The flag of North Carolina billows from a flagpole.
Credit: Mr.TinDC / Creative Commons

The following commentary was written by Jonas Monast and Kate Konschnik. Monast is the C. Boyden Gray Distinguished Fellow at the University of North Carolina School of Law and director of the Center for Climate, Energy, Environment, and Economics; and Konschnik is the director of the Climate and Energy Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. See our commentary guidelines for more information.

North Carolina’s electricity system is at a turning point. Coal plants are retiring. Renewable energy and natural gas are cheap, and costs of energy storage are falling quickly. State policymakers can ensure that these changes have long-lasting benefits for ratepayers, the environment, and the state’s economy.

The North Carolina Clean Energy Plan is a roadmap to achieve many of these benefits. Following Hurricane Florence in 2018, Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order committing to significantly reduce our state’s contribution to climate change. The Clean Energy Plan translates this commitment into specific targets for the electricity sector: a 70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and a carbon-neutral grid by 2050. A new report from Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the University of North Carolina’s Center for Climate, Energy, Environment, and Economics analyzes strategies to achieve the targets.

The report has good news for North Carolina. Greenhouse gas emissions will continue to drop throughout the 2020s, as renewables become increasingly cost competitive with traditional options, such as fossil fuels. With momentum at our backs, the cost of achieving the Clean Energy Plan’s targets is lower than it would have been only a few years ago. The transition to clean energy creates opportunities to reduce other pollutants as well, improving the health and well-being of people living near power plants.

These trends alone won’t meet the Clean Energy Plan’s timeline, however.

New state energy policies are needed to achieve the emissions goals. New policies may also be necessary to allow communities across North Carolina to benefit from the energy transition already underway. Investing now in clean energy could help jumpstart an economy slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic and avoid the buildout of more polluting power plants to replace coal. Such investments could also help keep electricity rates affordable, as renewable energy resources like solar and wind have no fuel costs and relatively low maintenance costs.

Our report outlines several paths to achieve a clean energy future. For example, regional carbon markets such as the one that extends from Virginia to Maine can provide revenue states can use to increase investments in energy efficiency, assist customers with electricity bills, or support storm response and recovery. Or North Carolina could join a growing number of states adopting Clean Energy Standards, and require electricity utilities to purchase specific amounts of clean energy. Policies accelerating retirement of coal-fired power plants could reduce bill impacts and direct utilities to reinvest in communities losing energy jobs. Investing in offshore wind could create new economic development opportunities for the state.

Each pathway has different implications for electricity costs, North Carolina’s energy mix, local air quality, and economic impacts on communities across the state. Combining policy options could achieve multiple social, economic, and environmental goals.

North Carolina has a history of adopting clean energy policies to proactively manage changes in the electricity system. Enacted in 2002, the Clean Smokestacks Act helped reduce local and regional air pollutants without causing a spike in electricity rates. State renewable energy policies have made North Carolina a leader in solar energy. A new generation of clean energy policies could once again help ensure that our electricity system is cleaner, affordable, and reliable for decades to come.