In December, Buncombe County established an ambitious goal, as county commissioners resolved to run all government operations on renewable energy sources by 2030 and run all operations in the community on renewable energy by 2042.
The goal was one of six strategic initiatives the Board of Commissioners approved during its meeting on Dec. 5, slipping through by a vote of 4-3, with Commissioners Joe Belcher, Robert Pressley and Mike Fryar voting against it.
Three months after the vote, some are still skeptical that the county can accomplish the goals within the allotted time frame. In an interview with Xpress, Belcher says he supports renewable energy but that the plan as presented isn’t practical. “If you make that goal and you don’t go back and have strategy to execute that goal, then … there’s no vision in it,” he says.
Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman, who is a major proponent of the resolution, acknowledges that the county doesn’t have a detailed road map yet. “All of the different things between then and now that will have to be done to achieve it probably aren’t fully knowable at this time … but we feel like we need to set that goal in order to make it clear that we want to get there,” Newman said.
Leading up to the vote, environmentally focused groups and individuals pushed hard for passage of the renewable energy commitment. Representatives from several local high schools and UNC Asheville presented a petition to commissioners that contained more than 1,800 signatures in support of the resolution. The Sierra Club organized a massive email campaign — Fryar reported at the December meeting that he had received almost 250 emails — and representatives from the organization met one-on-one with most of the commissioners to address some of their specific concerns.
“I think the biggest concern was: Could it be done, was it achievable, was it just a pie-in-the-sky kind of resolution?” says Ken Brame, political chair of the North Carolina Sierra Club.
Now that the board has passed the resolution, the question is: What tangible steps will the county government take to make these goals a reality?
Hitting the switch
Jeremiah LeRoy, who became Buncombe County’s first sustainability officer last March, says there are a number of different answers to that question. “It is a difficult question to answer in its entirety because it’s a long-term goal, so this isn’t something that’s going to happen tomorrow,” he says. “It isn’t something that’s going to happen next year, but it is something that we feel like over the long term with the improvements in technology, with reduced cost in renewable energy, that we’ll be able to reach.”
LeRoy says the county uses approximately 30 megawatts of energy in an average year, which helps power its 1.7-million-square-foot portfolio of buildings. The county has added another 300,000 square feet to this tally with the addition of a new Health and Human Services complex and parking deck on Coxe Avenue. One strategy that will help the county reach its goal involves simply reducing its overall energy usage. LeRoy says the county is already doing this, regularly updating its equipment to more efficient models, installing advanced automated systems to ensure buildings use an ideal amount of power and retrofitting facilities with LED lights.
Finding a renewable way to generate this electricity is another matter altogether, but even this early in the process, LeRoy sees several options. LeRoy anticipates that many of the county’s buildings could be good candidates for renewable energy production. By commissioning a feasibility study, the county would be able to ascertain through a third-party engineering firm which buildings would be suitable candidates for renewable energy — “whether that’s photovoltaic, solar thermal, whatever the option might best fit the particular facility,” LeRoy says.
Whether or not these power sources directly power the buildings they’re installed on, however, depends on the systems themselves.
“Some systems – like solar thermal … would reduce energy consumed but not ‘power’ anything,” LeRoy said. “Others might be plugged into the grid and provide an offset through net metering.”
According to LeRoy, the county will also attempt to maximize the efficiency of its fleet of vehicles. The county could also look at using electric vehicles or ones that run off of alternative fuel sources.
Running off offsets
Installing renewable energy systems is one way the county can reach its goal, but it’s likely that Buncombe County will have to turn to other strategies to get all the way to 100 percent.
Energy produced through solar panels, wind turbines or fossil fuels is indistinguishable once it enters the grid, LeRoy says. “It’s like trying to throw a gallon of water into the swimming pool and then trying to discern which water is yours,” he says. “It’s all mixed together; there’s no way to tell.”
The county can offset its reliance on fossil fuels by establishing renewable energy sources, even if the precise electrons produced through these processes don’t find their way into county facilities.
LeRoy is already eyeing two possible avenues to make this happen. One is already underway. The county is negotiating a lease with Duke Energy for the company to build a solar farm on a piece of property in Woodfin that used to be a landfill. LeRoy says the solar array could generate 4 to 5 megawatts of electricity, equivalent to about 15 percent of the county’s energy consumption. “It’s a heck of a first step,” he says. “It’s not 100 percent, but getting 15 in one project is pretty great.”
Duke Energy is also in the early stages of rolling out an initiative called the Green Source Advantage program, which, if approved by the North Carolina Utilities Commission, would allow large customers like Buncombe County to purchase power from third-party renewable energy producers, with Duke acting as the middleman.
A different kind of charge
While LeRoy has identified some specific steps the county can take to reach its goals, the price tag on fulfilling these renewable energy goals is not clear yet.
Duke is still defining details of the Green Source Advantage program, but LeRoy said that ideally the program would be relatively cost-neutral.
The solar farm at Woodfin, on the other hand, will generate money for the county, LeRoy says, and feasibility studies aren’t usually expensive. “Oftentimes, solar companies are eager to do these studies in order to potentially bid on the actual projects themselves,” he says.
In the future, Newman says that each project that comes in front of the Board of Commissioners in service of this goal will have to stand on its own merits. “We should make sure that we run a good cost-benefit analysis for all of the different projects and plans we make to achieve the goal,” he says. “And if some of them are deemed to be too costly or cost-ineffective, then the commission can vote them down.”
In good company
Jacob Corvidae, a manager at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a research and consulting nonprofit based in Colorado that focuses on sustainability, says he doesn’t know how many counties across the U.S. have declared goals like Buncombe County’s. But he says his organization is seeing an increasing number of cities and townships making aggressive renewable energy commitments.
Many cities that establish goals like those passed in Buncombe County start by purchasing renewable energy credits, or RECs, Corvidae says, which means they are receiving credit for the energy they produce by investing in renewable energy production — even if the renewable energy they help produce doesn’t find its way into municipal facilities.
“This is one of the objections sometimes that people have to RECs, right?” Corvidae says. “That you’re kind of buying the ability to say that you’re supporting renewable energy.”
In actuality, Corvidae says, RECs do have a real positive impact on the renewable energy market, generally supporting the amount of renewable energy it takes to offset the amount of energy local governments use. Corvidae says that RECs are useful at stimulating reductions in carbon across the globe, but there is an ongoing question about whether buying RECs is the best use of taxpayer dollars for pursuing renewable energy.
“While RECs do stimulate actual investment in renewables,” he said, “the market has been getting a bit saturated lately, so the stimulation is weaker than it used to be.”
Ideally, Corvidae says RECs are just a starting point. “It’s a steppingstone while you get the other things in place to actually be producing your own energy locally,” he says.
Independent energy production has the potential to put local governments at loggerheads with utility providers, which could feel threatened if a large customer like a city or township decides to begin generating its own electricity. Corvidae doesn’t expect all cities to suddenly become independent of their utility companies. Instead, he sees cities as being in a very powerful position to negotiate.
“The utility has the capital to invest, the utility has the resources, the delivery mechanism in place,” Corvidae says. “So it’s generally probably a faster, easier route for the city to use its political heft and its stance as representing however many people are in that city to go to the utility and say, ‘OK, we have a commitment to 100 percent renewable energy. You need to be delivering it because if you can’t deliver it, then we need to start producing it ourselves or going somewhere else to get it.’”
Corvidae anticipates that in the future, local governments will adopt a variety of approaches to reach their renewable energy goals: Some might be able to convince their utility company to switch over to renewable energy and others might rely on a mixture of self-generated and utility-generated electricity to reach their goals.
Sparking community interest
County officials acknowledge that their plan to run the county government by 2030 using renewable energy is ambitious — “to say the least,” says LeRoy. But the second part of the resolution, switching all operations in the community to renewable energy sources, will require far more community support to accomplish — particularly because it’s not something the county can directly control. “The county government itself is not really in the driver’s seat in terms of making that happen,” Newman says.
Instead, Newman sees the county setting an example to members of the community: “Look, we’re putting solar on our landfill, we’re putting solar on public buildings and our schools,” he says. He also sees the potential for establishing incentives, which could include encouraging developers to maximize the energy efficiency of their buildings beyond what the building code requires.
Amy Knisley, chair of the environmental studies department at Warren Wilson College, likes that the county established this extra goal on behalf of the community, but she believes it will take encouragement from the county government to keep the public engaged.
“If the county will hang in there and continue to give voice to this, I would bet on us getting together around tables in a lot of different places around the county cooking up plans,” she says.
Knisley does see several forces converging to make these goals possible. She says technology has developed to the point that renewable energy is far more accessible, and the tone at the top, particularly President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement, has sparked a strong countercurrent of collective interest among states and localities in fostering sustainable practices.
“The industry, the technology is there, the political will is there,” Knisley says. “There’s been a lot of financing running around chasing this stuff. So I think the timing is great.”
At the same time, Knisley believes there’s a risk of undercutting public sentiment when a government sets goals and then fails to meet them. “I think that’s a calculated risk,” she says.
Power to the people
Dave Hollister is the president and CEO of Sundance Power Systems, a company in Weaverville that designs, installs and maintains renewable energy systems for private citizens, businesses, schools and other organizations. Since late January, when Duke Energy announced a proposed solar rebate program that would offset the cost of installing a solar system by a maximum of $6,000 depending on the wattage, Hollister says the phones at Sundance have been ringing off the hook.
“By far, solar is the most ubiquitously available and financially expedient form of renewable energy that both homeowners and businesses and even municipalities can engage in,” Hollister says.
Why is this the case? For one, solar panels have become much more reliable — both technologically and fiscally. Hollister says appraisers have determined a reliable way of estimating how much value a solar array adds to a house, reducing the risk of the investment.
“So if I put a system on my house and I think that I might be leaving and might be selling it in three years and … you might scratch your head and go, ‘Oh my God, am I ever going to receive all my money back? Am I ever going to get a return on that investment?’ Now you would be able to have that asset value actually quantified in the appraisal of your home,” Hollister says.
The cost of these systems, however, is still prohibitive for many people. “This technology is very inaccessible to low-income and marginalized and underserved communities,” Hollister says. “It’s a real challenge.”
Hollister says most residential installations cost anywhere from $2.50 a watt to $3.50 a watt, and that most systems that Sundance is putting in right now are between 5 kilowatts and 10 kilowatts (one kilowatt is equal to 1,000 watts). Using these figures as a baseline, this means a 5 kilowatt array at $3 at watt would cost $15,000 and a 10 kilowatt array at $3 a watt would be about $30,000.
These estimates, however, don’t take into account the proposed solar rebates from Duke Energy or the 30 percent federal tax credit on solar panels, which cut the cost significantly. Even with a recent tariff by the Trump administration bumping up the cost of solar systems produced abroad, Hollister sees tremendous momentum in the community. “People are desperately looking for ways to actively participate in transitioning our entire economy over to a more stable and clean and cheaper renewable energy future,” he says.
And people don’t have to purchase solar panels to participate. Many experts also point to community solar programs, which allow private citizens to purchase offsets, as a viable way for individuals to offset their reliance on fossil fuels. Members of the community can also maximize the energy efficiency of their homes, reducing the amount of energy that they use. It all factors into reaching the communitywide goal.
“This is what we know as a community that we want to do,” LeRoy says. “So let’s go ahead and make this bold statement to say we’re going to do this, and we’re going to figure it out.”