Two Winston-Salem situations about a mile apart but separated by several years amplify the impact of energy choices on communities and the climate.
One pointed to the risks posed by natural gas and other fuels flowing unseen in buried pipelines.
The other was a reminder that extreme weather caused by climate change – caused in large part by the burning of these same fossil fuels – poses a threat to the facilities we rely on to provide our drinking water and process waste.
On July 5, as evening thunderstorms dumped more than 2 inches of rain over a two-hour period, a swollen Salem creek struggled to absorb accumulated runoff from nearby Griffith Road in the southwest of Winston-Salem.
With nowhere to go, the growing flood followed the path of least resistance and let gravity guide it to the lower ground – which turned out to be Winston’s Archie Elledge sewage treatment plant. Salem/Forsyth County Utilities Archie Elledge.
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Facility operations were not affected, spokeswoman Gale Ketteler said. But video shared on social media showed muddy water flowing through the complex into a storage pond at ground level. It’s a reminder of potential threats to infrastructure from climate change, experts who viewed the footage told the Winston-Salem Journal.
Many “gravity-fed” treatment systems are built on low sites so that wastewater naturally flows to the facility, explained Austin Thompson, co-author of a 2021 study from the Environmental Finance Center of the United States. ‘UNC-Chapel Hill on Utilities Flooding Vulnerabilities.
The Archie Elledge facility, just over 700 feet above sea level, sits in a designated floodplain in one of the lowest areas in the county.
“That basically means they’re very susceptible to flooding because water rushes into the same place during storms,” Thompson, now a doctoral student at NC State University, said of facilities like Archie Elledge.
This plant, which opened in 1958, has the capacity to treat 30 million gallons of wastewater per day. The treated water is discharged into Salem Creek.
While sewage treatment facilities are traditionally located in low-lying areas, many are built with safeguards to protect them from flash floods like the one on July 5, Thompson noted.
That’s the case locally, said Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Utilities spokesperson Gale Ketteler.
“Our engineers design wastewater treatment plants for these types of rain events,” she explained in an email. “No tanks or processing equipment in the plant were affected (July 5). If we had a major flood, it could enter our reservoirs, but it would be held in the plant system. »
However, climate change is already changing the meaning of “major”.
Hurricanes Matthew in 2016 and Florence in 2018 produced unprecedented rainfall over large parts of North Carolina.
Florence, which lingered for days, dumped more than 30 inches of rain in some areas, where an estimated 121 million gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage were discharged from more than 200 water treatment systems wastewater, according to “Flood Resilience and NC Water and Wastewater”. Utilities”, the study co-authored by Thompson.
The North Carolina Climate Science Report, released in 2020 by the NC Institute for Climate Studies, predicted that flooding in the state will become more frequent and severe as extreme rainfall events increase over time. always warmer. The report predicts temperature increases of at least two degrees in the state by mid-century.
Asked about Winston Salem/Forsyth County Utilities preparations for future extreme rainfall events, Ketteler declined to elaborate.
“For a catastrophic flood, like a hurricane that shuts down everything across the county, you’re asking about a hypothetical situation,” Ketteler replied. “Rest assured that we have emergency response plans in place for a variety of scenarios and are conducting exercises with emergency management. For security reasons, we are not free to share this information as it is federally protected.
Former Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Administrator Stan Meiburg, who now heads Wake Forest University’s sustainability graduate program, visited Archie Elledge’s factory and said that the Utilities Department had moved some pumps and electrical systems to higher ground years ago, but parts of the facility “would be at risk in the event of high enough flooding.
Local officials expect more flooding around the plant.
The city of Winston-Salem plans to erect “Road prone to flooding” signs at the north and south approaches to the area, and plans to install a guardrail on Griffith Road to protect drivers when the water is high, Winston-Salem field operations director Keith Huff said Friday.
In 2017, about a mile west of Archie Elledge’s facility, Winston-Salem city workers attempted to tap into what they believed to be a water main on Jonestown Road.
It turned out to be a gas pipeline.
The error led to a leak of 91,000 cubic feet of gas, enough to serve 500 average American homes for one day.
It was one of 32 gas pipeline leaks in North Carolina and nearly 2,600 nationwide over the past decade, according to a recently released report by the North Carolina Public Research Group and Environment North Carolina. Research & Policy Center.
Nationwide, 328 of the leaks resulted in explosions and fires that killed 122 people and injured 603, the authors found in their search of records from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. .
In North Carolina, five explosions, two deaths and nine injuries have been linked to gas pipeline leaks from 2010 to 2021, the report said.
Four leaks – none resulting in explosions, injuries or fatalities – have been recorded in the Triad in the past five years. They were all in lines directly or indirectly related to the Transco pipeline, which crosses the area diagonally on its course from Texas to New York.
In addition to the Forsyth incident, two leaks have been identified in Guilford and one in Rockingham County.
More natural gas is expected to flow into the state.
The Williams Companies, owners of the Transco Pipeline, last month announced plans for $212.5 million in upgrades in North Carolina to increase deliveries to Piedmont Natural Gas by 423 million cubic feet per day.
Gas and climate change
The release of the leak report comes amid growing debate over the role natural gas should play in the clean energy shift.
Many electric utilities, including Duke Energy, North Carolina’s largest, are looking to increase gas capacity as they shut down coal-fired plants.
Natural gas represents more than a third of Duke’s current energy production. The company has proposed adding 2,000 megawatts of gas-fired generation as it strives to meet state requirements to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 70% from 2005 levels by the end of the year. end of this decade and achieve carbon neutral status by 2050.
Gas-fired power plants emit about half the carbon dioxide of those that burn coal. That’s not enough for many critics who insist that production that still emits greenhouse gases is proof of Duke’s lack of commitment to clean energy.
Duke counters that natural gas replaces the reliability lost by eliminating coal-burning operations and unavailable with solar and wind power.
“Whether it’s coal emissions, methane from natural gas; whether it’s mining implications, for materials that may be needed for renewables and batteries, there’s no solution without some form of environmental impact or impact that we have to face it,” Lynn Good, CEO of Duke Energy, said Wednesday during an interview for the CNBC Evolve Global Summit. “It’s our commitment, as we continue this transition to clean energy, that we take all of these things into consideration and deliver them in a way that our customers expect.”
Last month’s leak report says building new gas-fired power plants will result in a low utility return on investment — in many cases, funded by rate increases for customers — because the facilities will have a lifespan. limited.
Duke’s new natural gas facilities will eventually be able to burn carbon-free hydrogen, likely by 2035, the company says.
Critics also argue that the reliability of natural gas is offset by the volatility of fuel costs.
why is it important
The electric power generation sector is the second largest producer of greenhouse gases in North Carolina, so the state’s commitment to reducing emissions from power plants is essential in efforts to minimize rising temperatures which, according to climatologists, are already fueling more destructive storms, heavier rainfall, increased floods and extreme droughts.
Duke Energy submitted a proposal to the NC Utilities Commission in May outlining how it would meet state emissions requirements for 2030 and 2050.
The commission has until the end of the year to approve the carbon plan submitted by Duke, incorporate elements of several alternative proposals submitted by “stakeholders” or come up with its own version.
Natural gas released from transmission pipelines also directly contributes to climate change, the study notes.
Gas leaks reported to the federal government resulted in the release of 26.6 billion cubic feet of methane from 2010 through October 2021, equivalent in its global warming effects to emissions from more than 2.4 million passenger vehicles driven for a year, according to the study.
Methane is responsible for about a quarter of human-induced climate change.
“With growing awareness of the impact of methane leaks on the climate and with the growing availability of safer alternatives, it is clear that gas has no place in a modern clean energy grid” , insist the authors of the study.
John Deem covers climate change and the environment in the Triad and Northwestern North Carolina. Her work is supported by a grant from the 1Earth Fund and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.