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May 19, 2024 4:21 pm

by Lisa Sorg, NC Newsline
April 24, 2024

In the time it takes to bake a potato in an oven — about an hour — the state of North Carolina spends $40,000 on energy costs for all of its 4,400 buildings. When the clock strikes midnight, the state will have run a $960,000 tab.

Now repeat those totals. Every day.

With just eight months left in Gov. Roy Cooper’s term, his administration is taking stock of its progress in meeting ambitious climate goals, detailed in a series of executive orders over the past six years.

Gov. Cooper issued Executive Order 80, the first of several climate-focused directives in 2018, when global carbon dioxide levels averaged merely 408.7 parts per million. (Last month, the planet hit 425 ppm, a record.)

EO 80 laid out several ambitious benchmarks, with a deadline of 2025, with two critical components:

Register at least 80,000 zero-emission vehicles or ZEVs.Reduce energy consumption per square foot in state-owned buildings by 40% from the 2002-03 baseline.

More than 60,000 electric vehicles were registered in the state as of November 2023, Department of Transportation data show, an increase of 778% since the executive order went into effect. Add the 20,100 plug-in hybrids, which run in electric mode for 20 to 50 miles before switching to a gas engine, and the Cooper administration has achieved its goal.

Fewer than 100 state vehicles are ZEVs, according to the Department of Administration, which oversees the motor fleet. ZEVs for state use — something that required white, humdrum sedans or trucks — are scare. When ZEV manufacturers “make sexier cars for the general public, it’s harder to find ones appropriate for the motor vehicle fleet,” DOA’s Sustainability Specialist Brittany Quinn said at the State Clean Energy conference this week.

Gov. Cooper set a more ambitious goal for ZEVs in 2022, with Executive Order 246: Increase the total number of registered ZEVs to at least 1.25 million by 2030, with half of in-state sales of new vehicles being ZEVs by that date.

Bailey Recktenwald, the governor’s Climate Change Policy Advisor, said at a climate summit last week that the administration is focused on the transportation sector, the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in North Carolina. Even with the increase in low-emissions or zero-emissions vehicles, 97% of the state’s 8.7 million registered cars and trucks still run solely on gas or diesel.

Predictably, urban and highly populated counties have more registered ZEVs — and cars overall — than less populated rural ones. Yet there are fewer charging stations in rural areas, where “range anxiety” could also contribute to lower numbers of electric cars registered there.

State buildings falling short on energy usage goal

Prisons. Geriatric buildings. The sprawling UNC system.

It’s been difficult to achieve the energy reduction goals in state buildings, said Natalie Narron, a program analyst with the State Energy Office. So far, state facilities collectively have decreased their energy usage by a third. But with only eight months left to reach 40%, “we will likely miss that target,” Narron said at the State Energy conference.

The state’s Comprehensive Program Update and Energy Data Report, published in December, put it more bluntly: The goal “can only be achieved with immediate investment and implementation of substantial energy efficiency improvements within the next fiscal year.”

“Governmental units should make the necessary changes to prioritize energy efficiency, enlist the support of leadership and designate energy managers, and explore any and all pathways to funding these critical improvements,” the report went on.

“You have to change the culture. You gotta do stuff.”

– Reid Conway, Western Carolina University

The Department of Health and Human Services is expected to individually meet or exceed the goal, with reductions of 39% from the baseline already, according to the state’s Comprehensive Program Update and Energy Data Report, published in December.

The correctional system, which includes 53 prisons, consumes enormous amounts of energy and projected to cut its use by a quarter by the deadline, largely from installing LED lightbulbs. “Lights are everywhere,” said Paul Braese, program manager for Sustainability, Efficiency & Resilience at the Department of Adult Correction. “And we use so much water — hot water, in many cases.”

The department’s energy usage doesn’t account for a third of the prisons that aren’t fully air-conditioned. Now the state is embarking on a multi-year effort to air condition all the prisons in the state, two years after legislators appropriated $30 million, Newsline previously reported.

“We’re adding load while trying to save energy,” Braese said. “It’s a challenge. We’re a big ship.”

Part of the statewide challenge has been to reduce consumption while expanding square footage of the buildings, most of it within the UNC system. The UNC System, with its 17 sprawling campuses, plus community colleges, accounts for 72% of state agencies’ energy consumption and 71% of its utility spending, state data show. Nonetheless, the UNC System has cut its usage by more than a third — saving $150 million in utility costs in 2022-23.

“Fortunately, they have also proven to be the pinnacle of energy management,” the comprehensive state energy usage report says, because many have designated full-time energy managers or energy management teams.

Western Carolina University, in Cullowhee, has reduced its energy usage by half, earning bragging rights as the top performer throughout the UNC System.

T. Reid Conway, the director of campus energy and utilities, called EO 80 an “unfunded mandate.” He credited House Bill 1292, enacted nearly 15 years ago, with helping to offset the financial load of paying for the upgrades. The bill allows universities to keep the money from avoided utilities costs and use them for other projects; previously that money would have reverted to the state’s General Fund.

Conway said that helped Western Carolina generate $2 million in revenue from those energy savings.

And some of those improvements were easy: Weatherstripping 1 million square feet saved $19,000 alone.

“You have to change the culture,” Conway said. “You gotta do stuff.”

Executive orders don’t carry the force of law in North Carolina, but they nonetheless strongly encourage state agencies and the UNC system to take certain actions. Since incoming governors can continue, amend or even cancel their predecessors’ executive orders, the fate of the state’s climate goals is likely to depend on who succeeds Cooper as governor — Democrat Josh Stein, currently the state attorney general, or Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who has repeatedly denied that climate change is real.

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: info@ncnewsline.com. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

This story is republished from NC Newsline under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.