shows a coal plant with steam puffing from one of the smokestacks, a concern in the fight against climate change, air pollution
Duke Energy stores 6.9 million tons of coal ash at the Mayo Steam Station and 16.4 million tons at the nearby Roxboro Steam Station, pictured, which sits on the shores of the Hyco Reservoir. Photo courtesy Southern Environmental Law Center

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By Greg Barnes

It no longer takes a meteorologist to realize that North Carolina’s climate is getting hotter, wetter and more turbulent.

Although 2020 didn’t break any state climate records, it came close. The state saw its second-wettest year on record and tied for its third warmest, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information and N.C. State University. Combined, 2020 was the only time since records started being kept in 1895 that the state’s annual temperatures and precipitation ranked in the top five.

What’s even more alarming is that the state recorded its warmest 10-year span on record between 2009 and 2018 and that 2020 broke every North Carolina heat record.

The changing climate has brought more of almost everything. More intense hurricanes. More flooding. More coastal erosion. More sea level changes. More deaths from respiratory diseases. More natural disasters of almost every kind.

And this could be just the beginning. Under a worst-case scenario, climatologists say temperatures could rise globally by as much as 8 degrees by the end of the century unless measures are taken to significantly reduce the greenhouse gases trapped in the earth’s lower atmosphere. An increase of that magnitude would have devastating consequences.

A report released last year titled “North Carolina Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan,” says sea levels will continue to rise in the state and it is likely that summers will get even hotter, rainfall totals will increase, hurricane strengths will intensify, and severe droughts, inland flooding, wildfires and landslides will become more common.

Sea level rises can affect everything from how much bacteria is in coastal waters to critical infrastructures such as sewage treatment plants and roads.

In North Carolina, climate change is already resulting in warmer weather in every season, causing more respiratory problems and other health-related issues, less water in some areas and more stress on crops, according to the state resilience plan.

Fighting back

Only recently has North Carolina made a concerted effort to fight back.

In 2018, Gov. Roy Cooper signed Executive Order 80, which promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.

In 2019, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality released its Clean Energy Plan, which vows to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power generating plants by 70 percent from 2005 levels and to make the state carbon neutral by 2050.

And now comes a petition from two North Carolina environmental groups that asks the state to join a regional partnership to combat climate change by forcing electrical power plants to reduce heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions by the same amount specified in the DEQ’s Clean Energy Plan.

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) filed the petition with the N.C. Emergency Management Commission Jan. 11 on behalf of Clean Air Carolina and the North Carolina Coastal Federation.

“With climate change already harming North Carolina, and science telling us we are running out of time to reduce our heat-trapping gas emissions, now is the time to take action,” Gudrun Thompson, a senior attorney at the SELC, said in a statement announcing the petition.

“Whether we act now or delay determines our future as well as the legacy we leave our children and grandchildren,” Thompson said. “This petition outlines a cost-effective solution that is proven to work and ready to go to protect North Carolina’s economy, environment and people.”

If the Environmental Management Commission agrees, North Carolina would join at least 11 other states, from Maine to Virginia, in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, commonly known as RGGI.

What is RGGI?

The RGGI initiative was approved in 2005 and started fully operating in 2009, Thompson said. A 10-year review in 2019 by the Acadia Center, a nonprofit environmental group, found that:

  • Carbon dioxide emissions from RGGI power plants fell by 47 percent, outpacing the rest of the country by 90 percent.
  • Electricity prices in RGGI states fell by 5.7 percent, while prices increased in the rest of the country by 8.6 percent.
  • Gross domestic product of the RGGI states grew by 47 percent, outpacing growth in the rest of the country by 31 percent.

Thompson explained that the RGGI program puts an annual cap on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, a cap that diminishes over time.

“They have flexibility in terms of how to comply with the declining cap,” Thompson said. “They can retire coal-fired power plants or they can buy allowances that the state would make available for auction.”

Under RGGI, the power companies are required to buy allowances — or credits — for their share of the pollution. Some of that money is returned to the participating states, Thompson said. The states typically reinvest the bulk of the money into clean energy or energy-efficient projects.

North Carolina won’t have that luxury, Thompson said, because citizens — not the legislature — asked to join RGGI. That means most of the money earned at auction would go toward lowering customers’ electric bills, she said. Electric bills are projected to increase slightly before falling under RGGI.

Duke Energy studying carbon policies

Duke Energy is by far North Carolina’s biggest electric-power provider, and power companies are the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide. Duke Energy has its own plans to reduce greenhouse gases, vowing to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and to reach “net zero” carbon in its system by 2050.

To do that will require the company to speed up the process of closing coal-fueled power plants. Duke Energy has been replacing coal plants with natural gas plants, which emit 50 percent to 60 percent less carbon dioxide but come with other environmental consequences, such as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking is the process of drilling into the earth before a high-pressure water mixture is directed at the rock to release natural gas trapped inside. Environmentalists say toxic chemicals used in the process can lead to air pollution and groundwater contamination.

A spokeswoman for Duke Energy declined to reveal whether the company favors North Carolina’s participation in the RGGI, saying it is awaiting more information.

Over the past year, spokeswoman Grace Rountree said in an email, Duke Energy has participated in the state’s Clean Energy Plan review process, which has examined potential paths for reducing carbon emissions, including RGGI.

“Stakeholders have not yet had the opportunity to see the draft CEP carbon policies report in order to compare the effectiveness, benefits and costs of different policies,” Rountree said. “Duke Energy’s focus as we analyze any policy is to consider how it will affect all of our customers, both in the near-term and long-term. Once we have seen the report, we look forward to continued dialogue with stakeholders and policymakers on a cost-effective path forward for North Carolina’s energy transition.”

Thompson said the Southern Environmental Law Center is among the organizations reviewing the Clean Energy Plan. She said a report from that process is expected to be sent to the governor soon.

“It’s not going to recommend a particular policy, so the reason we filed this petition is because we think it’s time to act,” Thompson said. “Instead of having yet more stakeholder process to pick a policy, we think that the preliminary results of that carbon policy process show that this RGGI option is effective and cost effective.

“It’s a proven approach that is working in other states, and it doesn’t require legislative authorization. So we just filed the petition to basically kickstart this process of actually establishing a rule to limit carbon emissions instead of just continuing to talk about different options.”

Approval not a ‘slam dunk’

Thompson said she doesn’t think approval of RGGI participation will be “a slam dunk.”

“It is certainly possible that the commission could decide to deny the petition or to change the rule significantly before deciding to go forward,” Thompson said. “Based on what has happened in some other states, we anticipate there could be some opposition from the regulated industries and others who might be opposed for political or ideological reasons.”

Thompson blames the North Carolina General Assembly for not pursuing the lead on combating climate change. The RGGI has been operating now for a dozen years in other states.

“To be candid, I think politics is part of it,” Thompson said. “Many of the other states that have joined RGGI have done so at the direction of the legislature.

“Other than politics I don’t really know why North Carolina has been slow and I have to applaud Governor Cooper and his leadership on setting goals for carbon reduction in the state. And it’s just, you know, we think it’s time to actually turn those goals into action and so that’s why we filed the petition.”

Duke reducing carbon emissions

Climate change represents more than just heightened natural disasters. For many, it is a matter of life or death. The World Health Organization estimates that climate change will cause  an estimated 250,000 additional deaths worldwide each year between 2030 and 2050 from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.

Thompson and others grappling with climate change acknowledge that RGGI is not the cure-all for North Carolina and the rest of the planet.

A report from the Natural Resources Defense Council dated June 2019 says North Carolina will need a combination of policies, programs and technologies — including RGGI and renewable energy — to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

The Defense Council applauded North Carolina’s continued move into solar energy, noting that it had become the second-leading state in the country for solar power, “representing almost $8 billion in investments and 7,000 permanent local jobs.”

Although North Carolina has since slipped to third in solar energy — behind California and Texas — Duke Energy said in a news release last week that it is committed to increasing the use of the sun to generate electricity.

The company said about 5,500 customers installed private solar systems at their homes and businesses last year, bringing the total of those customers to more than 18,000.

Last year, Duke Energy also connected almost 350 megawatts of solar power capacity, enough to power roughly 60,000 homes. According to the news release, major projects in 2020 included Duke Energy’s 69-megawatt Maiden Creek solar facility in Catawba County and a 25-megawatt facility in Bessemer City in Gaston County. The company owns and operates more than 40 solar facilities in North Carolina.

Almost 60 percent of Duke Energy’s generation in the Carolinas is carbon-free, with nuclear, solar and hydroelectric power being the leading sources of carbon-free generation, the news release says.

Greg Barnes

Greg Barnes retired in 2018 from The Fayetteville Observer, where he worked as senior reporter, editor, columnist and reporter for more than 30 years. Contact him at: gregbarnes401 at gmail.com