Sunday, June 16, 2024

Powering NC: The state shows steady progress in making the critical switch to alternative energy sources


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North Carolina’s progress toward renewable energy.  

orth Carolina is undergoing an energy-supply adjustment.

Bipartisan legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2021 says the N.C. Utilities Commission has until 2030 to reduce carbon pollution by 70% compared with 2005 levels. This means the edict for the commission — a seven-person agency created by the General Assembly to regulate rates and services of all investor-owned public utilities — would make the state carbon neutral by 2050.

In other words, North Carolina aims to ditch dependency on fossil fuels —coal, oil, gas — that, when burned to produce energy, emit harmful carbon dioxide.

Several pathways toward renewable energy — natural sources that constantly self-replenish such as sunlight, wind, water, even waves in the ocean — are being developed. Some already are in use.

“Just as we once had an IT revolution, we’re going to have a big ET [energy technology] revolution,” says John Morrison, president and CEO of E4Carolinas. The trade association aims to “cultivate a collaborative Carolina energy cluster to accelerate economic growth, efficient resources and care for our environment, resulting in increased employment, productivity and prosperity.”

“There’s a lot of strategic investment by large corporations and utilities like Duke Energy laying out goals and objectives. They’ve shuttered a lot of coal plants and have more that will be closed as they’re shifting their energy plans,” Morrison says.

Progress has already been made. For example, North Carolina now ranks fourth in the nation in total solar generation after California, Texas and Arizona. This sunny development comes from collaboration between an array of public and private players including corporations, co-operatives, individuals, governments and educational institutions.

“It’s a massive, massive transformation,” Morrison says.

The General Assembly’s legislation, he says, comes after advocates for renewable energy and fighting climate change helped convince state leaders to make serious adjustments.  

“There were other states with renewable portfolio standards. The process didn’t come out of the blue. There was a series of stakeholder meetings, with Duke and others at the table. It wasn’t just the advocates. It was stakeholders and utilities customers in the room, around the table, in a collaborative effort.” 

The switch to renewables involves equipment development, workforce training and other adjustments. One other example is charging stations for electric vehicles. The state’s electric cooperatives have placed 25 DC fast chargers and 65 level-2 chargers, providing 144 ports statewide for electrical vehicles.

North Carolina consumes about four times more energy than it produces.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration [EIA], the combination of residents, tourists, truckers who use gasoline and diesel fuel on heavily traveled N.C. highways and jet fuel usage at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport makes North Carolina’s transportation sector account for 30% of the state’s total energy consumption. The Charlotte airport plays a big role in this transportation impact since it’s the fifth-busiest airport in the world based on arrivals and departures.

Residential energy accounts for about one-fourth of statewide usage, followed by commercial and industrial energy.

“Most of the energy we use still comes from oil and natural gas, and we don’t have oil and natural gas resources, so we import those products,” Morrison says. “We do produce energy from nuclear sources and hydro sources, so the energy transition is that, as a state, we will be producing more energy ourselves, as opposed to bringing it in from elsewhere.”

To help with that, new technologies are at play. North Carolina is installing solar farms, mostly in rural areas. Plots of ocean have been mapped for wind turbines. Projects are being explored to utilize hydrogen. Technology is being developed to extract harmful pollutants from the air. And North Carolina A&T University, through a multimillion dollar grant, is creating a workforce to tackle each aspect of cleaner, renewable, climate-friendly energy use.

Last February, the U.S. Department of Energy [DOE] disclosed plans for $45 million in funding toward 12 projects “to advance point-source carbon capture and storage technologies that can capture at least 95% of carbon dioxide emissions generated from natural gas power and industrial facilities that produce commodities like cement and steel,” according to a press release. 

Charlotte-based Cormetech is one of the dozen projects selected by the DOE.  The company will develop, optimize and test a new, lower-cost technology to capture CO2 from the flue gas of natural gas combined-cycle plants.

Again, it’s one more component, of the many N.C. entities coming together to address climate change. 

N.C. Electric Cooperatives & ElectriCities

Solar panels on boardwalk on Currituck Sound
Solar panels along the boardwalk on Currituck Sound.

North Carolina Electric Cooperatives is made up of 26 not-for-profit co-ops that provide electricity to 2.5 million N.C. residents. The group is testing and evaluating new energy solutions and innovative technology to garner more sustainable energy. It’s reducing the costs of cultivating agriculture on farms and exploring electrification of more farm equipment. It also is increasing the use of microgrids — small electrical systems that combine local energy resources and technologies to power a defined area.

The co-ops’ microgrids are in place  on Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks; at Butler Farms in Lillington; at Heron’s Nest in Shallotte; and at Eagle Chase, a residential area being in Youngsville. 

“Microgrids can provide power to a defined area in the event that grid power is disrupted, and cooperatives are also utilizing them to enhance grid resilience in cooperative communities,” says Amadou Fall, senior vice president and COO of  N.C. Electric Cooperatives.

ElectriCities of North Carolina, Inc., is a not-for-profit membership organization that provides line workers, customer service representatives and other workers to serve local communities. The majority of members — 1.3 million N.C. customers — are part of either North Carolina Municipal Power Agency No. 1 [NCMPA1] or the North Carolina Eastern Municipal Power Agency [NCEMPA].

According to its website, the 19 cities in NCMPA1 are a mere 1% dependent on fossil fuels, with more than 97% getting their power from nuclear energy and 1.6 % from hydropower and other renewables. These cities include Albemarle, Bostic, Cherryville, Cornelius, Drexel, Gastonia, Granite Falls, High Point, Huntersville, Landis, Lexington, Lincolnton, Maiden, Monroe, Morganton, Newton, Pineville, Shelby and Statesville.  

NCEMPA locations have reduced carbon emissions by almost 50% since 2005, the agency says, with 49.9% of power coming from  nuclear energy and 1.9 % from hydropower and renewables. The remaining resource mix is natural gas,oil and coal.

Solar power

According to the EIA, solar energy became N.C.’s largest renewable source of electricity in 2017, passing hydroelectric sources. In 2020, solar accounted for 7% of the state’s total generation and 44% of its renewable electricity. 

“There is a tremendous economic benefit to a clean energy transition because we are building the equipment and the infrastructure here,” Morrison says. “A good example is the solar industry. Back in 2010, there was a large boom of construction in rural parts of North Carolina, particularly east of I-95. … That was the first wave of solar farms. Some were about 400 acres. And it resulted in a tremendous increase in the tax base, and resulted in income for the land owners, many of whom were farmers. … And jobs were created during construction of these. Thousands of individuals were hired. ”

Eastern North Carolina is a prime location for solar, he says, because of the topography, climate and land cost. 

“In June 2022, North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives announced the addition of 13 ‘solar + storage’ sites located in cooperative service territories that combine utility-scale solar with battery storage,” Fall says. “By coupling these technologies together, solar energy becomes a more flexible resource and allows for the stored solar energy to be used when it’s needed, efficiently supporting the grid and providing the greatest benefit to cooperative members.”


Hydroelectric power is the second-largest source of renewable electricity in the state, according to the EIA, accounting for 5% of the state’s total generation in 2020. Most of North Carolina’s approximately 40 utility-scale hydroelectric dams with about 2,000 megawatts of generating capacity are found in the mountainous area in the western two-thirds of the state.

Offshore wind

Establishing wind energy areas in the Atlantic Ocean is an intricate process. 

“The federal government, the Bureau of Energy Management has created a number of lease areas that they mark out using GPS, and they’ve identified the lease areas for the construction of wind,” Morrison says. “There’s a very extensive effort to say what the uses of these coastal areas are that we want to avoid when putting up structures. There’s naval use, shipping, fisheries, the areas where the Navy and Marines do a lot of training, and there are commercial traffic areas we need to stay clear of. So that’s why it’s not just anywhere along the coast. … It’s a big mapping exercise. They have to get information from the ports, commercial traffic and the fishing industry.”

A recent move in May means more wind energy is on the way. Duke Energy Renewables Wind, a subsidiary of Duke Energy, was awarded a $155 million wind-energy lease on 55,000 acres in the Atlantic Ocean about 20 miles off the coast of Bald Head Island and near the South Carolina line.

Motion of the ocean

Harnessing the immense waters of the Atlantic, turning the constant motion and pull of the tides into energy, is a concept for the future.

 “It’s a technology that’s been around, and there have been demonstrations, but it’s not anywhere close to commercialization at this point,” Morrison says. “It continues to be an area of research funded by the federal government, but it’s quite a ways out. One point is getting it to where it’s commercially competitive, to where it can generate electricity that’s competitive with other sources.”

The marine environment, he says, is a “tough place for equipment,” which would have to be designed to withstand extreme weather conditions. “We have offshore oil and offshore wind, but to have this piece of equipment that’s effectively extracting energy from waves and tides, that’s a tough engineering challenge.”

Workforce development

Gravitation toward using cleaner energy includes training personnel to work in newer energy sectors.

North Carolina A&T’s State University’s Center for Energy Research and Technology was awarded a $23.7 million grant in August. The money is part of the Good Jobs Challenge Program in the federal American Rescue Plan. It will fund a project called Steps4Growth. 

“We are in the initial stages of a four-year project. The purpose of the project is to establish a clean tech micro-credential and stacked credential certificates, internships, on-the-job training, work-based learning and apprenticeship programs in 16 community colleges across North Carolina,” says Robert Powell, consultant for the project and an N.C. A&T professor in civil, architectural and environmental engineering. “In the first year, we will establish relationships between businesses and community colleges to establish pilot certificates and on-the-job training programs. We expect 2,500 to 3,000 job placements into the clean energy sector in North Carolina in the four-year project and more than 1,500 job placements every year thereafter.”

In September, Powell and others conducted a discussion about partnering with 100 employers and heard their requirements concerning the skills needed  for a myriad of
clean energy jobs. 

N.C. A&T applied to the federal Good Jobs Challenge Program based on the statewide workforce development success of Balu Gokaraju, an associate professor in the department of computational data science and engineering. The school’s energy research center also had experience with the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. Together they piloted and launched programs in energy efficiency and solar energy apprenticeships. 

“This commitment is in line with Gov. Roy Cooper’s commitment to have North Carolina become a national leader in a clean energy economy,” Powell says. “We were selected in part due to the sectoral strategy partnership we have established among leaders, state agencies, community colleges, local industries, workforce boards and community leaders. The Department of Commerce also recognized the commitment of  40 employers in the application, the inclusion of distressed counties and the use of mobile training units to reach rural counties.”

Steps4Growth has mobile training units in 16 rural counties in four regions of the state. “In each region, four community colleges and/or other educational institutions will develop programs in a specific technology area,” Powell says. 

Programs and areas include the following community colleges:

  • Energy Efficiency – Guilford Tech, Alamance and Randolph 
  • Renewable Energy – Martin, Roanoke-Chowan, Carteret and Craven
  • Clean Vehicles – Halifax, Wilson, Nash and Edgecombe
  • Grid and Storage – Central Piedmont, Gaston and Palisades High School in Charlotte

“Instruction will focus on the job descriptions defined by the sponsoring businesses and mainly in the service technician skills space. For example, solar installation and maintenance, EV technician or charging stations,” Powell says. “A key aspect of the program is the Clean Energy Education Pyramid Model to be developed for each region. This model provides for a flexible set of courses and certifications based on the entering apprentice’s skills and the employer’s hiring requirements. We refer to these as flexible on-ramps and off-ramps in our pyramid model.”

Reduce CO2 emission concept showing sustainable development and green business based on renewable energy.

Other programs link energy jobs and colleges.

“Line workers provide a critical service in building and maintaining the power grid, and North Carolina’s electric cooperatives are dedicated to furthering workforce training and development for line workers,” says Chris Nault, public relations manager for the N.C. Electric Cooperatives.  “Since 1998, N.C. Electric Cooperatives have been partnering with Nash Community College, which operates the Lineman Training Academy. The program provides job and safety training for line workers entering the field and for those who are looking to advance their education.”

Nault cites an ongoing partnership with UNC Pembroke, in which the N.C. Electric Cooperatives group has committed $75,000 over three years “to create a dedicated cybersecurity computer lab and enhance computer science programming that will serve students for years to come and address the growing need for highly trained tech workers in rural North Carolina.”

“Electric cooperatives also provide significant support to our state’s K-12 students and teachers through the Bright Ideas Education Grant Program,” Nault says. “This program has provided more than $15 million in funding to teachers to bring more than 14,200 classroom projects to life since 1994. These grants and projects have benefited more than 3.5 million students across the state since the program’s inception. Educators in all 100 N.C. counties are eligible for Bright Ideas grants.”

What’s next?

“The cooperatives share a vision called Brighter Future,” says Falls. “This is our long-term roadmap for managing new and existing energy resources that support our efforts to deliver highly reliable and increasingly sustainable electricity at the lowest possible cost while also supporting the rural areas we serve through community and economic development.”

“Our Brighter Future sustainability target is net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Cooperatives utilize short- and long-term planning to assess future needs and implement solutions that best support communities.”

The state’s collaboration and innovation offer hope for the future.

“There is a sense of urgency in what we’re doing,” Morrison says. “The technologies are there. The evidence of climate change is increasing. And we need to bring about an energy transformation so we can reduce – we won’t eliminate – so we can reduce the consequences of climate change for the way all of humanity lives.”

— Kathy Blake is a writer from eastern North Carolina.



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