Paying the Wildfire Piper

Wildfire season on the Carolina coast features a warning din that’s annually overcome by the piper’s my-fire-won’t-get-out-of-control tune.

Last month, Brunswick County made a down payment on the piper’s song that has no dollar price tag -- some 50,000 homes were left without electricity for hours late the night the Clemmons Road Fire went from trash fire to wildfire.

The outages were triggered when the fire caused the westernmost of eight 230 kilovolt transmission lines distributing power from the Brunswick Nuclear Plant to fault out. Service was reestablished by isolating the fault, causing a disruption at the connector for Brunswick EMC, leaving the co-ops members without electricity.

With the grid capable of distributing less electricity, operators reduced Brunswick Nuclear Unit 2 power to 86% where it stayed for a day and a half until two fire-damaged transmission line supports were repaired.

Duke Energy hasn’t discussed the cost of repairing the support structures or reducing Unit 2’s output by 130 megawatts, but both costs will become part of Duke Energy Progress rates paid by both wholesale customers like Brunswick EMC and retail customers billed directly by the utility – becoming the second cost borne by those who lost power.

There are some known values to a 14% reduction in Unit 2’s output, including the loss of some 4,000 megawatt hours of electricity – enough to provide one month of power to 4,000 of what Duke Energy Progress calls its typical residential customer using 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a month.

The utility would bill those Eastern North Carolina customers $440,480 if that power had been delivered. It could have replaced the power with electricity from other power plants for about $88,000.

Beyond the utility impact, there’s also the hundreds-of-thousands of dollars spent to fight the fire that is being shared by all North Carolina taxpayers.

Beyond these costs shared with his neighbors, the fellow who listened to the piper’s melody faces a fine of up to $50.

-- Jim Brumm