By Ryan Pitkin
Just weeks after the release of an extensive report detailing ways in which Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools could conceivably transition completely to solar energy over the coming decades, the path to making it happen remains unclear.
The report, created by the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center at North Carolina State University, describes how CMS could meet 100 percent of its electricity needs through on-site photovoltaic solar installations at schools, saving the district more than $1.5 million a year in the process.
Members of the Repower Our Schools (ROS) coalition presented the report to media members in Uptown Charlotte one early February morning that would have been more conducive to wind energy than solar.
The report and blustery press conference got some attention in local media and quickly cycled out, overshadowed by a school board divided over a new school assignment plan and the superintendent.
So the question remains: was CMS listening? And, if so, how far out would the district be from implementing something like the plans described in the report?
“I’m not taking this and throwing it in the file and coming back to it in six months,” Phil Berman, executive director of building services for CMS, says. “I develop goals and objectives for everything I do with my staff and I hold people accountable. This report has been and will be part of our goals and objectives, as will driving energy efficiency.”
The CMS staff, board members and legal team received the 90-page report on February 1, and when I met with Berman 10 days later, he had a heavily highlighted version of it laid out on the conference table in front of him, along with a number of related articles printed out and pages of notes about his thoughts on the report.
“I feel like I’ve been studying for a college exam,” he says, laughing.
Berman, who has been with CMS since 1988, understands that solar is the future and, at some point, the district will need to move away from its coal- and nuclear-based energy sources. About 95 percent of the energy currently used by CMS – $18 million worth annually – is generated by fossil fuels and nuclear power.
“I’m a firm believer that solar power is the future. Maybe not in my lifetime to where it’s widespread, but every report and study I see says that in that 2040 to 2045 period, it’s got to happen,” Berman says. “We’re in a transition with fuel and natural gas. Coal is the dodo bird; it’s the dinosaur. I’m comfortable that they say this is our hope and the study achieved that.”
On-site solar installations that serve each and every school in CMS are the end-goal for CMS and the ROS coalition, but both organizations have some work to do before the idea can reach its full potential.
“We are not expecting this to happen by any means tomorrow. This is a long-term commitment and we understand that,” says Monica Embrey, a Greenpeace climate organizer who works with ROS. (She dragged out the word “long” for emphasis) “The timeframe is completely dependent on how quickly we are able to make improvements to policies that allow schools to go solar faster and easier.”