Rob Christensen

Christensen: Trouble with power plants used to be not enough power

Rob Christensen

North Carolina Gov. Kerr Scott had a nickname for L.V. Sutton, the president and CEO of Carolina Power & Light Co. through 1963. He called him “Low Voltage” Sutton.

I was reminded of the Scott jibe because the L.V. Sutton Energy Complex is in the news. The state environmental agency and Duke Energy reached a $7 million deal on the coal ash cleanup around the Sutton plant and at 13 other Duke Energy coal ash dump sites around the state.

The deal came after the state agreed to drop a $25 million fine against Duke Energy on coal ash.

But in the mid-20th century, the state’s focus was not on getting the power companies to clean up the environment. What Scott and others wanted was for the companies to crank up the power – especially extending more electric lines to the countryside.

In 1935, only 2 percent of North Carolina’s farms had electricity. But through programs such as the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Administration, power to the farms had been greatly extended. By the time Scott took office in 1949, the countryside was no longer totally in dark, although there were still tens of thousands of farmers living with no electric lights, or washing machines, or refrigerators, or electric radios, or electric farm equipment.

Scott and Sutton were often at odds. Sutton was an influential figure in Raleigh. As chairman of the Edison Institute, the national association of power companies, Sutton was a strong advocate of private power. Scott was a great believer in public power such as rural electric cooperatives.

So when Scott and Sutton shared a stage for the dedication of CP&L’s first post-World War II power plant on the Lumber River in 1949 there was high interest. The Raleigh press corps showed up, as did 2,000 people.

“It is a staggering accomplishment,” the governor said of the new power plant. “It is more staggering to contemplate because it’s still not enough.”

While the Piedmont generally had plenty of electricity, Scott said, that was not true for Eastern North Carolina. “This power shortage is particularly acute from Goldsboro to the coast,” Scott said. It is one reason why less than five percent of North Carolina’s industry lies east of Raleigh, he said.

While the governor said he was proud of CP&L, the utilities also had a responsibility to extend electricity to everyone who wanted it. “The people gave those companies their monopolies and it’s up to the companies to give them electricity. This is not a theory, this is a God-given right, and as long as I live I will defend that right.”

Not only did Scott receive a lot of letters from North Carolinians who had been waiting years for electric service, but even those who had electricity were receiving service more typical of Third World countries.

The Rev. Herman Minnema, pastor of Terra Ceia Christian Reformed Church in Pantego, wrote the governor in 1949 about the electric service he was getting from the Washington (N.C.) Utilities Commission. Scott compared it to the bombed out European cities after World War II.

“Without warning our electric may be turned off for as long as 48 hours,” Minnema wrote. “At present we can expect to be without electric about 2 or 3 hours every day. That the electric is turned off on occasion is understandable, but when we do have electric we never know whether it will be so strong that the bulbs will burn out in a week or so weak that the motors will not turn over.”

At a news conference in 1950, Scott dubbed L.V. Sutton as “Low Voltage” Sutton.

The coal-fired plant that Scott and Sutton dedicated, later called the Weatherspoon Power Plant in Lumberton, was closed in 2011 and intentionally blown up in 2013.

The L.V. Sutton Plant near Wilmington was first built in 1954 as a coal-fired unit, although it has since been replaced by a natural-gas unit. But the coal ash from the old plants remains a point of contention.

It is a mark of the distance that North Carolina has progressed since World War II, that the focus has moved from providing electricity to the countryside to making sure the environment is clean.

Scott and Sutton remained frenemies. Sutton would back Scott’s political opponents, but would also send him a box of cigars at Christmas.

Years later, Sutton’s grandson would marry Scott’s granddaughter, and they would go off to Africa to become Christian missionaries – much to the bemusement of their families.