NC's dirty secret: Vehicles account for more greenhouse gas emissions than power plants
When the boilers from the old coal-fired Sutton Plant just outside Wilmington went down in a heap of rubble in November 2016, it joined a burgeoning revolution in recent years that has seen countries, states and even cities racing to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in the face of increasingly alarming predictions from climatologists.
The retirement of the Sutton Plant, along with other coal-fired plants across the state operated by Duke Energy, helped gross greenhouse gas emissions from electrical generation in North Carolina drop by nearly 35% between 2005 and 2018, according to the state’s latest greenhouse gas inventory.
Overall, North Carolina saw net emissions reduced by 23% during the 13-year period, a number that is certainly higher today if additional coal plant retirements and other measures adopted in the past three years are taken into account. Net emissions, rather than gross emissions, reflect the state-produced carbon that is sequestered by North Carolina’s forests and other natural habitats. That figure was estimated to be 26% of emissions in 2018.
The reduction in emissions came even as the state’s population grew by 19%, from 8.7 million to 10.4 million, between 2005 and 2018 and the state’s economic output increased by 24%, according to the state report card.
But is the state transitioning quickly enough to a clean energy, green-powered future?
"That answer is clearly no," said Joel Porter, policy manager with CleanAIRE NC. "We’re not moving as nearly as fast as we should or can."
He said officials and consumers need to turn ambition into action, using the powers of legislative mandates and the purse to pursue more clean energy changes.
"It's a hard problem that demands comprehensive solutions," Porter said. "We can't wait."
State officials say Gov. Roy Cooper has taken significant and meaningful steps in recent months to reduce North Carolina's overall greenhouse gas emissions, both through executive orders and the energy bill hashed out between Cooper, a Democrat, and the Republican-controlled General Assembly in December.
Under that legislation, North Carolina is projected to see a 39% decrease in net greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 as a result of general reduction in fossil fuel usage across the economy and the changes required under the energy bill.
Stuck in neutral
But one glaring red flag in the state's emission report is the large polluting footprint of the state's transportation sector. It accounts for 36% of the state’s gross greenhouse gas emissions and is projected to drop at a much lower rate than other sectors in the coming years. Emissions from the transportation sector decreased by a relatively paltry 3% from 2005 to 2018. According to the state report, pollution generated by the sector is recorded as higher than in previous estimates due to a more accurate modeling system adopted by the EPA.
Stan Cross, electric transportation policy director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said there are several reasons why transportation is an especially challenging sector when it comes to tackling emissions.
Top of the list is the key role vehicles play in our daily lives, and how reliant we are on them. And with 10 million vehicles, the vast majority personal vehicles, registered in North Carolina, that's a lot of individual tailpipe pollution sources.
"It's a difficult issue that involves all of us as consumers and thousands and thousands of individual choices," Cross said. "What we need to do is reimagine our transportation system so we're not so dependent on personal vehicles."
North Carolina, though, isn't known as a state where residents embrace mass transit. Development patterns decades in the making have seen the state grow out from its urban cores, not up, and most proposals to shoe horn mass transit options into Carolina suburbia have proven to be largely unpopular and very expensive — think the decades-long effort to promote commuter rail in the Triangle and the troubled history of light rail in Charlotte.
Cross said to truly get a handle on reducing transportation emissions North Carolina needs to take a holistic approach, including developing options to reduce the miles we're driving, largely through better mass transit options and developing more walkable communities, and rapidly ramping up the adoption of electric vehicles.
"We have to pick up the pace because climate change isn't slowing down," he said.
According to the N.C. Department of Transportation, there were roughly 24,000 electric and hybrid vehicles registered in the state at the end of 2020. Cooper has announced plans to rapidly increase that number in coming years, with a goal of having at least 1.25 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2030 and electric vehicles to constitute 50% of all sales by the same year.
Thanks to proceeds from the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal settlement, North Carolina is also rolling out vehicle charging stations in rural areas to help fill in the gaps in the state's charging network. Officials also have shown keen interest in tapping into $5 billion included in President Biden's infrastructure bill for new charging infrastructure.
Harnessing offshore wind
Despite some local opposition from coastal residents and local officials, Cooper also is pushing hard for the state to develop 2.8 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind energy resources off the North Carolina coast by 2030, and 8 GW by 2040.
The federal government has proposed two wind farms off the North Carolina coast, one off the Outer Banks and the other south of Brunswick County.
In a recent visit to Wilmington, Cooper said North Carolina was well positioned to capitalize on the opportunity, both from power generation and job creation, offered by the sea's breezes.
"The earlier we can get into this, the more we can reap the economic benefits from it,” he said. “It is astounding the amount of clean energy that we can produce and the amount of money that can go in the pockets of North Carolinians.”
Cross said even with the drop in emissions from power plants, the state needs to keep up its multi-faceted effort to decarbonize the economy — and people need to embrace the changes that are coming sooner than many might realize.
"The governor is doing his job putting forth his vision where we need to go," he said. "Now we need to get to work."
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