Politics & Government

New North Carolina energy plan cuts greenhouse gases from electricity 70% by 2030

Gov. Roy Cooper accepted plans for cutting emissions of climate-warming gases Friday while critics who want the state to do more looked on and disrupted some of the pageantry.

The state’s clean energy plan calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from electric power production to 70% below 2005 levels by 2030 and getting to carbon neutrality — removing as much carbon as is emitted — by 2050.

“Our children and our grandchildren are depending on us to turn the tide of climate change,” Cooper said.

Adopting the changes will lead to economic prosperity as the state further embraces clean energy and the good-paying jobs the sector creates, Cooper said.

Greenhouse gas emissions are already down about 34% since 2005, the report said, thanks to the 2002 Clean Smokestacks Act, which cut pollution from coal-fired plants, and a law requiring utilities to get some of their power from renewable sources.

Much of the plan involves making more plans to change the way utilities are regulated and the way rates are set.

The plan proposes speeding the retirement of coal-powered plants and expanding use of renewable energy by public utilities, communities and individuals. The plan, produced by the state Department of Environmental Quality, included dozens of recommendations.

The state Department of Transportation created a separate plan to significantly increase the number of electronic vehicles registered in the state to 80,000 by 2025, up from about 6,000 last fall, The News & Observer has reported.

Electricity accounted for about 35% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 and transportation accounted for about 32.5%, according to the state.

United Nations climate report

Cooper accepted the plans a few days after the United Nations released a report saying climate change is making oceans hotter and more acidic, The New York Times reported.

Cooper in 2017 had North Carolina join the U.S. Climate Alliance, governors from 25 states working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote clean energy.

DEQ Secretary Michael Regan called climate change “the biggest challenge of our generation.” North Carolina is living on the front lines, he said, confronting intense storms, sea level rise and flooding.

About a dozen protesters briefly disrupted the state Climate Change Interagency Council meeting where Cooper accepted the plans Friday morning. “Stop climate hypocrisy,” a few shouted. They filed out of the room singing about clean energy.

The council and the directive to develop the plans were part of Cooper’s Executive Order 80, which he signed last October.

“Unless you quit running from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Executive Order 80 is just a joke,” Tom Clark of Cumberland County said during the public comment period and after Cooper had left the meeting.

Speakers rebuked state officials during the public comments for awarding a key permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline partly owned by Duke Energy, that would run from West Virginia to North Carolina. Natural gas is mostly methane, a greenhouse gas that is better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, but which does not last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Atlantic Coast Pipeline opponents say the gas released from fracking and leaking from pipes will contribute to global warming.

Critics also want a moratorium on expansion of wood-pellet factories run by the company Enviva, which has four plants in North Carolina. The pellets are shipped to Europe for use in modified coal-burning power plants.

“To be a real climate leader, Gov. Cooper and North Carolina need to stop the Atlantic Coast Pipeline” and put a moratorium on the wood-pellet industry, Karen Bearden, the Triangle coordinator for the environmental group 350, said in an interview.

“They’re not acting like we’re in an emergency,” she said. “They just don’t have that sense of urgency.”

Praise from the Sierra Club

The plan drew praise from other environmental groups.

“We think it’s a much-needed, long overdue platform for modernizing our energy programs to reflect what the public wants,” said Molly Diggins, the Sierra Club’s state director.

A national poll last year by the Yale Program on Climate Communication found that 85 percent of registered voters supported requiring utilities in their state to produce all of their electricity from “clean, renewable sources” by 2050.

Portions of the North Carolina plan would require legislative action. One of the suggestions is to update the current law requiring utilities to use renewable energy, by adding targets for 2030 and 2050. North Carolina is the only state in the region with a renewable energy portfolio standard, the report said, but its policy is “one of the least aggressive in the country.”

Another recommendation calls for revisions to state law that would make it easier for residential customers and business customers to choose renewable energy.

Rep. John Szoka, a Fayetteville Republican who is a chairman of the House Energy and Public Utilities Committee, said in an interview Friday that he liked the idea of looking at changes to the way utility rates are set.

Rewarding utilities for building things when demand is flat or declining “is not the model that’s going to take us into the future,” he said.

Some of the plan recommendations are “aspirational goals” that Szoka said should not be written into law. “I’m not in favor of anything that’s going to place more taxes on ratepayers,” he said. “I believe in the free market.”

DEQ received hundreds of comments on the draft plan it released last month.

Duke Energy submitted a detailed, 28-page comment on the proposal. The company said it is already working on some of the clean energy plan recommendations on electrical grid improvements, in preparation for a time when more customers are getting electricity from sources close to their homes.

Nuclear energy plays a critical role in providing clean energy, the company wrote, calling nuclear plants “the cornerstone of any effort to further decarbonize the electricity sector.”

Duke Energy announced this month that it wants 20-year license renewals for its nuclear plants in North Carolina and South Carolina, the Charlotte Observer reported.

Natural gas is critical to cutting carbon emissions, the company wrote, as power producers transition from coal-fired plants.

“To ensure North Carolina can reliably meet customer demand for electricity, there must be a complementary power source that can ramp up and down in response to demand and renewables’ variability, regardless of the weather,” the company wrote.