By John McCurry
Photography By Amy Randall Photography
Duke Energy is in the early stages of a $3 billion, 10-year spending program in South Carolina aimed at improving the electrical grid while providing increased services to customers. The effort figures to create a major economic boost to the region.
The infrastructure improvement began in 2016 when installation of smart meters began in the Upstate. Installation of those meters, which Duke says help give customers more flexibility with their power usage, will be completed in the Upstate in 2018. The meters have an Upstate connection as they are manufactured by Itron’s Oconee County facility.
Duke officials describe the meter installation as just the “tip of the spear” in the major infrastructure upgrade that will also include “undergrounding” of miles of power lines and improvements to the utility’s physical and cyber security programs. The spending will kick into high gear in 2018. Most of the work through the remainder of 2017 will involve engineering, planning, work force identification, and forming partnerships with local businesses.
Overseeing this effort is Kodwo Ghartey-Tagoe, who became Duke Energy’s state president for South Carolina on Jan. 2. A native of Ghana, Ghartey-Tagoe is a 15-year veteran of Duke Energy and its predecessor, Duke Power. He has held a series of executive positions with the utility, and was previously based in Charlotte.
Gartey-Tagoe, whose responsibilities include overseeing the financial performance of Duke’s electric operations in South Carolina, and managing state and local regulatory affairs, says the funding will result in development of a new skilled work force to install new technology. He says as the program ramps up in 2018, it will create an economic multiplier effect for the Upstate economy. Most of the workers will be from the region and the money they earn will be spent locally.
“All of this work has to be done by somebody, so we will partner with our community and technical colleges in South Carolina to train the work force we need to help us install all of that new equipment and improve the grid for our customers,” Ghartey-Tagoe says.
Duke Energy is currently compiling a priority list of undergrounding power lines, determining how many miles of lines will be buried and in which areas. The current estimate is about 2,300 miles. This part of the infrastructure program will target areas prone to power outages. The main reason for the outages may seem a little surprising.
“We’ve had a significant amount of outages over the last few years caused by people simply driving into poles,” Ghartey-Tagoe says. “Not storms, but people driving into poles. In some areas, streets have been widened to the point they encroach upon poles and that’s part of the cause of it.”
Ghartey-Tagoe says the smart meter installation should be viewed as a gateway for Duke’s customers to obtain more information about their power usage so they can be better informed about how to use and conserve their electricity. He points out that the meters allow customers to pick their own due dates for bills.
“It was hard for us to do that until we put in smart meters,” he says. “The old meters required us to send somebody out to read them. Now, we can do that remotely. This [picking due dates] could be a big deal for those with fixed incomes. There will be many more products and services we can provide because of smart meters.”
Duke Energy has long been involved in economic development in the regions it serves. That function is now led by Clark Gillespy, Ghartey-Tagoe’s predecessor, on a six-state, system-wide basis. A recent example in South Carolina of an economic development project assisted by Duke is the Roseburg engineered wood plant announced in Chester County in July. Roseburg, based in Oregon, plans to invest $200 million in the plant and create 148 jobs.
“Duke Energy was heavily involved in the recruitment of that company in many ways,” Ghartey-Tagoe says. “We worked with all of our partner organizations, making sure the company knew everything they needed to know.”
Duke Energy is participating in the solar energy movement in South Carolina, largely as a result of Act 236, which promotes solar in the state by providing opportunities for homes and businesses to lease solar systems from independent solar companies and sell the extra energy to utilities.
“We’re going through the process now, hooking up customers who put up solar panels on their rooftops,” Ghartey-Tagoe says. “It could be a Publix, or a Wal-Mart. Other companies are building solar installations and selling their output to use. And we also anticipate building facilities of our own later on. It could be next year. We haven’t determined any sites yet.”
Navigating the changing world of renewable energy is one of Duke’s challenges, Ghartey-Tagoe believes.
“We have taken some steps to promote renewables. Folks want it, but there are some other aspects we are trying to work through. Solar panels are getting cheaper by the year and I do see a proliferation. Has the infrastructure caught up yet? That’s something we have to work through.”
Natural gas is also big in Duke’s long-range plans. The company closed last year on a deal to acquire Piedmont Natural Gas. Also, Duke’s new 750 MW natural-gas power generation plant will come online in Anderson County by the end of the year.
Another looming challenge involves economic development, particularly in the Pee Dee region, which used to be heavy in farmland. Questions need to be answered, Ghartey-Tago believes.
“Is there industry that can go into that part of the state? Will gas lines attract energy? Is it a chicken or the egg kind of thing? How do we bring the prosperity of economic development to all corners of the state? I see that as a challenge we have to overcome.”
Ghartey-Tagoe’s family always emphasized education and he continues that practice. He has a B.A. in economics and finance from McGill University in Montreal and a juris doctor degree from Duke University.
So, how did a young man from Ghana come to choose McGill University for his first round of higher education? A suggestion from his father and turmoil in Ghana helped send him west.
“My father selected it for me. He had been to Canada years before. There had been a military coup in Ghana just after I got out of high school. University students had taken to the streets, opposing the government. I was already planning to go abroad and my father recommended McGill. Once the schools [in Ghana] shut down, it became a very big choice for me. That’s how I ended up in Montreal.”
And, as Ghartey-Tagoe puts it, “the education theme has been handed down.” He and his wife Phyllis have three daughters. The oldest, Effe, receiveed a master’s degree in public health from George Washington University. Aseda, the middle daughter, is a second-year law student at Duke, and the youngest, Gracie, is a senior at Davidson College.
On the job in Greenville since Jan. 2, Ghartey-Tagoe says Greenville has been a pleasant surprise for him and his wife.
“I’ve loved it,” he says. “I was initially apprehensive about moving to a smaller city. I’ve spent plenty of time in larger cities. Since January, we have had a chance to explore and we have loved it. Proximity to great state parks has been a bonus. And, oh yes, the people have been nice too.”