The clock to 2030 is ticking.
Both Buncombe County and the city of Asheville have resolved that, by the end of that year, government operations will be powered entirely by renewable energy. A 2019 report produced by The Cadmus Group, a Massachusetts-based consulting firm, laid out numerous ways for the two local governments to achieve those goals.
Perhaps in keeping with Western North Carolina’s crafty ethos, the first strategy Cadmus listed for both governments was a do-it-yourself approach: install, own and operate renewable energy projects. Asheville and Buncombe leaders have proceeded to place solar panels on everything from fire stations and downtown’s bus depot to libraries and a county training facility.
Since then, local and global officials have only reiterated the importance of solar power and other renewable sources as ways to replace fossil fuels and combat climate change. Asheville adopted a climate emergency resolution in 2020; in 2021, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said the current and predicted effects of global heating “must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet.”
With the long summer days providing peak sunshine hours for those solar panels to pump out power, Xpress wanted to check in on the city and county. How much renewable energy are local governments making — and how much more will they need to reach their policy targets?
Asheville and Buncombe provided production figures for all government-owned solar facilities from June 6 through July 6, covering the two weeks on either side of the June 21 summer solstice. That monthlong period represents the maximum solar energy theoretically available to the panels, barring interference from weather conditions.
For Asheville’s five solar facilities, that figure came to about 29.84 megawatt-hours. The most productive set of panels was on the Asheville Rides Transit station, which produced 8.84 MWh, about 30% of the city’s total. (For comparison, the average North Carolina household consumed about 1.04 MWh per month in 2020, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.)
Buncombe County’s total production over the same period from its own five solar installations was about 25.04 mWh. The Leicester Library facility led the pack with 5.35 MWh generated, about 21% of the county total.
Due to the way Duke Energy bills local governments, Xpress wasn’t able to directly compare solar production with overall energy use over the same June 6-July 6 period. But Asheville and Buncombe were able to provide rough figures for previous summers, which were used to estimate government-wide monthly power consumption.
Across all Asheville government buildings, monthly summer power use in 2021 was roughly 746.6 MWh. For Buncombe County, the average June electricity consumption in 2020 and 2021 was 1,150 MWh.
So, how much does local government’s production during peak solar season offset its needs? Based on these averages, Asheville covers roughly 4% of its electricity consumption through solar, with Buncombe covering about 2.2%. The remaining power comes from the Duke Energy grid; as of 2021, approximately 2% of Duke’s production came from renewable sources such as hydroelectricity and solar.
The Cadmus report did not suggest that local governments should cover all of their energy use with on-site solar alone. However, it proposed that Asheville and Buncombe County could meet roughly 20% of their renewable energy needs through “feasible and prioritized” or “planned” local actions — significantly more than the current state of affairs.
Asked about the city’s progress toward its goal, Sustainability Director Bridget Herring struck an upbeat tone. “I am proud of the steps City Council and the organization has taken to date,” she said. “While we know from the Moving to 100% report that there is not enough rooftop space or city-owned property to meet the 100% renewable energy goal on-site, I believe the city should continue to pursue feasible on-site renewable energy projects because it maximizes the public benefit through both the local environmental impact and economic impact of reduced utility costs.”
Jeremiah LeRoy, Buncombe County’s sustainability officer, was similarly optimistic. “I am very excited about the tremendous progress that the county has made toward reaching its 2030 goal. With the significant commitments that our Board of Commissioners has made in clean energy projects, we are tracking toward being over 40% of the way toward meeting the 2030 goal, with many more opportunities to continue to improve that trajectory.”