A vehicle to fight climate change
A 2018 executive order from Gov. Roy Cooper was North Carolina’s most ambitious approach to fight climate change in more than a decade. The plan forecast a future that is likely to be powered by renewable energy and driven by electric vehicles. But is the state meeting those goals? Are consumers and car dealers embracing zero-emission transportation? And can lawmakers cross the political divide to enact additional guidance for the state’s future?
When Gov. Roy Cooper signed Executive Order 80 in front of a Cary solar farm in October 2018, it marked the most ambitious approach North Carolina had taken toward climate change in more than a decade.
The sprawling executive order called upon every cabinet agency to take actions to address climate change, including assessing risk and beginning to integrate electric vehicles into state fleets.
While much progress has been made in the three years since Cooper signed that order, many of the goals are yet to be fully attained. But North Carolina has moved toward a future that is likely to be powered by renewable energy and driven by electric vehicles.
Some gains have been small, such as electric vehicle charging stations built at state facilities. Others have represented larger steps, like comprehensive energy legislation passed last year that was shaped by processes started under Executive Order 80.
“Progress takes work and it doesn’t happen all at once,” Cooper told The News & Observer, “but we have been clear-eyed about consistently moving forward and building a coalition and momentum that will combat climate change and make North Carolina a leader not only in the Southeast but in the country in a clean energy economy.”
Here are the goals and some of the tasks Cooper laid out in Executive Order 80, and the progress made on them so far:
Goal: Reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 2005 levels by 2025.
Under present policies and actions, North Carolina will miss this target. Earlier this year, North Carolina released a report showing where the state’s greenhouse gas emissions are coming from and how much is being generated. Scientists have directly linked greenhouse gasses with a warming climate.
The North Carolina report found that between 2005 and 2018, the state reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 23%.
It also found that even with emission reductions from the power sector required under a state law that passed last year, the state will reach a 39% reduction by 2030 — five years late and a bit short.
The state report also notes that North Carolina is “on track for continued reductions.”
Goal: Increase the number of registered, zero-emission vehicles to at least 80,000 by 2025
North Carolina had 38,064 zero-emissions vehicles registered as of Jan. 31, according to the N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles.
With additional electric vehicle options available to consumers, though, the Department of Transportation expects North Carolina to meet the 80,000-vehicle goal.
In Executive Order 246, signed in January, Cooper also set a renewed goal of 1.25 million electric vehicles registered by 2030 and called on the N.C. Department of Transportation to work with other cabinet agencies to create a Clean Transportation Plan.
“The idea of (Executive Order 246) is to increase the number of EVs, bring the price down, make sure that we have the charging infrastructure,” Cooper said.
Goal: Reduce energy consumption per square foot in state-owned buildings at least 40% from 2002-03 levels.
North Carolina has reduced its energy consumption per square foot 31% from 2002-03 levels, according to an annual report released by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s Utility Savings Initiative.
“This is within the range of achieving the EO80 goal by 2025; however, all sectors have more improvements to make,” the report said.
The University of North Carolina system spent $204 million on energy bills between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, while North Carolina’s cabinet agencies spent $90 million.
But efforts to curb energy usage saved the UNC system $138 million and cabinet agencies $23 million, according to the DEQ report. In total, the state avoided using the equivalent of 925,456 metric tons of carbon dioxide in fiscal year 2020.
The report suggests making the Executive Order 80 energy savings directive state law, which could help reinforce its importance and lead to more funding.
Dionne Delli-Gatti, North Carolina’s clean energy director, told The News & Observer that meeting the building energy consumption target is “a priority.”
“We are looking at the state’s internal fleet of buildings, as well as what are the opportunities from the Building Code Council: Are there incentives?” Delli-Gatti said.
Task: N.C. Department of Environmental Quality to create a Clean Energy Plan that would encourage the use of clean energy resources.
DEQ completed the Clean Energy Plan after undertaking a broad stakeholder process between February 2019 and July 2019.
The Clean Energy Plan led to a pair of follow-up reports. One, completed in December 2020, looked at how utility regulation needs to change to transition away from fossil fuels. The other, completed in March 2021, explored policies North Carolina could enact to reduce carbon emissions in an affordable way.
“It wasn’t all pretty, but all of it built up to where we are today and hopefully where we’re continuing to go,” Delli-Gatti said.
Many of the ideas included in those reports can be found in House Bill 951, the comprehensive energy legislation passed last year.
Most prominently, the Clean Energy Plan set targets of a 70% reduction of carbon emissions from North Carolina’s power sector by 2030, with the state’s utilities reaching net zero by 2050. With the passage of House Bill 951, that target is now state law.
The recommendations also included allowing Duke Energy to ask the Utilities Commission to set rates over as many as three years at a time and to gain revenue for meeting performance incentives, a process that allows the utility to profit off of something other than building new power plants.
Rep. John Szoka, a Fayetteville Republican who participated in the Clean Energy Plan and helped write House Bill 951, said the shift in rate structure is the most important, and often overlooked, part of the legislation.
House Bill 951 lets Duke ask the Utilities Commission to set goals for tasks like reducing electricity at times when energy use is the highest; encouraging utility-scale renewable energy generation and storage; encouraging carbon reductions; or reducing energy burdens on low-income customers. If the utility meets those goals, it can gain as much as 1% in additional revenue.
“Now there’s not a pressure to build stuff just to get a return to satisfy stockholders,” Szoka said. “Now you can get compensated in other ways that really tend toward energy conservation. It’s a completely different way of thinking about it. It’s a North Carolina solution.”
Task: DEQ, working with other cabinet agencies, to create a North Carolina Climate Risk Assessment and Resiliency Plan.
As part of the risk assessment, North Carolina climate scientists published the North Carolina Climate Science Report in March 2020.
The report links an increase in temperatures to human emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, making it “very likely” that the state will see more changes in its climate by the end of this century than ever before. That includes hotter temperatures in all seasons, warmer nights, and increases in the intensity and frequency of heavy rainfalls, among many other impacts.
The climate science report was incorporated into the June 2020 Risk and Resiliency Plan. That plan said North Carolina should prepare for climate impacts by coordinating statewide resilience efforts through the N.C. Office of Recovery and Resiliency, requiring state agencies to create their own strategies to prepare for climate change, and integrating long-term climate planning into the State Hazard Mitigation Plan beginning in 2023.
Task: Cabinet agencies to purchase or lease zero-emissions vehicles wherever possible.
Some agencies have started to integrate electric vehicles into their fleets.
The Department of Public Safety, for instance, has replaced 300 cars with hybrid Toyota Camrys, a step it says has cut the emissions from those vehicles by more than half. The department hopes to transition 250 more vehicles to zero-emission replacements by 2025.
At the North Carolina Zoo, 20 new electric utility vehicles and golf carts are replacing some gas-powered vehicles, a step the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources calls “significant progress.”
In other instances, agencies have started to build charging stations at offices and headquarters across the state. DEQ, for instance, built eight chargers at its Morehead City offices.
This story was produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.