Statewide: West region, November 2015

 In 2015-11

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Not in my back foothills

With more people living and vacationing in western North Carolina, Duke Energy is planning a $320 million investment to make power more reliable and less dependent on coal. A variety of elected officials and environmental and small-business groups are unimpressed and want to block Duke’s efforts because of the potential impact on the mountains and tourism industry. In early summer, Duke said it would close its Asheville coal-fired power plant within five years and replace it with a $750 million natural-gas plant on the same site. The shift to gas reduces carbon dioxide emissions and limits water usage, efforts typically championed by green groups. But Duke is proposing a 45-mile transmission line from Asheville to Campobello, S.C., strung from 140-foot-tall poles spaced 1,000 feet apart, which critics say could harm the area’s beauty and wrest property away from landowners.

While a final route is to be selected this month, regulatory approval could take more than a year as various agencies study the plan. Groups in Buncombe, Henderson and Polk counties, forming the Carolina Land Coalition, are holding rallies and canvassing door-to-door to foment opposition. Some business organizations have signed on, including the Saluda Business Association and Adventure Treks, a summer camp for teens. Polk County commissioners favored a resolution opposing the plan in August. Duke has received more than 9,000 comments on its plans.

“The biggest thing is people are looking at losing their land,” says Joan Walker, campaign coordinator for Asheville nonprofit MountainTrue.While Duke is negotiating with landowners for property easements, state law permits the utility to take land through eminent domain. The region’s energy usage has doubled over the last 40 years and will increase 15% during the next decade, say Duke officials, who also note 800 construction jobs are at stake.

But portions of the lines are slated to run through family farms, Walker says, and perhaps the Green River Game Lands, an 18,000-acre wilderness popular with kayakers, mountain bikers and hunters. “There’s nothing that can compensate them for fragmenting that,” she says.

Update: Duke Energy said in early November it had revised its plans and will replace the existing coal plant with two smaller gas ones, eliminating the need for new transmission lines.


Briefs

FOREST CITYFacebook will invest $200 million in an expansion of its local data center. The Menlo Park, Calif.-based social network will add at least 10 employees to the 125 at its existing center, which is comprised of two 350,000-square-foot buildings that opened in 2011 and 2013. Construction of a new 480,000-square-foot building will begin immediately and take 12-14 months. The state legislature passed a law in September that provided tax breaks for data-center projects involving an investment of at least $75 million over five years.

ASHEVILLE — Dave Neill, Carolinas regional president for Gannett and publisher of the Asheville Citizen-Times, resigned. Neill, who has led the newspaper since September 2013, plans to move to Florida to be closer to family. His replacement has not been named.

BOONEAppalachian State University will receive a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to provide scholarships for math and science majors who commit to teach in rural schools. The program is expected to graduate at least 20 high-school teachers in four years.

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