Nationally, it now costs less to build new solar and wind utilities than it does to simply run an existing coal-fired plant. Energy and business analysts view 2018 as the “fulcrum” or “cross-over” year for renewables (including lithium-ion batteries), meaning the steady drop in their cost structure will continue to rapidly displace coal both domestically and internationally.
Economics, science and common sense all suggest that North Carolina should be moving quickly to capitalize on its renewable energy resources. But–politics. So we have good news and bad news.
The Good News
Currently, North Carolina ranks second in the nation for installed solar power (which also supports 7,600 jobs in our state).
- The solar power mandates in HB 589 resulted in a 36 percent increase in solar power in North Carolina, a trend that will likely continue during the five years HB 589 mandates are in place.
- Customers want solar power options. In the first two years of the program, all residential rebates were snapped up in a matter of days, even though most customers won’t “break even” on their power bills for an average of 7.5 years.
In 2018, Governor Cooper (who had already brought North Carolina into the US Climate Alliance) signed Executive Order 80: North Carolina’s Commitment to Address Climate Change and Transition to a Clean Energy Economy. By 2025, NC aims to reduce statewide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 40 percent below 2005 levels.
A recent assessment of state GHG emissions shows a drop of nearly 24 percent between 2005 and 2017, even though North Carolina’s population and gross state product (GSP) increased by 18 percent. Our state is rapidly shifting away from coal and towards natural gas for electricity. Solar power increases (now about 5 percent of electricity generation), increases in vehicle efficiency, and higher environmental standards for coal-fired plants.
Citizens are learning more about climate change, and increasingly expect elected officials to take action. A 2018 poll showed that a majority of North Carolinians (68 percent of Republicans, 94 percent of Democrats) believe it is “very likely”or “somewhat likely” that global warming will negatively impact our state.
What Still Needs to be Done
So if costs are dropping fast, and customers want renewable power, why isn’t North Carolina moving ahead more quickly? It comes down to economics. Utilities, like Duke Power and its subsidiary Progress Energy, are privately-held monopolies charged both with providing reliable, cost-effective power, and returning a profit to their shareholders. Renewables have become a cost-effective option, but Duke stills owns a bunch of fossil fuel and nuclear power plants that drag down their cost structure. They will continue to use their influence in the NCGA to block new, alternative, or cheaper power suppliers because they need to keep their own customers. They will also try (and often succeed) to influence the NC Utility Commission to pass costs for new plants, storm damage, waste disposal, etc. through to customers, thereby maintaining strong profits for shareholders.
Some positive bills supporting EO 80 (HB 329, HB 330, HB 513) are moving through the state legislature this month, advanced by both Republicans and Democrats. This is a huge step forward for our NCGA. But “climate deniers” in the legislature will continue to play ball for Duke, and remain resistant to real progress on renewable energy and climate change mitigation. They persistently misrepresent the true costs and benefits of renewable power, even though federal agencies estimate climate change costs at $430 billion since 2005, and calculate a doubling of extreme weather events that have cost more than $1 billion since the 1980s.
Wind power is still particularly uncertain for North Carolina. The NCGA has repeatedly blocked wind power development, siding with coastal developers and fossil fuel interests. Senator Harry Brown (R-Onslow), who authored the recently-expired wind moratorium, again introduced legislation that would severely limit wind power along our coast. He claims that that turbines impact military facilities, but military leadership itself disagrees. A more telling reason for Brown’s actions might be the large campaign contributions he accepts from the fossil fuel industry.
Wind power companies, along with and their jobs and tax revenue, are locating elsewhere. Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas and California are building wind plants at rapid clip, provided cheap, clean power to millions of homes.
The “wood pellet” industry continues to ramp up in North Carolina, driven by exports to European countries that count American wood (known as biomass) as “renewable” energy. The carbon accounting can get a little tricky, but the upshot is that large-scale deforestation in our state removes a critical carbon sink, and burning wood adds to atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Enviva Corporation (the world’s largest wood pellet manufacturer) operates four plants in or on the borders of North Carolina, including the Ahoskie plant pictured below. In addition to voicing climate concerns, environmental groups in our state have challenged the plants’ air permits, citing inaccurate data in the permitting process, and a much higher than expected release of air contaminants. Global demand for wood pellets stood at 16 million metric tons in 2010, but is expected to exceed 38 million metric tons by 2025.
What You Can Do
- Let your representatives know that you oppose SB 377. Senator Harry Brown named this the “Military Base Protection Act” but it is a permanent ban on wind power in our state.
- Let your representatives know that you support bills related to Governor Cooper’s EO 80. These bills support renewables and seek to reduce GHG emissions in our state.
- Go full “policy wonk” and track introduced and pending bills in North Carolina via the NCGA site, LegisScan, or the UNC School of Government. A great way to observe the legislative process up close, and to track what your representative is doing on the daily.