Downtown Asheville, North Carolina, at dusk
Asheville, North Carolina. Credit: Michael Tracey / Creative Commons
Meg Jamison is the network director for the Southeast Sustainability Directors Network, headquartered in Asheville, North Carolina. SSDN is a network of nearly 100 local governments representing 10 southeastern states, with the mission to support and scale sustainability and resilience best practices.

If there’s any question as to whether North Carolina is on the front lines of climate change, one needs only to review the long list of hurricanes and tropical storms the state has weathered over the years: Fran, Floyd, Charlie, Dorian, Matthew, Michael, and the list goes on.

In the first 50 years that NOAA first began tracking tropical cyclones, North Carolina was spared impacts in 12 of those years. The state hasn’t been so lucky lately, as storms continue to spin up here with increased frequency and intensity. While those named storms may be the more obvious culprits, other extreme weather events — intense heat, drought, heavy rainfall — are just as often driving home the realities of climate change here in the Tar Heel state.

North Carolina’s local governments feel the impacts of climate change in unique ways. Some of the state’s eastern communities feel the direct blow of named storms, with the flooding and wind damage they inflict. Other communities are more affected by drought and heat, the risks they bring to human health and the devastation they cause for our state’s agricultural industry. Much of the state experiences the increasingly severe impacts of heavy rainfall, all of us subject to flash floods from unexpectedly intense thunderstorms and rain events that pack a punch.

Regardless of the varying symptoms, there’s common ground and a growing sense of urgency in the cause we’re battling: a changing climate, worsening by the day due to continued reliance on fossil fuels in our energy and transportation sectors.

While work advances at the state and federal levels to tackle climate change — including important efforts led by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on a Clean Energy Plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants — cities, towns and counties are stepping up to do their part for the transition to a clean energy future. 

Local governments are significant users of the state’s power supply, both because of the amount of energy consumed in local municipal facilities and because of the energy consumed by businesses and residents at large. There is growing recognition that the stakeholder and environmental stewardship role local governments play constitutes an opportunity to be an active part of the conversation around how North Carolina’s power is generated. After all, there’s only so much stakeholders can do once utilities’ energy plans are set. To make a difference, you need a seat at the table when the plan is being developed.

Given the state’s current utility regulatory construct, with customers not having a choice among energy providers, having a seat at the table means participating in Duke Energy’s bi-annual Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) process. 

The North Carolina Utilities Commission requires utilities to file an IRP every two years. It’s the utilities’ road map for how they’ll meet the energy needs of their customers over the next 15 years, including what mix of coal, gas, nuclear, renewable energy, energy storage and energy efficiency they’ll leverage to achieve that plan. Duke Energy filed their plan with the utilities commission in October 2020, and the commission is accepting stakeholder comments on that plan in advance of a public hearing on March 16

Three local governments — the City of Asheville, Buncombe County and the City of Charlotte — have chosen to formally intervene in Duke’s IRP. “Intervening” in the IRP is a way for perspectives to become documented as “on the record” in the Utilities Commissions’ legal process. Several other North Carolina cities, towns and counties have provided input by signing onto a joint letter, which has also been filed with the NCUC. 

Local governments that are participating in the energy planning process value the ongoing, open dialogue they have with Duke Energy about the state’s energy future.

In the same way many local governments have developed carbon reduction goals, Duke Energy has also announced a plan to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. These shared goals provide the foundation for local governments to continue to work with Duke Energy to make energy choices that meet the needs of the utility, stakeholders and customers, while reducing harmful impacts of energy pollution on our environment.

We’re proud of the active role our cities and towns are engaging in to create the clean energy future that’s best for their municipalities and the residents who live and work there. The power of our collective voices can advance North Carolina toward a cleaner, more sustainable energy future that decreases carbon emissions, improves the health of North Carolinians, and ultimately lowers energy costs for everyone through expanding the use of “free-fueled” technologies like solar and wind.