What a difference three years can make in the politics of climate change in North Carolina, a state that not long ago took a sharp lurch to the right.
After replacing a Republican who questioned whether climate change was caused by human activities, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has testified before Congress on North Carolina's sizable climate challenges and unveiled a draft clean energy plan designed to put the state on a path toward eliminating carbon emissions from the power sector by mid-century.
His effort to grapple with global warming faces the cold reality of needing support in North Carolina's Republican legislature, however. It's a significant challenge that has clean-energy advocates and state officials looking for work-arounds and short-term wins. This week, for example, state regulators put pressure on North Carolina's largest utility to weigh the governor's greenhouse gas reduction goals in its future energy plans.
The GOP won control of both chambers of the legislature in 2010, and Republican lawmakers in the state "have not shown any propensity to do anything on climate change," said Dan Crawford, director of governmental relations for the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters.
While small gains could be possible now, he said, what would be needed to achieve major clean energy policy amounts to changing who is in power in the North Carolina General Assembly.
State officials tried to lay the groundwork for bipartisan support by working with business interests, including Duke Energy, as they developed the plan, released in draft form this month by the state's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
Duke, the biggest utility in the state, applauded Cooper for his leadership, but declined to comment beyond a brief statement that touted its own clean-energy progress. The utility, which enjoys considerable influence in state government, operates more than 35 solar power facilities in North Carolina and says it has invested more than $1 billion in renewable energy in the state this decade.
Cooper's plan goes further than that, however, calling for transforming the electrical grid to save energy and make it more resilient; reducing the energy burdens of low-income residents; and cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by 60 to 70 below 2005 levels by 2030 while working toward zero emissions by 2050, among other steps.
Despite the hurdles it faces, the 137-page clean-energy plan marks progress in a region of the country that in past decades was more likely to be associated with burning coal but is increasingly welcoming renewable energy.
"The plan has all the elements it should have in it," said John Wilson, deputy director of regulatory policy for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which tracks and advocates clean energy policies in North Carolina and four other southern states. "It lays out the steps the state could take to move toward decarbonization, and who needs to take them and what needs to be done.
"It will be a formidable challenge to implement the plan, but this was the leadership that was needed."
Even if the legislature balks, there are still several elements in the draft plan that could be carried out by state agencies and utility regulators on their own.
There were signs this week that the North Carolina Utilities Commission, which regulates investor-owned utilities, may be listening to the governor.
Duke has had its own long-term plan before the commission for months and has emphasized how it would boost battery storage for solar power. But critics say Duke intends to rely too much on natural gas, another fossil fuel. The North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association says Duke's plan would barely expand clean energy beyond what was already mandated by the legislature.
The commission on Tuesday approved Duke's power plan, but it declined to rubber stamp it. Instead, it directed the company to more closely examine whether it could accelerate the closure of several remaining North Carolina coal plants and how it could help meet the governor's goals for greenhouse gas reductions in the state.
A Duke spokeswoman said the company was pleased with the commission approval and would provide the additional analysis "as we continue this transition to even cleaner sources of energy."
Back-to-Back Hurricanes and Extreme Weather
When Cooper testified before a congressional committee in February, he talked about the back-to-back Hurricanes Matthew and Florence that hit the state in 2016 and 2018, and how North Carolina residents were still struggling to recover when the remnants of Hurricane Michael came through just weeks after Florence.
Climate change "makes storms larger and more powerful and intensifies heavy rainfalls and droughts. North Carolinians, unfortunately, know this the hard way," he told the committee.
"In the Western North Carolina mountains, volatile weather has caused mudslides, damaged infrastructure, cost apple growers valuable crops and forced ski areas to close mid-season, hurting local businesses and putting jobs in jeopardy," Cooper told the lawmakers. "In Central North Carolina, soaring summer temperatures have killed poultry and crops, costing farmers critical income."
He observed that two military bases in the state, Fort Bragg and Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point, have been listed as current and future risk for wildfires and recurrent flooding, respectively, by the U.S. Department of Defense.
In the wake of Florence and Michael, Cooper last October issued an executive order seeking to mitigate and adapt to climate change. State agencies were told to evaluate climate change effects into their programs and operations and to develop a state clean energy plan. The final plan is due by Oct. 1.
A Plan with Dozens of Recommendations
The draft of that clean energy plan, which is now open for public comments, offers more than three dozen recommendations.
There are so many, with some still vaguely worded, that Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer Luis Martinez said he's worried. "If you don't prioritize carefully, it will be hard to run in all directions at the same time. The governor and the state agencies will have to be careful how they start."
Some of those recommendations seek to boost the use of electric vehicles. Others call for policies that encourage "micro-grids"—small-scale groupings of homes or businesses that can power themselves, often with solar panels and battery storage, offering protection from widespread blackouts.
State agencies acting on their own could establish a "green bank" to help finance energy efficiency projects, the draft says.
Other matters could be adopted by the utilities commission. For example, the plan says the commission could set rates to encourage customers to use electricity in off-hours to lower peak demand or require utilities to factor the costs of carbon pollution into decisions they make about the power they supply to the state.
The draft plan notes that some of the biggest potential gains will need approval from the legislature, such as deciding whether to cap greenhouse gas emissions and join a regional emissions trading program, or phasing out coal-burning power plants by 2030. A cap-and-trade proposal could especially be unpalatable to Republicans, even though such market-based programs were once supported by the GOP.
Just what can or cannot be done without the legislature remains an open discussion, said Gudrun Thompson, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in North Carolina.
"I absolutely applaud the Cooper administration for taking this action," she said. "We will be urging DEQ to keep this plan strong and kept moving forward."
The Challenge in the Legislature
North Carolina has had a track record of moderate politics on energy and the environment. Its renewable energy portfolio standard has helped the state become second in the nation for total solar capacity, and its Clean Smokestacks Act went beyond the federal Clean Air Act to curb power plant air pollution.
But those policies were approved before Republicans won control of both chambers of the legislature in 2010, and a supermajority in 2012, along with the election of Republican Pat McCrory, a former Duke Energy official, as governor. Republicans still control the North Carolina House and Senate, but by a slimmer margin.
The shift brought a stark upheaval to environmental politics in the state, said Crawford, of the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters. Since 2010, dozens of lawmakers have scored zeros on the group's annual scorecards, compared to just four the previous decade, he said.
Neither Senate President Phil Berger nor Majority Leader Harry Brown, who has been trying to ban wind power near military bases in North Carolina, responded to requests for comment on the governor's plan. A spokesman for the state Republican Party directed questions to Rep. John Szoka, who said he had not studied the report and could not comment on it.
"There are Republicans and Democrats on some issues related to renewable energy who are on the same page," said state Sen. Bob Steinburg, a Republican whose northeast North Carolina district has a major wind farm that serves Amazon and is supportive of renewable energy. "But I think we would have to sit down and talk about specifics."
He said he would be concerned about cost and reliability issues if North Carolina were to move too quickly away from fossil fuels, calling the plan's 2030 target of cutting power sector emissions by 60 percent to 70 percent "an ambitious goal."
The Cooper administration has found, however, that North Carolina is well on its way to meeting that goal—its power sector emissions are 34 percent less today than they were in 2005.
And cities like Charlotte, Raleigh and Asheville have established their own aggressive clean energy goals, the plan notes.
"There is a clear appetite in North Carolina for a future that embraces clean energy," said DEQ spokeswoman Sharon Martin.
Published Aug. 30, 2019