In a little less than three minutes, the Saturn V rocket that boosted U.S. astronauts to the moon — still the most powerful vehicle ever constructed — burned through about 2,700 megawatt-hours of energy. That’s enough to electrify all of Buncombe County’s households for a little more than a day, run over 6,200 refrigerators for a year or toast roughly 240 million slices of bread.
Buncombe County and the city of Asheville recently set the bar for a different sort of moon shot: In 2017 and 2018, respectively, the two governments resolved to run their operations entirely with renewable energy by 2030. But based on energy terms alone, these goals are considerably more ambitious than a lunar launch.
Last year, county and city buildings together consumed nearly 33,000 MWh of electricity, over 12 times as much energy as was required to send humanity to the moon. Less than 10% of that power came from renewable sources such as solar panels or hydroelectric dams; the remainder was produced by nuclear plants or from burning natural gas, oil and coal. Government facilities also used the equivalent of more than 22,000 MWh in natural gas for heating, all of which is nonrenewable.
“I don’t know how you feel about it, but 2030’s not that far away,” says Jeremiah LeRoy, Buncombe County’s sustainability officer. “There’s a need for immediate action; I don’t think that’s debatable. I don’t think that’s questionable.”
Community members got a detailed look at what that action might entail through a July report published by Massachusetts-based consulting firm The Cadmus Group. Jointly commissioned by the city and county at a total cost of $100,000, the document lays out how the region’s leaders might undertake a renewable energy transition.
No stone unturned
The Cadmus report groups potential renewable energy strategies into four “pathways of action”: current local governmental activities, new city/county initiatives, state or utility actions and alternative purchasing options. Each approach is analyzed with respect to its cost, feasibility and contribution to the 100% renewable goals.
Actions already underway or in the planning stages could get the city and county about a fifth of the way to their 2030 targets. Asheville has identified roughly 400,000 square feet of city-owned rooftops that could host solar panels at an estimated upfront cost of $12.8 million; the county has flagged $2.7 million in potential rooftop projects. The governments could also lease public land to Duke Energy Progress for solar development, generating revenue that could in turn be harnessed for further renewable energy efforts.
Going beyond those previously planned actions to new “highly local and highly feasible” approaches, however, is estimated to have a negligible impact. Requiring solar on all new municipal government construction and major retrofits would meet just 0.3% of the city’s 2030 goal, while a suggested $350,000 revolving renewables investment fund for the county would support about 0.9% of its needed energy.
And many of the actions that would have the most impact on the renewables goals, the report concludes, aren’t under local government’s direct control. For example, only the state can mandate that a higher percentage of Duke’s power production come from renewables; the utility currently plans to source just 7.8% of its power from solar facilities and retire nearly all hydroelectric production by 2030. By comparison, the states of New Jersey and California are requiring all utilities to produce 50% and 60% of their electricity, respectively, using renewable sources by 2030.
State officials also have the power to allow third-party solar purchases and expand community shared solar programs. Together with a more aggressive renewables production target, these changes would meet about a third of the city and county goals. On Aug. 16, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality released a draft Clean Energy Plan that recommends the state explore these and other strategies.
“We need assistance to get to our goal from the state and from the utility company,” LeRoy admits. “That’s reflected in the pathways that we see moving forward in order to reach that goal. It’s going to take more than just local government action.”
Making the claim
Yet when those local and state actions are tallied up, Cadmus estimates that Asheville and Buncombe County will still only reach 45% of their renewable energy goals by 2030. To make up the difference, the consultants say officials will have to explore alternative purchasing, including that of renewable energy certificates.
Instead of representing green power itself, RECs represent “the environmental, social and other nonpower attributes of renewable electricity generation,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Buying enough RECs would thus give the city and county the legal right to say their energy use was 100% renewable, even if the electrons actually keeping the lights on came from coal- or gas-fired power plants. Cadmus estimates the annual cost of these purchases as roughly $100,000 for Asheville and $95,000 for Buncombe County.
Community stakeholders involved in formulating the report, Cadmus notes, regarded RECs “as a less-than-optimal approach” for meeting the 100% renewable goals. While buying the certificates may be less expensive and more immediately achievable than developing renewable capacity in the community, these stakeholders pointed out, RECs bought from power plants outside Western North Carolina don’t support local jobs or reduce regional air pollution.
Kat Houghton, executive director of Asheville-based environmental nonprofit Community Roots, was not involved in developing the report but is similarly critical of RECs. “It’s a distraction. It can make us on paper look like we’re doing 100% renewable energy, but it doesn’t change the amount of greenhouse gases that Duke’s pumping into the atmosphere,” she says. “The whole reason to go 100% renewable energy is to try and mitigate some of the effects of climate change and slow the warming of the climate — purchasing RECs doesn’t do that.”
Duke spokesperson Randy Wheeless says his company connects customers with RECs as a way to increase their access to renewable energy. He references the UPM Raflatac plant in Mills River, which in June announced it had purchased RECs through Duke to become the state’s first manufacturing facility to claim 100% renewable energy use.
“It’s kind of a virtual effort. They don’t really have those renewable facilities in the city limits or right outside, but they’re basically displacing the purchases they’re making with renewable energy purchases,” Wheeless explains. “They’re buying the RECs associated with that output, but the facility could be near or far away.”
RECs are a necessary workaround because Asheville and Buncombe County are both customers of Duke, a state-regulated utility, and are thus not legally permitted to purchase renewable energy directly from third parties. The utility did recently launch a program called Green Source Advantage, through which it will serve as a middleman for customers to buy renewable power from solar developers. However, that initiative will offer just 90 MW of solar capacity to all nonresidential Duke Energy Progress customers. Cadmus estimates that, even if local governments were able to contract for that entire capacity, it would be insufficient to fully meet their renewable energy goals.
“The big impediment to any of the city and county’s initiatives to go 100% renewable is that there’s no free market in electricity — it’s a monopoly, and Duke controls that monopoly,” says Dave Hollister, the president of Weaverville-based solar company Sundance Power Systems and a member of the joint city-county-Duke Energy Innovation Task Force. “There’s tons of companies that would love to sell the city solar energy at a price that was competitive, but they can’t do it.”
When asked if Duke would consider giving up its monopoly to facilitate a renewable energy transition, Wheeless says his company “is not trying to be a barrier” to any local government and has been at the table as Asheville and Buncombe County discuss their plans. “I think trying to deregulate the state of North Carolina on electricity would be a can of worms I don’t think we want to attend to,” he adds.
Hollister argues that, barring any major change from Duke, Asheville should consider becoming its own utility, which is permitted under state law and would allow the city to buy renewable energy directly. Highlands, Morganton and Waynesville are among the WNC municipalities that run their own utilities; all of the Cadmus report’s examples of cities that have achieved 100% renewable electricity use did so through their municipal utilities.
Bridget Herring, Asheville’s energy program coordinator, says the city explored establishing its own utility before her time with the government but that such a move is currently “not something that’s been identified as a high priority.” And LeRoy believes that, given the current regulatory reality, “We have to make sure that Duke is a part of the solution.”
Sliver of sunlight
Although the city and county goals call for renewable energy in all government activities, the Cadmus report only considers the energy used by buildings. Not discussed is the fossil fuel consumption of government vehicles; while the report did not provide an estimate of that figure, transportation represents approximately 28% of all energy use nationwide according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Also unaddressed are the cost implications of switching from natural gas to electricity for heating, which would be necessary for all building energy needs to be met renewably without REC purchases. At current market rates, electricity costs more than twice as much as natural gas to provide the equivalent energy. That conversion could also come with substantial upfront infrastructure costs.
“If we’ve got boilers in the jail that are only a few years old that are natural gas boilers, those are multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace,” LeRoy explains. “That’s not something that we can just decide to switch to electric on a whim.”
Some community members believe those omissions make the report an insufficient response to what they see as an urgent need for renewable energy. Shane McCarthy, a member of the Asheville chapter of the national climate advocacy organization Sunrise Movement, points to a 2018 U.N. report calling for “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy” by 2030 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
“A lot of us in the room definitely felt underwhelmed and that the plan was not really as ambitious as it could have been,” McCarthy says about his group’s response to a presentation on a draft version of the report in June. “It is not at the scale or the level of ambition necessary to make a difference and end the climate crisis.”
Both Herring and LeRoy say their respective governments haven’t lost sight of the other pieces in their renewable energy goals. However, neither the city nor the county has immediate plans to consider widespread vehicle electrification or the replacement of natural gas.
“I think that urgency has been realized,” Herring says regarding the pace of change. “I think there unfortunately are other urgent matters too that, as a city whose primary mission is to deliver core services, we also have to address that are more immediate.”
State of transition
The city and county are taking immediate action on several of the steps outlined in the Cadmus report. LeRoy says the governments are partnering with other public entities, including A-B Tech and Buncombe County Schools, to issue a request for proposals for the aggregated procurement of rooftop solar by the end of September. Buying solar panels in bulk, he explains, will likely lead to cheaper prices for the resulting projects.
Herring adds that Asheville and Buncombe are crunching the numbers for Duke’s Green Source Advantage program, the utility’s only avenue for directly purchasing renewable energy, to determine its financial feasibility. The two governments will review their building energy policies and continue to participate in regional renewable energy discussions, including those taking place around Gov. Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 80, which calls for a 40% reduction in statewide greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2025.
All of these actions are tied to governmental energy use, but part of Buncombe County’s goal calls for the entire community to be powered through renewables by 2042. The report finds that governmental actions alone cannot achieve that goal, which LeRoy says is driving the county’s choice to focus on its own operations first.
“We want to continue to support the community goal in whatever way that we can, but we do have limitations in terms of the regulatory environment we live in,” LeRoy says. “We want to be a leader in this space and we can do that by making sure that we have our own house in order.”
Community activists are also preparing their own actions in response to the report. McCarthy says his Sunrise chapter will call for the city of Asheville to declare a climate emergency as “a way to grab the public’s attention about the city’s plans and intentions and encourage the city to take actions and dedicate more resources to fight climate change.”
And Houghton with Community Roots is trying to collect over 11,000 signatures in an effort to place a Climate Bill of Rights referendum on Asheville’s 2020 ballot. Such a law would assert the rights of city residents to a healthy climate, a clean environment and a sustainable energy future — including the right to purchase energy from sources other than Duke. It would also claim the right of ecosystems within the city “to naturally exist, flourish, regenerate, evolve and be restored.”
Houghton says similar initiatives, passed with the support of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, have successfully prevented fracking in Pittsburgh and wastewater dumping in Grant Township, Pa. “That’s challenging not only our legal structures, but also the way we think about how we relate to the natural world,” she says. “We have to work on making our laws reflect our values.”