North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper this month issued a lofty executive order that calls for 1.25 million zero-emission vehicles by 2030, among other climate commitments. Credit: Elizabeth Ouzts

A lofty climate executive order issued by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper this month shows just how quickly expectations for plug-in electric vehicles are changing — and how urgent the need to clean up the transportation sector has become.

In his first term, Cooper, a Democrat, aimed to get 80,000 plug-ins on state roads by 2025, part of a wide-ranging executive order on climate change issued in 2018.

Now, with the state likely to cruise past that goal, a new climate executive order signed on Jan. 7 sets the bar exponentially higher: 1.25 million zero-emission vehicles by 2030, 40 times the current number of registrations. 

In line with climate scientists’ recommendations, the order also pledges that North Carolinians will get around almost entirely without fossil fuels by midcentury. That’s a massive transformation for a state where single-passenger, gasoline-fueled vehicles are the norm. 

Clean energy advocates and experts called the transportation targets among the most aggressive in the country.

“It’s super aggressive,” said Steve Kalland, the director of the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center at N.C. State University, “especially for a state in our region that has a lot of catching up to do.”

Observers say Cooper’s new ambitions reflect not just an evolving auto industry, but a recognition that every cabinet-level decision — including roadbuilding — must be re-examined in light of the climate crisis.

Electric sector vs. transportation

Duke Energy power plant emissions, long the leading cause of climate-warming pollution in the state, have been steadily falling since 2007 thanks in large part to retiring coal plants and proliferating solar fields.

The much more complex transportation sector — which includes ferries, school buses, and some 3.3 million registered automobiles — has for years been a close second to the electric sector but hasn’t seen similar progress.

Partisan fighting delayed the first round of clean vehicle grants under the state’s share of the Volkswagen settlement, which mostly ended up going toward school buses and other vehicles that will run on fossil fuels

Spurred by the 2018 climate edict, Executive Order 80, the state developed a plan for getting 80,000 electric vehicles on the roads by 2025. But the goal, which includes all-electric battery vehicles as well as plug-in hybrid electric versions, represents a tiny fraction of all vehicles. And the state’s current growth in plug-ins suggests the target will be surpassed as early as 2024 — even without extra incentives or other policy support. 

To be sure, some cities such as Greensboro, the first in the state to shift to an all-electric transit bus fleet, have made gains in electrification.

But there have also been losses when it comes to reducing single-passenger vehicle use: State officials have plowed forward with more highway projects such as the controversial completion of a second Raleigh beltline. Durham failed to deliver a light-rail transit project it had promised voters after opposition from Duke University. 

None of these action items, for better and worse, were part of a comprehensive plan to curb transportation emissions enough to avert climate disaster. 

Now, cars, trucks, and other vehicles have eclipsed power plants as the state’s top source of climate-warming carbon pollution, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration

“For years, we’ve been advocating that the Cooper administration expand its focus on climate change to include the transportation sector, which is quickly becoming the number one source for heat-trapping emissions in North Carolina,” Mary Maclean Asbill, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s North Carolina offices, said in a statement.

‘Transformative’ thinking

Executive Order 246 is an answer to that advocacy. 

The order centers as much on environmental justice as it does on transportation, expanding a clean energy apprenticeship program launched last year and requiring all cabinet agencies to name an “environmental justice and equity lead.” 

Building on Executive Order 80 and aligned with the Paris Climate Agreement goals, the edict also calls for the state’s overall global warming emissions to be cut by 50% by 2030, and it sets in motion an update to a statewide greenhouse gas registry first issued in 2019. 

But some of the measure’s most measurable provisions are aimed at cars, trucks, and buses.

It pledges an eye-popping 1.25 million electric vehicles in the state by the end of the decade — 15 times the earlier goal. Consistent with President Joe Biden’s aims, it calls for half of car sales in 2030 to be electric.

It jumpstarts the creation of a “North Carolina Clean Transportation Plan,” aimed at decarbonizing the transportation sector by no later than 2050, to include strategies to increase zero-emission vehicle sales and reduce the need for vehicle travel.

The plan’s creation could mirror the development process of the North Carolina Clean Energy Plan. That electricity-focused document led to last year’s law to cut power plant pollution, which won support from Republicans who control the legislature. “It will be a partnership,” North Carolina Department of Transportation Secretary Eric Boyette emphasized when the order was signed. 

And a little-discussed provision requiring an evaluation of the “social cost of carbon” could impact every decision the Cooper administration makes, including how to distribute the next batch of Volkswagen funds and building new roads, said Stan Cross, policy director for electric transportation at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

“The DOT, when they build those roads, they’re enabling more greenhouse gas emissions to be emitted, which then is causing these extreme climate events, which is then wreaking havoc on their road systems,” Cross said. “They’ve never had to stop and think: What’s the actual cost of what we’re about to do here?” 

He added, “that kind of thinking could be transformative.”

The order could also scramble regulators’ calculus as they consider a $56 million proposal from Duke to build new charging ports and invest in electric buses. And it’s sure to provide direction as agencies determine how to spend $109 million allocated to the state for charging stations, thanks to the federal bipartisan infrastructure law adopted last year. 

All in all, the D.C.-based Electrification Coalition said in a statement, “Executive Order 246 establishes that North Carolina will be a leader in the transition to a transportation system untethered from oil.”

‘Legacy time’ 

The transition can’t come too soon, climate advocates say. Since Cooper’s first executive order, international scientists have stepped up their warnings, pleading with politicians to make drastic cuts in emissions before the end of the decade to help keep temperature rise to at or below 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

The impacts of a warming planet have become obvious. “We couldn’t have a more fitting time to gather here today to talk about this great news,” Boyette said, referencing December’s record-high temperatures and lack of rainfall. “When we talk about climate change, we’re seeing it. It’s already leading to more frequent severe weather events here in North Carolina.” 

The automobile industry, meanwhile, sees an opportunity to reinvent itself. Once resistant to rising miles-per-gallon standards — and therefore increased electric vehicle sales — most automakers have now pledged an all-electric future. Consumers are embracing the transformation, with more going electric each year even as federal tax incentives have remained constant. Since June 2019, plug-in registrations have more than doubled in North Carolina. Today, they hover just above 30,000, per state transportation officials

Perhaps the most striking turn-around in the industry — and the most relevant to North Carolina — is the world’s largest automaker: Toyota. Though the company popularized conventional hybrids, in which batteries are powered by gasoline, it long fought regulations to induce more plug-in battery electrics. But it appeared to begin a shift in course last September. By December, Toyota executives were standing with state leaders in tiny Liberty in Randolph County to announce its first U.S. battery plant, a $1.3 billion investment

Tim O’Connor, a senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, says the new factory was made possible in part by the 28 companies already in the state that are part of the electric vehicle supply chain. 

“It’s a robust amount of activity that has planted a flag that North Carolina is a place where major investments can happen,” O’Connor said. “Success begets success.”

The economic benefits of electrification may also smooth its political pathway. The state’s top Republicans were just as eager as Cooper for the Toyota plant. And once a source of a partisan power struggle, North Carolina’s remaining $68 million share of Volkswagen funds — which could go entirely to electric vehicles and charging infrastructure — was appropriated without fanfare in the budget adopted late last year. 

State Rep. Harry Warren, a Republican from Salisbury who’s backed legislation for more charging infrastructure, believes the transition to electric vehicles is inevitable.

“I don’t think this is a partisan issue,” Warren told the Energy News Network. “Taking a stance against this is like taking a stance against the sun coming up tomorrow. This is coming. I think it’s down to a matter of what degree of support you have.”

From left to right, Democrat Rep. Julie Von Haefen, Secretary of Natural & Cultural Resources Reid Wilson, Republican Rep. Harry Warren, and Electric Transportation Program Manager Dory Larsen of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy at an electric vehicle test drive event at the General Assembly sponsored by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
From left to right, Democrat Rep. Julie Von Haefen, Secretary of Natural & Cultural Resources Reid Wilson, Republican Rep. Harry Warren, and Electric Transportation Program Manager Dory Larsen of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy at an electric vehicle test drive event at the General Assembly sponsored by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. Credit: Elizabeth Ouzts

Now in his second term, Cooper can’t run again in 2024. State Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat briefed on the order before it was made public, believes the governor wants to cement a reputation as a climate leader.  

“It’s legacy time, and it’s realizing the clock’s running out,” Woodard said. He added, with a tiny note of disbelief, “I think it’s ambitious … but thank God they’re thinking about it.” 

Calling the question

On electric vehicles alone, it’s hard to understate the order’s ambition. 

Ensuring 1.25 million electric cars are registered not just by the wealthy in single-family homes — but also by low- and moderate-income people in apartments and duplexes — will require a combination of incentives and mandates for residential charging infrastructure.

Equitable ownership of plug-ins will almost certainly require extra incentives for vehicle purchases — inducements promised in the imperiled Build Back Better bill and not likely to come from state lawmakers.  

“Based on the history of this state, the only way we’re going to get incentives is federal money that rolls downhill that they have to spend anyway,” N.C. State’s Kalland said. 

As for publicly available chargers, some studies suggest the state will need at least 25 times more Level 2 chargers — capable of adding 80 miles of range in about four hours — than it has today, and about 10 times more fast-chargers — which can add that same capacity in about a half-hour.  

More important than the number of chargers, many experts say, is their location and distribution. Most of the state’s public chargers are concentrated around major cities; relatively few are in communities of color or rural counties. 

“We may wind up needing more charging infrastructure in the areas that don’t have any right now, like in the rural communities,” said Cross, of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “Because people drive greater distances in those communities.” 

A common-sense step of installing charging stations at the state’s 60 interstate rest areas faces hurdles: State law doesn’t allow the state to give away electrons, while federal law doesn’t allow the electrons to be sold.

Those challenges are critical to overcome, said Diane Cherry, a consultant who works with the North Carolina Sierra Club among other clean energy groups. “We have a super long state,” she said. “Fast charging on the highways is huge.” 

If Cooper’s first executive order on climate is any indication, his cabinet will soon get to work meeting with stakeholders and hammering out these thorny details. The revised greenhouse gas inventory will be due at the end of this month, and the sprawling Clean Transportation Plan is due in 15 months. 

But one early test of the Cooper administration’s commitment to a zero-carbon transportation sector could be the second and final phase of distributing its Volkswagen money. The plan for the funds was publicized the last week of December, just days before Cooper signed Executive Order 246. 

It references the now-stale goal of 80,000 zero-emission vehicles by 2025, and though it emphasizes electric school buses and transit buses, it doesn’t foreclose the investments in fossil fuel vehicles that dominated the first disbursement of funds.

“Replacing old diesel with new diesel is taking a step backwards,” Cross said. “It would be not aligned with the executive order and present a conflict.” 

The request for proposals for school bus replacements is scheduled to be issued in March. Advocates are watching to see whether only electric versions will be on the table. 

This month’s executive order, Cross said, “does kind of call the question.”

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Elizabeth has covered the state’s clean energy transition for the Energy News Network since 2016. She has also produced features for Environmental Health News and SEJournal, the news magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. A former communications director for the nonprofit Environment America, Elizabeth brings over two decades of environmental and energy policy experience to her reporting.