Michael Regan: Not too late to leave state in good shape

Published 12:01 am Sunday, April 14, 2019

By Michael Regan

I recently spoke at the University of North Carolina Clean Tech Summit — and I was inspired by our state’s enormous potential to fully transition to a clean energy economy. I challenged the students and business leaders in attendance to embrace disruption and exemplify the leadership North Carolina needs.

Disruption, whether technology or impacts from climate change, are our new normal and this generation must not only embrace it — we must thrive in it. Technology and smart infrastructure investments will create new environmental and business solutions, so we must design policies and laws that provide certainty – yet enough flexibility to promote innovation and creativity.

There is a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr quote that remains relevant today, “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now and there is such a thing as being too late.”

North Carolina is not too late. Gov. Roy Cooper has a vision and plan. We will use technology, new business models, entrepreneurship and good old American ingenuity to ensure we are on the right side of history.

Last September, Hurricane Florence showered 3 feet of water on many of the same communities that were flooded by Hurricane Matthew just two years earlier.

We cannot continue to ignore the reality that we will face more frequent and extreme weather. We must rebuild stronger, smarter and faster.

Last October, Cooper issued an executive order confirming North Carolina’s commitment to mitigating climate change impacts and becoming more resilient, starting with a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2025. In February, the Department of Environment Quality released the state’s first greenhouse gas inventory in over a decade to set the foundation and measure our progress.

By the end of this year, DEQ will unveil the state’s comprehensive Clean Energy Plan. Building on the input of leading innovators in energy, infrastructure, technology and sustainability, it will provide the roadmap for our state’s energy future.

For North Carolina to remain globally competitive, we must continue to be leaders in the development of clean energy, jobs and corporate responsibility. The Research Triangle has the second-fastest-growing tech cluster for clean energy in the United States. Our state has the highest concentration of smart grid companies in the world, and we’re the capital for analytics. Today, there are almost 1,000 clean energy firms in North Carolina, generating $6.4 billion in annual revenue.

Smart, electric infrastructure is key to our competitive edge. A smarter, more resilient electric grid that enables renewable energy generation, battery storage and electric and autonomous vehicles is a must. But we must not forget the importance of our water and sewer infrastructure. That is why the governor proposed an $800 million infrastructure bond.

Cities and towns like Mt. Olive have turned away new business opportunities and smart growth — housing, commercial and academic expansion — because they lack the water and sewer infrastructure to support robust economic development. That circular challenge, where there are few resources for critical infrastructure repairs and upgrades, means no new tax revenue and no new economic growth, illustrating the importance of public-private partnership to invest in a reliable and resilient infrastructure.

We recognize technology and markets will accomplish what regulations could never accomplish alone, but that does not occur without a dose of disruption.

If managed correctly, these disruptions can lead to positive change for both the environment and our economy. North Carolinians are resilient, and we are not too late. We are determined to leave this state better than we found it for our children and their children.

Michael Regan is secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.