Duke Energy recently cranked up the first turbine at its new natural gas plant in Asheville as construction on the facility nears completion.

The “first fire” on one of its combustion turbines was completed recently, according to an update by David Rogers, the Southeast deputy regional campaign director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

The turbine is combined with a steam turbine in the first of two “power blocks” that each will produce 280 megawatts of power at the 560-megawatt, combined-cycle natural gas plant that will replace Duke Energy’s coal-fired power plant in South Asheville.

Spokeswoman Heather Danenhower says Duke Energy expects to complete required emissions and performance testing on the first turbine for commissioning by the end of August, according to the email. Then workers will clean construction debris out of the power block in “steam blows” to put the plant in working condition.

Once that is complete, the crews will turn to the second power block, firing and commissioning the second combustion turbine and performing the steam blows likely by late September. Danenhower says that extensive final testing and fine-tuning will be done on the project before it is put into commercial service.

The existing coal-fired units will retire no later than January 2020 after the new plant starts serving customers at the end of this year. The coal-fired power plant in Arden has been providing electricity to Asheville since 1964.

The coal plant is slated to close no later than January, as required by the N.C. Coal Ash Management Act passed in 2012.

The plant’s construction is part of Duke’s $1.1 billion Western Modernization Project that also includes transmission and distribution grid upgrades, two small solar installations and two storage-battery operations in the region. The power plant alone is expected to cost more than $890 million to build, according to Rogers’ email.

Duke Energy also recently sent out postcards to residents near the plant to warn that they would hear more — and louder — activity at the plant through September in some of these final construction phases, according to Rogers’ note. Duke Energy also told residents they would occasionally see steam clouds rising from the plant as tests were performed on the equipment.

Duke Energy spokesman Jason Walls tells me in an email that when the new plant opens, sulfur dioxide emissions will be reduced by an estimated 99 percent; nitrogen oxide will be reduced by an estimated 40 percent; mercury will be eliminated; and water withdrawals from Lake Julian will be reduced by an estimated 97 percent.

Carbon dioxide emissions will be reduced by about 60 percent (per-megawatt-hour) due to the efficiency of the new natural gas plant and because natural gas burns more cleanly than coal, Walls said.

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