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Consumers, businesses and lawmakers are calling for more renewable and cleaner power. North Carolina’s energy industry is answering with innovative generation, distribution,
workforce training and technology.
Duke Energy, which serves 4 million electric customers in the Carolinas, is changing how it does business. Along with other energy providers, it’s turning to renewable and cleaner burning generation such as solar, wind, nuclear and natural gas. “We’ve already made incredible progress, retiring two-thirds of the coal plants in the Carolinas and reducing emissions by more than 40% since 2005,” Duke Energy said in a recent news release. It’s a step in the right direction for the Charlotte-based utility.
North Carolina, which is home to the nation’s third-most solar capacity among the 50 states, has set ambitious clean energy goals, which were outlined in a landmark bill that Gov. Cooper signed in October. It calls for cutting power plant greenhouse gas emissions 70% from 2005 levels by 2030 and becoming carbon neutral by 2050. N.C. Utilities Commission has been tasked with creating a plan to make it happen.
When it comes to reducing carbon emissions and protecting the environment, North Carolina power providers, educators, businesses and residents are energized. From households to multinational corporations, each has individual energy needs and clean energy goals. Utilities will play a large role in meeting them, and they’ll need innovative generation, workforce, technology and approaches to make it happen. Duke Energy, for example, offers its largest customers — military installations, University of North Carolina system and large nonresidential customers — the Green Source Advantage Program. It empowers them to select a renewable energy supplier and negotiate all price terms, including the purchase of renewable energy certificates. They connect energy use to clean generation sources.
Richmond, Virginia-based Dominion Energy operates in 20 states. “As we’re working to deliver renewable energy, like solar and wind power, for our electric customers, we are doing the same for our over 600,000 North Carolina natural gas customers with clean energy sources like hydrogen and renewable natural gas,” says spokeswoman Persida Montanez. Dominion is investing in natural gas projects in eastern North Carolina and an emission-reducing program that captures and recycles methane, a greenhouse gas. “We also own or purchase output from nearly 1,000 megawatts of solar energy in North Carolina, enough to serve 275,000 homes at peak solar output,” she says.
Carbon-reduction goals can be met by cutting energy consumption, too. Dominion, like other utilities, encourages its customers to reduce theirs by offering incentives, such as rebates on energy-efficient appliances, detailed energy-use reports and home weatherization programs. “A proposed GreenTherm program would allow customers to voluntarily support renewable natural-gas projects and offset their carbon footprint,” Montanez says.
ElectriCities of North Carolina’s members — almost 90 municipalities, mostly in North Carolina, with their own electric utility — take a similar tact with their almost 1.3 million customers, who also want more say in their energy supply. Andy Fusco, ElectriCities’ vice president of member services and corporate planning, says utilities are offering more options than ever before. “We know that every customer is different and has different preferences and needs,” he says. “Being locally operated, public power providers are well positioned to address the unique needs of their individual customer segments, including more personalized communication and programming.”
Customers’ clean energy wants are met in other ways. Fusco says the trend toward smaller distributed generation from large central generation is one example. “This trend is consistent with the technology that continues to evolve,” he says. “Most of this type of generation will be renewable — primarily solar — often combined with batteries.”
When Hurricane Dorian’s surge put Ocracoke under 6 feet of water in 2019, the remote island’s power supply went down. But its residents weren’t out for long. A microgrid
installed by Tideland Electric Membership Corp. and North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives two years earlier restored power four days later.
Microgrid technology is one way that electric cooperatives are improving life in North Carolina, from its sandy beaches to rolling mountains. Twenty-six electric cooperatives are bringing energy innovation to 2.5 million customers in 93 of the state’s 100 counties. North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives Chief Operating Officer Amadou Fall says many of their efforts are geared toward meeting ambitious carbon reduction goals. “Our Brighter Future plan allows us to chart a thoughtful and concerted path forward as a cooperative network leading at the forefront of the changing energy landscape in North Carolina and across the nation,” he says.
North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives is responding to growing energy demand while keeping environmental goals at the forefront. Innovation is key to making that happen. As a distribution operator, it helps its members gain visibility across the system by facilitating actions that improve transmission coordination and optimize resources for enhanced grid resilience as well as reliability and cost-savings. “We’ve been preparing for years for this energy evolution and are taking steps now that position us strongly for the future,” Fall says. “We’re relying on continued innovation in the years to come.”
Today’s energy distribution technology needs to move power generated from a variety of sources. North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives’ members distribute electricity generated with natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal, and nuclear, which is free of emissions. The latter currently makes up more than half of their generation portfolio. “We are also bringing more renewable energy sources online while investing in new grid technology, such as battery storage, to make renewables more versatile and reliable,”
Energy storage — batteries — are part of 10 substation projects across the state. Fall says storage adds reliability and efficiency, especially during times of peak demand and when handling intermittent generation sources such as solar. It also lowers consumer costs. Storage is already paired with solar at 14 sites, part of the Brighter Future initiative. “Our investments in these sites allow us to deliver the most reliable and affordable power possible and allow for the expanded integration of solar energy as we work to achieve a lower carbon future for our state,” he says.
Energy storage is a main component of most microgrids. It has shown its value at North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives’ microgrids in eastern North Carolina. In addition to the Ocracoke microgrid, it has four more across Hyde, Brunswick, Harnett and Franklin counties. “Our microgrids are all different in terms of what they are trying to do, and they allow us to study their different applications,” Fall says.
North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives microgrid in Hyde County, for example, is under construction. It will generate its own electricity when outside sources aren’t unavailable, supplying it to egg producer Rose Acre Farms and the surrounding community. It uses solar panels, energy storage and other components owned by North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives and resources owned by the farm.
Energy storage is expected to play a large-scale role, too. Duke Energy’s biggest North Carolina battery project went online in Asheville last year. It plans to build 300 megawatts of energy storage across its regulated businesses in the Carolinas over the next decade. The utility, which is evaluating offshore wind and other next-generation clean-energy technologies, says its solar operations will grow in step with energy storage, which keeps the grid energized when renewable generation slows or stops — under overcast skies, in calm winds or at night.
Electric vehicles are driving the move to clean energy. More charging stations are being installed nationwide, enabling EVs to be used on longer trips. The Environmental Protection Agency reports the median range for 2020 model EVs was about 250 miles. North Carolina lawmakers passed a bill in July 2020 that appropriates $30.6 million from the Volkswagen Litigation Environmental Mitigation Fund to the state Department of Environmental Quality for several initiatives, including replacing diesel buses and vehicles and upgrading zero-emissions vehicle infrastructure such as fast-charging stations. Several ElectriCities municipalities, for example, received DEQ funding to install charging stations in their communities in March 2021.
North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives are bringing power to electric vehicles through more than 75 recharging stations statewide that are used by commuters and tourists, some from as far away as Texas and Colorado. “We’ve grown our charging station network to the point where we have more than 20 fast chargers that can fully charge a vehicle in 20 minutes or less, and more than 50 Level 2 chargers that support drivers who have more time to dine or shop [while their vehicle recharges], which also helps economic development,” Fall says.
Duke Energy has developed a $25 million pilot program that deploys public electric vehicle charging stations across North Carolina and funds infrastructure for up to 30 electric buses for public schools. The utility also has filed a $56 million proposal that will lead to more than 1,000 charging port installations in the state.
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The hundreds of solar panels neatly arranged on northeastern North Carolina farmland have always amazed Zaniya Battle, a Halifax County Early College senior. But she never thought about the electricity they generate until last summer, when she learned to build and maintain them at Halifax Lighthouse Solar Camp. “Never did it cross my mind that I would actually be getting certifications to work in that field,” she says in a video produced
by North Carolina Business Committee for Education, a nonprofit that operates from the Office of the Governor.
Battle was one of 20 Halifax County Schools juniors and seniors who scored well enough on a standardized assessment tool to earn an invite to the pre-apprenticeship program. It was developed by the North Carolina Business Committee for Education, North Carolina Energy Office, N.C. A&T State University, N.C. Community College System, Halifax County Schools, Halifax Community College and Center for Energy Education in Roanoke Rapids. “We partnered together to see how a program like this would work and to create a model for other school systems,” says Rhonda High, Halifax Community College’s customized training director. “The program was called Lighthouse Solar Energy Camp, because the lighthouse logo is that of Halifax County Schools.”
North Carolina Business Committee for Education Executive Director Caroline Sullivan says the program was born from a U.S. Department of Energy grant earmarked for building the state’s clean-energy workforce. “The state Energy Office was working with N.C. A&T University on a program focusing on energy efficiency in Guilford County and approached NCBCE to partner with them,” she says. “The NCBCE suggested running a second pilot in solar energy in rural North Carolina.”
The program launched in rural Halifax County for a couple reasons. It’s home to numerous solar farms. It also is a Tier 1 County, one of the state’s 40 most economically distressed. The annual scoring system, which includes 40 Tier 2 and 20 Tier 3 counties, helps direct economic development support, such as workforce development programs, to where it’s needed most. Halifax’s median household income was $35,502 in 2019, and its poverty rate was 23.9%, according to the U.S. Census. “For this to be a Tier 1 county, where we normally don’t have these kinds of opportunities, it was wonderful for these students to be able to learn something exciting and fresh and to be compensated,” High says. “This did not only pour blessings onto the students, but it was pouring blessings onto their families and generating income in our community.”
Students were paid $15 hourly and received lunch daily. Transportation, personal equipment and work clothes were provided. And each earned certificates for career readiness and pre-apprenticeship as a solar technician upon completion of the program. Its success has ignited an expansion. High says Roanoke Rapids, Weldon City and other districts in 10 counties will take part this summer. The goal is to take it statewide. “Today, this program is called the North Carolina Clean Energy Youth Apprenticeship Program, and it is the first of its kind in the country,” she says.
High wrote the program’s curriculum, which has 96 hours of course work. “The education component included soft skills, OSHA training, Lean Six Sigma Yellow Belt Training and fundamentals of solar energy,” she says. The curriculum also includes 80 hours of hands-on training at Center for Energy Education. Participants used its equipment and space to build a working solar panel, an accomplishment that floored Battle. “I was amazed and was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I just put together a solar panel, and it operates a building,’” she says.
Battle wasn’t the only student who recognized the possibilities provided by the program. “We had several students who have said their eyes have been opened by a new career path they never would have known about otherwise,” High says. That path continues for some through apprenticeship programs with solar project developer Strata Clean Energy, Roanoke Electric Cooperative and Enviva, which produces biomass that’s used to generate heat and electricity.
Halifax Lighthouse Solar Camp was structured to prepare participants for an apprenticeship. “When NCBCE reached out to us early last year to see if we had an interest in becoming the first registered apprenticeship in solar in the country it piqued our interest, because if there is one thing we all need right now, it’s a skilled workforce,” says Ashly Johnson, Strata’s director of community outreach. “When we took a visit to see the students in the Lighthouse Solar Camp, it was an easy decision, because they were so excited and passionate about solar. And many of them would have never even considered a field in this industry had it not been for that program.”
Strata plans to recruit two apprentices from the program. They’ll work in its operations and maintenance division in Halifax County, earning $15 an hour to start. Johnson says their pay will increase as they gain experience. “They will be tasked with learning our safety protocols and all aspects of the technical maintenance of a power plant,” she says.
Johnson hopes Strata’s apprenticeship program expands to other parts of the company, including its corporate office. “We would like to work with more community colleges to offer paired instruction and would love to ultimately see others in our industry join in to become registered apprenticeships, too,” she says.
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Since their humble beginnings, North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives members have helped drive economic development. That commitment hasn’t waned. They are prepared to capitalize on opportunities that create good jobs and capital investment in the communities that they serve. Industrial parks, for example, are inviting corporate America to rural North Carolina, bringing economic growth and population gains to regions that previously had been largely agricultural and sparsely populated.
With support from North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives, its members are joining with economic developers to ready industrial sites for development through utility rate incentives, community development projects and recruitment services. “We are seeing a trend where industries are asking our economic developers if they offer a supply of clean energy, and we are responding to their requests to handle their load,” Fall says. “These requests are coming frequently now.”
Many companies that relocate or expand in North Carolina have factories, distributions centers, data centers and other operations that require plenty of power. Duke Energy, Dominion Energy and ElectriCities are working with economic developers to ensure that those needs are meet — many times by clean-energy sources — before they arrive, and in the process, making the state more attractive to other businesses. “Economic development partnership is a significant reason why municipalities choose to be part of the public power family and have the ability to directly address the energy needs of future customers,” ElectriCities’ Fusco says. “We’re seeing great success in attracting new industries to the state, and this is not only resulting in beneficial electrification, but it is providing a positive boost to economic activity in our communities.” ■