The last time the Earth experienced a July this hot was well, we don’t know for sure. Such extremes occurred long before humans began keeping records.
Two-thousand nineteen will go down as the year of climatic rage: of heat, of floods, of drought, of carbon dioxide, whose atmospheric levels are the highest in three million years. Temperatures at Raleigh-Durham International Airport smashed a total of 10 record highs in February, April, and May, and grazed another in July, prompting the weary and the sweaty to beg of the summer: When will it arrive, The Last Hot Day?
The temperature was a tolerable 88 degrees on Aug. 16, when the NC Department of Environmental Quality released its draft Clean Energy Plan. The document is among the requirements of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 80, which details the state’s commitment to addressing climate change and moving toward a clean energy economy.
Among the Clean Energy Plan’s many goals is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electric power sector by 60 to 70 percent over the next decade, based on 2005 levels. North Carolina is about halfway to that goal, prodded by its Renewable Portfolio Standard, the market shift away from coal, and the decreasing cost of clean energy and battery storage.
“We think the clean energy goals are achievable,” Peter Ledford, general counsel for the NC Sustainable Energy Association, said. “We would like to see more market competition.”
“Solar, wind, batteries: They used to be an environmental argument and now they’re an economic argument,” said Richard Harkrader, founder of Carolina Solar Energy, based in Durham. “But we have these 100-year-old businesses [the major utilities] holding them back.”
Over several months, hundreds of people and groups, including Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, provided input as the draft was crafted. And within those 137 pages is evidence that the energy industry is undergoing enormous upheaval and uncertainty, a disruption familiar to retail, transportation, hospitality and media sectors.
Demand for electricity is flat. In North Carolina, electricity sales fell 2.7 percent from 2016-17, despite the state’s growth. In the Southeast, the plan says, all coal plants are “substantially at risk of replacement” by solar by 2025. Natural gas pipelines, which leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas, are meeting strong opposition, not only from the public but also the courts.
The North Carolina model of one or two utilities building enormous centralized power plants and selling cheap electricity is outdated. Ratepayers now want more choice and control over their energy sources, and are especially clamoring for solar power. They want equal and affordable access to clean energy, particularly low-income households and renters. They want a modern, smart electrical grid that can withstand the severe storms common during our climate crisis, the plan says.
But the plan acknowledges that achieving many of these goals is under the purview of the legislature and the Utilities Commission.
House Bill 589, hard-fought energy legislation passed nearly two years ago, merits revisiting, the plan says. Many parts of it have yet to be implemented, said Autumn Proudlove, senior manager of policy research at the NC Clean Energy Technology Center. Duke Energy just this week launched the Green Source Advantage, which allows large industrial, military and institutional customers to select and negotiate prices with a renewable supplier of their choice. Applications are due Oct. 1.
The solar rebate program, though was so popular that it sold out within a matter of days. “It worked too well,” Ledford said. “There’s a pent-up demand for rooftop solar.”
“That rebate program needs to be revisited so more customers can take advantage of it,” Proudlove added.
The plan also points out that there are many solar projects waiting to connect to Duke Energy’s grid – known as “queueing.” But there have been major delays in Duke allowing those systems online. Harkrader said 160 previous projects already had engineering studies completed, but they haven’t been able to connect, either. “This is a real burden on developers. They have land leases. They have zoning permits expiring.”
Lawmakers enacted the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (REPS) in 2007, which requires investor-owned utilities to sell 12.5 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. When it was adopted, Ledford said, “we were a leader. It was a new concept. Now states and municipalities are setting clean energy goals that far outstrip North Carolina’s requirements.”
The plan recommends increasing the REPS requirements or implementing another policy that would achieve the same objectives. A “Clean Peak Standard” for example, requires utilities to draw a portion of their energy from batteries during times of high demand. Such a requirement stimulates advancement and and innovation in battery storage. (It also addresses concerns that when the sun isn’t shining there’s no solar power.)
As for the Utilities Commission, it has not considered consumer preference for energy sources, Harkrader said. “The customers have no choice. There’s a gap between what customers want and what Duke wants to provide. At the base of it is the utility model – they get a monopoly as a trade-off for affordability.”
Equity and access to clean energy is a central part of the Clean Energy Plan. Low-income households and renters, for example, don’t have the money or the option to install rooftop solar. Allowing them a cheaper way to buy into community solar systems could satisfy their desire to participate in a clean energy economy. Reducing the “fixed charge” – the amount assessed each month for basic service – could also ease the financial onus on cash-strapped households.
“Equity is a consistent challenge,” said Daniel Parkhurst, policy director for Clean Air Carolina. “We know climate change is affecting us directly. The biggest social determinant of health is climate change. We need a clean energy plan for our families and children.”
After 100 years, we know now the true costs of cheap power from fossil fuels: climate change and its attendant natural, economic and social disasters. The type of disasters that compel us to ask: When will it arrive, if ever, the Last Hot Day?