It’s common these days to hear cries for a massive shift in the way electricity is produced, in order to stave off the worst consequences of climate change. What’s less typical is for an organization that’s clamoring for a carbon-free future to offer a thorough answer to one key question: How?
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy released a “comprehensive blueprint” for North Carolina’s energy future on June 9, providing a detailed plan for how the state might—by 2030—slash today’s global-warming pollution levels by 60 percent. Targeting policymakers, the analysis took about a year to complete, according to the nonprofit.
“There are great challenges to N.C. from not taking action,” Steven Smith, executive director of SACE, said during a press teleconference. “Great national treasures like the Outer Banks are threatened, as well as … the mountain ecosystems of Western North Carolina.”
Four cornerstones will bolster the economy while solving the energy puzzle, according to SACE. The first, energy efficiency, would account for half the reductions, according to Research Director John Wilson.
Compact-fluorescent light bulbs and energy-efficient appliances only amount to a drop in the bucket, according to Wilson. “Other things, like updating heating and air-conditioning systems, doing better insulation and adopting better new-construction practices” would save more, he said. And applying energy-efficiency goals to the commercial and transportation sectors would make an even greater difference.
In terms of alternative energy, wind may be the most promising: “The most cost-effective options are the ridge tops in Western North Carolina,” Wilson said. Some 11 million megawatt-hours could be generated in WNC ridge tops alone, according to SACE’s calculations. (Under that analysis, important tourism sites are off-limits.) But the major potential for wind lies in offshore generation. That idea has been slow to progress, though, largely because of an unclear permitting process.
SACE also touted cellulosic ethanol as a promising path to a clean-energy future. But concerns about using wood products as a raw ingredient for that fuel have led some environmental groups to link cellulosic ethanol with deforestation. Smith acknowledged the concern, but noted that ethanol could be made from woody debris derived from private, not public, lands. In any case, North Carolina has already adopted a plan calling for mass-scale biofuels production.
Pollution capture was the third area highlighted. That could mean injecting carbon dioxide from power plants into deep wells, or using an ancient technology called Biochar that increases the soil’s capacity to store carbon dioxide. The final cornerstone was long-term planning for less intensive overall energy use.
Implementing solutions will always require tough choices, Smith said, and no technology is perfect—but doing nothing may represent an even bigger risk.