THE NEWS & OBSERVER
Point of View: Published: Jan 18, 2007 12:30 AM
N.C.’s greener energy future
DURHAM – It’s official: North Carolina can move ahead toward a renewable-energy future. We can also use electricity much more efficiently. Taken together, these two possibilities avoid the risks of more coal and nuclear plants, avoid more greenhouse gas emissions and create thousands of new jobs in North Carolina.
A report commissioned by the General Assembly and financed by the state Utilities Commission was made public last month. La Capra Associates, consultants selected by North Carolina’s Environmental Review Commission, showed that we can find renewable sources for 10 percent of the state’s electricity over the next 10 years — a conclusion already reached by many North Carolinians.
Water power, wind power and byproducts from our agriculture, forests and landfills can produce that 10 percent.
To be sure, the consultants considered the 10 percent level to be a stretch — but they did not include solar electricity or solar hot water, even though these sources will become even more cost-competitive well before 2017. Indeed, SunEdison, a for-profit company, seeks to build solar-electric facilities for North Carolina businesses if the utilities will drop their barriers. State and federal tax credits enable them to produce electricity from the sun at competitive rates.
A study accompanying the report confirms the evidence of dozens of in-state researchers: efficiency gains can reduce electricity needs by another 14 percent over the 10-year period. Implementing these measures — using more efficient appliances and lights, building less leaky houses and offices — will save energy and, of course, dollars.
There are also possibilities of installing more combined-heat-and-power facilities in factories and commercial buildings, thus providing even more electricity. These are not mentioned in either report.
Will North Carolina take advantage of these opportunities?
In a way, the state has already achieved a similar gain in efficiency. In the 1970s and 1980s we added 1 million new homes, but total residential energy use went down. This was an era of rising oil prices and much attention to energy conservation; there were dramatic reductions in home fuel use, mostly for heating. Homes were weatherized, and new construction had much better insulation.
Now is the time to revisit that attention to wise energy usage, but with particular emphasis on electricity.
Rates may rise somewhat if the state adopts a goal of creating 10 percent of electrical power from renewable sources, but most customers will see a drop in their power bills if they take advantage of the assistance offered in becoming more energy-efficient. Rates are sure to go up, perhaps even more, if new coal and nuclear plants are built.
Fortunately, the State Energy Office is well-positioned to enhance existing efficiency programs and to institute many new ones shown effective in other states.
Choosing the 10 percent renewable goal as outlined by La Capra will involve the development of wind generation. In North Carolina, sufficiently strong winds are found only near the coast and on the mountain ridges. Some 5 percent of the 1,850 miles of ridgeline would be involved, as well as some installations in the coastal sounds.
The choice, between these developments on the one hand and nuclear or coal plants on the other, is one that North Carolinians will need to make.
Beyond that, the renewable sources represent relatively minor and invisible changes in the energy system. There would be upgrading of some hydroelectric stations, some generators installed in existing dams and some run-of the-river generators. Methane from hog-farm waste would represent a huge environmental (and olfactory) gain.
La Capra concludes that turning to these power sources would create thousands of new jobs — far more than would be created by building and operating more coal and nuclear plants. And clean energy jobs could be distributed across the state, rather than concentrated in one or two counties.
North Carolina is standing at a clear fork in the road. One path, preferred by most of the public, involves developing our renewable electricity sources and using all of our electricity much more efficiently. This choice also avoids adding still more greenhouse gases,
as we see ever more clearly the risks posed by global warming.
The other path, unaccountably favored by the large utilities, leads to huge and risky investments in coal and nuclear power plants. The utilities’ shareholders and ratepayers, along with taxpayers, would bear the risks of huge investments in those obsolete and archaic behemoths, while the rest of the nation moves belatedly into a new energy era.
(John Blackburn is professor emeritus and former head of the economics department at Duke University. He served as an expert witness in 2006 proceedings before the state Utilities Commission.).