Scientists are telling us we have until 2030 to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and other sources by 70% below peak levels in 2005 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. North Carolina, long reliant on fossil fuels to produce electricity, must play an important part by rapidly transforming electric power production to clean sources of energy such as wind and solar.
Electric power production, especially coal and natural gas plants, is the largest source of climate warming pollution, making up 35% of the state’s climate altering emissions.
In October 2018, Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order that directed development of a Clean Energy Plan for the state. After extensive public input, the plan set goals to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 70% below 2005 levels by 2030, and to achieve a net carbon neutral power sector by 2050.
For over a year, a broad group of stakeholders assisted by experts from Duke University and UNC evaluated alternative ways to meet the plan’s goals, issuing an assessment of options earlier this year. The most cost-effective option is for the state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an ongoing regional effort by 11 states from Maine to Virginia to reduce carbon emissions from electric power generation.
RGGI is a market-based approach to reducing carbon emissions. Participating states agree on declining limits for carbon emissions from power plants. Utilities must purchase allowances to cover the amount of carbon they emit. As the carbon emission limits decline, fewer allowances are available, the price of allowances increases, and individual companies find the most cost-effective ways to reduce emissions.
RGGI states have used the money generated from the sale of allowances over the past decade to reduce utility bills, improve energy efficiency, and provide incentives for clean energy.
Since RGGI began in 2009, participating states have substantially reduced carbon emissions while also enjoying strong economic growth. Carbon emissions from power plants in RGGI states have decreased 47%, while their economies grew by 47%, both exceeding the rest of the country by wide margins. Electricity prices in RGGI states fell 5.7% the first ten years of the program, while increasing in the rest of the country.
Last week, the NC Environmental Management Commission took the first step to cost-effective reduction of carbon emissions from the power sector by approving proposed rules that would allow North Carolina to join Virginia and other states in the successful, cost-effective regional effort to reduce carbon emissions and address climate change under RGGI.
But the legislature has other ideas. Legislators have been secretly meeting with Duke Energy and in a midnight vote last week the House passed a bill that would shut down some Duke coal-fired power plants, but replace them with climate polluting gas plants – at a time when scientists tell us we need to phase out all fossil fuel. The legislation would also allow Duke to bypass the normal process in which the Utilities Commission requires the most cost- effective sources of power and minimizes costs to customers. The legislation would not achieve close to the needed carbon reductions, and is a free ticket to Duke to continue fossil fuel climate pollution while gouging utility bill payers.
The Senate should reject the bill and Duke Energy’s current plans that are inadequate to meet carbon reduction goals, would continue and expand reliance on fossil fuels, and would be expensive for utility bill payers. North Carolina’s leaders should tell Duke Energy what it needs to do, and not have Duke Energy tell our legislators what they have to do.
Legislative leaders should instead build on the hard work already done, and work with the governor to develop a program that will achieve a 70% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, create jobs by accelerating the transition to renewable energy, and protect utility customers. We need to do our part to address climate change, which is already impacting our economy and environment. And do it quickly.
Derb Carter is the director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s North Carolina offices.