has seen a major increase in traffic, in our stores and restaurants, and we have seen a growing demand in the housing market. Most importantly, it appears that these impacts are sustaining themselves even as the project winds down. Duke Energy and the other parties involved established a very beneficial working partnership. We just saw so many benefits, we can’t thank Duke enough for their efforts at the Lee Plant. We feel like we are set up to move ahead in the future because of the changes made there.”
The original W. S. Lee Steam Station, as seen from atop the new facility, is still operating.