Other voices: The sky is the limit for renewable energy

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 16, 2022

As the dangers from the fire at Winston-Salem’s Weaver Co. fertilizer plant — possible explosions and such — subsided, the incident, which contributed a great deal of smoke to the atmosphere, came to serve as a reminder of the importance of clean, breathable air — one of the necessities of life that, we’ve discovered, can be affected by what we humans put into it.

We don’t usually have to breathe smoke and chemicals — we don’t, though others elsewhere in the world do — but the purity of our air and water has at times been at risk, which puts our health at risk. Particulate matter in the air contributes to cardiovascular and respiratory disease, as well as to the greenhouse effect that is generating environmental chaos across the country and around the world. Such will be the case as long as we rely on fossil fuels and greenhouse-gas generating industries.

It all lends itself to the case for switching to clean, renewable energy.

One northwest North Carolina town has made significant and encouraging progress in that direction. Eight years ahead of its legislated goal, the town of Boone recently announced that its operations are now 100% dependent on renewable energy generated by its two electricity companies.

“All the energy that we use in our buildings, to run our wastewater treatment plant, run our water treatment facilities, all the electricity used for all the town’s operations is coming from either solar or hydropower,” town sustainability director George Santucci told WFAE last month.

As far as anyone can tell, Boone is the first local government in the state to accomplish this. The little mountain town of about 19,000 residents in Watauga County, home of Appalachian State University, has set an example for others to follow.

But it didn’t happen overnight. It’s the result of conscientious planning that began over five years ago.

And there’s still more to be done. Boone hasn’t yet converted its vehicle fleet to electric, nor its heating and cooling systems. But it’s well on its way and won’t quit now.

Boone wants to shift its entire town, including homes and businesses, to 100% renewable energy by 2050.

Switching to renewables is slightly more costly at the moment — about 2 cents per kilowatt-hour more than what the town had been paying, WFAE reported.

But that’s a cost the town is willing to pay.

“We see that changing over time,” Santucci said. “And so the Town Council knew they needed to achieve these goals. And by investing early, I also knew that we could drive that market, we could drive the demand for renewables, which would then decrease the overall cost over time.”

That’s how this should work, according to free market economics: As demand rises, prices go down and innovations increase. And we can all breathe a little more easily.

On the other side of the state, Gov. Roy Cooper touted the future of another clean energy source — offshore wind energy — at a task force meeting in Wilmington last week, WRAL reported. “Clean energy is the right thing for our planet and our pocketbooks,” he said, referring to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Commerce that found that on the Atlantic Coast alone, the industry could create $140 billion in investments and 85,000 new jobs by 2035.

Two major offshore wind projects are in the works already: Kitty Hawk Offshore, which could eventually power up to 700,000 homes, and Wilmington East, a potential wind farm site that could provide enough electricity for more than 500,000 homes.

These wind projects have met a bit of turbulence. Local business leaders fear that unsightly turbines will have a negative impact on tourism. A number of towns have passed resolutions calling for wind turbines to be installed at least 24 nautical miles from the coast, where they’ll be out of sight.

That’s a reasonable request. But where some see a liability, others may find opportunity. Surely some tourists would appreciate a view of these imposing machines. Their design has a certain minimalistic charm.

Difficulties have also arisen over the N.C. Department of Revenue’s handling of solar energy tax credits. The agency is currently trying to force insurers to repay tax credits they received years ago for solar energy developments, Business North Carolina reported last week.

Last month, Cooper signed an executive order calling on North Carolina’s economy to be carbon neutral by 2050. He should get the DOR on board with his agenda.

As with any new technologies, there are bound to be hiccups. But these really aren’t new technologies at this point. They’ve been around long enough to prove that they can be beneficial and cost-efficient. Mostly what we need to implement them now is the political will.

The public can help supply that with its comments — and its votes.

— Winston-Salem Journal