By Joshua Blanco
In order to mitigate the potential catastrophic effects of climate change, the fifth assessment report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a statement calling for immediate action. In 2017, Buncombe County stepped up to the plate, announcing its plan to go 100 percent renewable by 2030 with respect to its municipal sites. The following year, the City of Asheville followed suit.
According to Asheville energy program coordinator Bridget Herring, both city and county municipal building energy use account for about one percent of total energy use across the county. And while it may not seem like much, it’s going to take some work to achieve the new goal.
Transitioning a city’s operations to run exclusively on renewable energy is a tall order, though many agree a change of this magnitude is a necessary step in the right direction. “I don’t think anybody that has any faith in science is disbelieving when the world’s leading climate scientists tell us that we have a very short time to deal with this,” says Kelly Gloger, project developer at SolFarm, an Asheville-based solar installation company. “The time to twiddle our thumbs is over. Now is the time for action.”
In July, Cadmus Group, a strategic and technical consultancy, assessed the feasibility of the proposed plan by outlining the steps required for the city to reach its target. While the firm acknowledged it would be possible to achieve the goal, there are a few ways to go about it.
Approximately four percent of the energy currently used by municipal buildings is renewable. Raising this to 20 percent would require Asheville to keep up with planned and ongoing actions, such as continuing the development and installation of renewable energy systems on city property and entering into solar lease agreements with Duke Energy.
Proponents of solar leasing cite the measure as a cost-effective means of acquiring energy. Rather than incurring the large expense of this technology up front, the city can lease the equipment at a fixed rate.
Setting energy standards for both new and renovated buildings is also included as a way to ensure the city not only reaches its renewables goal, but also maintains it. “Getting serious about [going renewable] means getting serious about energy consumption on any new construction,” Gloger says. “We can set those standards and we should set those standards.”
Beyond the local level, Cadmus Group suggests advocating for both state-wide and utility-specific policies that could bring the city to just under 50 percent renewable. In addition to reducing its carbon footprint, Duke, for example, has been focusing on using batteries for power storage and supply. “Batteries have a lot of promise,” says Duke Energy communications manager Randy Wheeless. “I don’t think they’re economically ready for prime time yet, but as technology gets better you get to that point where batteries make a lot more sense.”
In the meantime, sourcing the other half of Asheville’s municipal power from renewables might require a less favorable option – the purchase of Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs). RECs allow a city to claim renewable status by purchasing a document that represents electricity produced from a renewable source and eventually fed into a grid. The trouble is, that electricity could be powering someplace that isn’t Asheville, acting as a virtual offset. “RECs aren’t a solution in our mind,” said Kat Houghton, executive director of Community Roots, a local nonprofit that focuses on protecting the climate. “It’s just a distraction. It’s not actually getting us to the goal.”
Community Roots has been working to land the Climate Bill of Rights and Protection on the 2020 ballot. The main point of the proposal is to help Asheville go 100 percent renewable—citywide, not just municipally—by 2030 by giving the city legal authority to purchase electricity from sources other than Duke. Houghton says this will also limit the amount of RECs the city would have to purchase.
Other initiatives for the purpose of moving Asheville forward include the Clean Energy Plan released by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, which aims to set into motion many of the policy changes set forth by the Cadmus Group report.
“It’s challenging but we’ve got a lot of smart people here,” Gloger said. “We’ve got a lot of institutions that can bring expertise. We just have to have the willpower and political desire to do it. It can be done.”
The Cadmus Report does not address any potential changes to transportation, heating and cooling, or cooking fuels. More analysis is needed to understand the significance associated with these changes. To view the report, visit BuncombeCounty.org. For a comprehensive outline of the Clean Energy Plan go to deq.nc.gov. Anyone planning to sign the Climate Bill of Rights petition must do so by February 1, 2020.