A solar power array in North Carolina. (Image via Shutterstock) Clean Energy in NC
A solar power array in North Carolina. (Image via Shutterstock)

State environmental leaders talk justice and equity at clean energy summit in NC.

Implementing sustainable energy solutions in North Carolina is about more than just protecting the environment—it’s also a matter of creating equity for all of the state’s citizens and fueling economic growth. 

That was the key takeaway from the E2 North Carolina Clean Economy Summit, held virtually last week. 

The event—hosted by E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs), a national, nonpartisan group of business leaders, investors and professionals who advocate for policies that benefit the economy and environment—featured speakers from multiple sectors discussing North Carolina’s clean energy future.

North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael S. Regan kicked off the summit by highlighting the connection between clean energy and its impact on some of the state’s most vulnerable communities.

“Environmental justice and equity have to be a central part of our efforts to address climate change,” he said. “Clean energy and climate action are good for the economy and good for business, creating good-paying jobs.”

NC Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan (Image via NC DEQ)

Much of the discussion focused on tenets of Gov. Cooper’s Executive Order 80, which outlined the state’s commitment to reversing climate change through conservation and transitioning to clean energy sources such as solar and wind power. Panelists pointed to the potential for economic stimulus in the state with the transition to sustainable energy sources.

“Energy efficiency is the largest sector of the clean energy economy,” said Claire Williamson, an energy policy advocate at the progressive North Carolina Justice Center. “It’s local jobs—you can’t export them. And to have a robust energy efficiency workforce, we need to have consistent programs and goals. Having a strong energy efficiency standard and allocating funding accordingly is very important so it’s not an up-and-down economy.”

Williamson also said greater competition in the wholesale energy market could be beneficial, particularly in making it possible to extend lower energy rates to low-income people living at or below the poverty line.

“If you can have a lower energy rate, it can take care of a lot of issues around affordability, and it will allow us to make the investments we need to transition fully to clean energy,” Williamson said.

She also pointed to incorporating energy-saving units in the home, such as heat pump water heaters that are two-to-three times as efficient as a traditional model, as a means to reducing not only individual power bills, but energy consumption overall. But to make these more-efficient appliances accessible to low-income customers, energy companies and the state must implement programs that go beyond the typical rebate model.

“There are 1.7 million families that are below the federal poverty level that aren’t able to invest in those upgrades,” she said. “We’re looking at a rental program that gets rid of the up-front cost of installing a water heater, as well as tariffed on-bill programs where the utility pays up front for something and the person will pay it off through their utility bill. It should never take the place of low-income programs that serve customers directly, but it should be a way to expand accessibility.”

Williamson also suggested investments in electric buses, both for schools and public transportation.

“We’ve got to keep looking toward what’s the funding source to help drive electric school buses throughout the nation,” she said. “Because we have bus manufacturing facilities here, it would help create jobs for North Carolina workers while giving access to clean transportation.”

While the panelists pointed to new developments in wind and solar power slated to be revealed later this year, the consensus was there’s still plenty of work to be done to improve not only the state’s energy efficiency, but also its accessibility to all citizens.

“As a state and nation, many of us understand clean energy improves public health, provides prosperity and provides equitable opportunity,” said Regan. “This means access to clean air and clean water, protection from flooding, access to jobs and fair decision-making that benefits North Carolinians in all communities.”