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State updates locals on Clean Energy Plan

041219 Clean Energy

Sushma Masemore, state energy director and a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Environmental Quality, addresses the audience at a “listening session” on the state's Clean Energy Plan at Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City, Thursday afternoon.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Friday, April 12, 2019

State environmental officials visited Elizabeth City on Thursday to update the public on the state’s Clean Energy Plan, and discussed some obstacles to expanding renewable energy use and driving down air pollution.

Sushma Masemore, state energy director and a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Environmental Quality, hosted a “listening session” on the plan at the Museum of the Albemarle Thursday afternoon.

Few citizens attended the event, but DEQ officials still gave a presentation on the Clean Energy Plan and invited audience feedback. They also invited citizens to review previous presentations on the plan, and to submit online feedback.

DEQ is developing the Clean Energy Plan as part of Gov. Roy Cooper's Executive Order 80. Issued in October, it calls for state agencies to study how to promote cleaner, cheaper, more efficient and more reliable energy use.

To combat climate change, it also calls for reducing statewide greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 2005 levels, getting up to 80,000 zero-emission/electric vehicles on the road, and reducing state buildings' energy consumption by 40 percent relative to the level in 2002-03.

Masemore reported DEQ has held several workshops in Raleigh that have featured utility experts, and has also held numerous listening sessions around the state for public convenience and input. Thursday's session in Elizabeth City was the seventh of eight planned; the last is in Greensboro on May 17.

DEQ is also drafting the Clean Energy Plan for release in August, followed by a 30-day comment period and then presentation to Cooper's Climate Change Interagency Council for approval in September. The plan is due Oct. 1, Masemore noted.

To help discussion Thursday, Masemore presented excerpts of presentations — available online — from Kate Konschnik, of the Duke University Nicholas Institute; Jonas Monast, of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law; Stephen Kalland, of NC State University's Clean Energy Tech Center; and Robert Cox, of the UNC-Charlotte Energy Production and Infrastructure Center.

The videos recount that North Carolina has, over roughly the last decade, succeeded in holding down energy consumption despite a growing population. However, the “decoupling” of consumption from population growth means that utilities — particularly investor-owned utilities like Duke Energy who provide most of the state's electricity — don't see as much revenue growth from new customers.

The presentations also show that, while North Carolina is now second in the nation for solar energy, solar capacity is not expected to grow after 2025.

Natural gas production is expected to keep rising, thanks to abundant capacity and now-stable pricing, while coal is expected to dwindle to a tiny fraction of overall power generation, DEQ’s data show. Wind is also expected to remain a small fraction of overall power generation.

Driving up clean energy use — including residential solar — faces several challenges, the videos also showed. Utilities sometimes struggle to integrate “distributed energy resources,” or small, scattered sources of power, and many municipalities and electric cooperatives aren't set up for net metering, or end users getting credit for energy they produce.

The videos also reported under-deployment and lack of incentives for battery storage, which helps compensate for intermittent energy sources — solar generation dips at night, for instance — and meet times of high demand.

Masemore also noted that, while “combined cycle” natural gas plants are fairly clean, utilities are increasingly relying on “combustion turbine” gas plants to meet times of high demand. Combustion turbine plants cause more air pollution, she noted.

In his video, Cox, of the Energy Production and Infrastructure Center, also said that utilities and their regulators need to better account for, and encourage, investments that modernize the electrical grid — particularly to make it more resilient to natural disasters. The current review and rate-setting processes don't consider the value to society, not just the utility itself, of avoiding the costly damages from of catastrophic events like hurricanes, he explained.

Public comments on the Clean Energy Plan will be accepted online at deq.nc.gov, through July 24.

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