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Durham can’t achieve a carbon-free future alone

In 2019, the city of Durham committed itself to an ambitious climate goal.

The City Council passed a renewable energy resolution that said by the end of 2020, the city would develop an action plan to transition government-run trucks, police cars and buildings, to renewable energy sources. By 2030, 80% of city operations would use renewable energy, with a goal of carbon neutrality by 2040, and 100% renewable energy reliance by 2050.

Now, coming up on that 2020 deadline, the city has to figure out how to make this goal happen.

Many of the implementation details won’t be spelled out until a consultant delivers a plan next summer to City Council with strategies and costs.

But the challenges are obvious. A dramatic reduction in the city vehicle fleet’s carbon footprint is necessary and is likely to be expensive. Doing the same with city buildings will require major help from city electricity suppliers like Duke Energy.

“We’re gonna do our part, but we need everybody else to step up in order for us to meet those goals,” said Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson.

More than 100 cities and counties across the U.S. have launched plans to eliminate their greenhouse gas emissions — starting with their own operations. Durham’s City Council joined them by passing a renewable energy resolution calling climate change “real”. It acknowledges that rising greenhouse gas levels will lead to food and water shortages, increasing numbers of refugees globally, greater poverty and mass extinction of plants and animals.

Earlier this year, the city hired the Georgia-based engineering firm GDS Associates to finalize a blueprint for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction by next July. This blueprint would be limited to city operations and exclude community or residential emissions.

The city’s carbon footprint

City of Durham 2020 carbon emissions by emission source. Statistics provided by Lauren Davis.

In Fiscal Year 2020, city buildings and operations released about 48,318 tons of GHG emissions into the atmosphere, said Lauren Davis, administrative analyst for the General Services Department. She explained that that was a 20% reduction since FY 2010.

Some of this pollution comes from the city’s 1,349 vehicles – police cars, fire trucks, garbage trucks and other vehicles driven by city employees every day, said Davis.

Some of it comes from city buildings that run on electricity generated by Duke Energy and natural gas from Dominion Energy. The two utilities sell Durham power produced by plants that run primarily on nuclear energy, natural gas, water-power and – decreasingly – coal.

In the year ended June 30,  Durham spent nearly $10.6 million on fossil fuels and electricity, with more than $6 million of that going to the power companies, Davis said.

Duke Energy’s key role

The city’s goals call for an increased reliance on solar, wind or hydroelectric power to keep its vehicles moving and its buildings heated and cooled. To reach carbon neutrality by 2040, government officials can also invest in strategies that offset remaining GHG emissions – possibly by planting trees that sequester carbon.

Duke Energy, as the city’s primary electricity provider, will be a key to the success of the renewable energy plan, a fact that city officials and Duke Energy representatives have acknowledged.

“The goals are not achievable without Duke Energy really changing a lot of things about how they create energy,” said Johnson, the mayor pro tem. “If we are going to adopt these goals then we need to be serious about them. And that if we are going to be serious about them, we need to get serious about getting Duke Energy on board with these changes.”

Earlier this year, the city and the utility reached an agreement – called a “memorandum of understanding” or MOU – setting the power company and Durham on a path to work together to reduce carbon emissions.

“This MOU calls for the creation of a work plan between the city and Duke Energy. We anticipate creating the work plan after the final delivery of the carbon neutrality and renewable energy action plan from GDS Associates,” said Davis.

“We have a long standing collaborative relationship with the city and so we’re really excited to work together with them to achieve their clean energy goals,” explained Meredith Archie, spokesperson for Duke Energy.

This partnership will likely include infrastructure for electric vehicle charging stations, the replacement of street lights with lower-emission LEDs, and more energy-efficient lighting in city buildings, said Archie.

“[The city] is also currently evaluating the Green Source Advantage Program, which would allow them to offset their power purchases by securing renewable energy from projects that are connected to the Duke Energy grid,” Archie said.

Electricity generation produces nearly 27% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. And power companies have been under significant pressure from regulators, investors and private and public customers like Durham to move from fossil fuels to renewables.

Duke has already scaled back its reliance on coal in its generating facilities. A decade ago, coal plants produced more than 60% of Duke’s power; it is now 22%. Duke is still heavily dependent on nuclear power and natural gas, but by retiring coal plants, it reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by 39% throughout its six-state service area between 2005 and 2019.

Last year, the utility announced an updated climate plan to reduce carbon emissions by at least 50% by 2030 and to achieve “net-zero” carbon emissions by 2050. In other words, any emissions in 2050 would be offset by greenhouse gases taken out of the atmosphere by the utility.

The problem with that, says Tobin Freid, Durham County sustainability director, is that “net zero” does not guarantee Duke will achieve that goal with renewable sources.

Like the city, Durham County wants to reduce its emissions by transitioning to 80% renewable by 2030 and 100% by 2050. The county hired its own expert, Eco-Shift Consulting, last month to come up with a renewable energy plan by March.

Freid questions whether Duke will be able to accelerate its renewable portfolio to meet the city and county goals. “Duke Energy plans to go 100% carbon-free. But that’s not the same thing as renewable,” Freid said. “What does that mean for the city and county’s renewable energy plans by 2050?”

Carbon-free energy, she noted, could include non-renewable sources like nuclear power.

Even some renewable sources are potentially problematic, such as biogas derived from hog waste. Under state law, Duke must generate 0.2% of its retail sales from swine waste by 2024, and it has begun by partnering with Smithfield Farms at the pork giant’s Tar Heel processing facility.

But the 2,400 hog farms and nine million hogs in North Carolina, one of the nation’s leading pork-producing states, have created environmental problems with waste lagoons and methane gas emissions. While biogas may grow to be a significant renewable resource, it comes from an industry that has been criticized and sued for adverse health impacts on neighbors, frequently people of color.

So, Freid questioned, if not biogas, then what? “I think it’s very naive for people to think that we’re just going to electrify everything, get rid of natural gas altogether, and then meet all of that electrification need with renewable energies.”

She did point out the potential to use human waste as a power source. Raleigh is building a biogas facility using sludge from sewage plants. If Durham were to do something similar, that could not only generate power but reduce emissions from wastewater treatment facilities.

The fleet

The city’s cars and trucks are the second-greatest contributor to the city’s emissions, and it has already started replacing conventional gasoline-fueled cars with hybrids and electrics. The city recently purchased 21 hybrid police cruisers and now has a total of 47 hybrid and seven electric vehicles.

“As existing vehicles and equipment come to the end of their life cycle, opportunities to invest in smaller, more efficient, and environmentally-friendly replacements is the goal,” said Davis.

It is unlikely, however, that all government vehicles will quickly transition to electrics, given the cost and current technology limitations.

“It’s not reasonable to just retire all of the vehicles now and replace them with electric vehicles,” said Freid. “They have a long lifespan and so rotating the vehicle out with take time.”

“How do we run our ambulances if there aren’t electric ambulances?” asked Freid. “So until these things actually exist, we can’t replace what we have with them, regardless of what they might cost,” she said. “And, then again, if they cost a lot more, we can’t do that either.”

And while the city will be working with Duke Energy on a pilot electric vehicle charging program, questions remain over how quickly charging stations will spread around the city.

“Charging infrastructure is a concern,” said Davis. “We look to our General Services department along with [GDS Associates] to develop a comprehensive plan to provide the charging infrastructure.”

One winner in the road to carbon-neutrality may be public transit, as cities look to greener alternatives for car owners looking to reduce their own carbon footprints. Johnson highlighted that in the eventual transition to electric buses, there may be opportunities to increase public transit options for Durham residents.

Busses lined up at Durham Station. Photo by Henry Haggart.

“The motivation for expanding transit is definitely partially an environmental and sustainability motivation as part of our sustainability goals,” said Johnson. “But a lot of it’s related to access for residents who are low-income and who can’t afford vehicles. We are expanding transit overall.”

Some history

What Durham is trying to achieve now builds on 25 years of struggling to grapple locally with the city’s share of a global problem.

The city started measuring its greenhouse gas emissions in the mid-90s. In 2007, the city and county created an emissions inventory and adopted a 2030 plan, but it lacked milestones, said Freid.

“At the time, we were the first community in North Carolina to adopt a plan, and it was very, I guess, state-of-the-art for 2007, but not so state-of-the-art for now,” Freid said.

Recent events may be working in Durham’s favor.

Although Durham’s carbon reduction plans do not rely exclusively on federal funding, Joe Biden’s victory last week in the presidential election could have an impact.

The U.S. signed the Paris agreement on climate change action when Biden was vice president, and he campaigned on an aggressive program to combat global warming. By contrast, President Trump pulled the country out of the Paris Accords, acting as a pro-coal climate change skeptic and reversing key Obama administration policies to reduce GHGs.

Now officials in cities and counties throughout the country will be watching to see if a Biden administration will boost funding substantially for localities embarking on programs like Durham’s.

Federal agencies tend to favor regional solutions, and Durham and Durham County have been working together even as they develop separate plans.

The city’s consultant, GDS Associates, and Durham County’s Sustainability Office plan to go before their joint Environmental Affairs Board on Nov. 12 with updates on the respective city and county plans.

“We’re actually currently in discussions about potentially a joint renewable energy project,” said Freid. “And there’s a joint fire-EMS station. So the fire station is run by the city, but the EMS, emergency services, is a county function. We have a joint facility, it’s new, and that has solar panels on it.”

In July 2019, solar panels were installed on the roof of Durham’s Fire and EMS Station 17,  home to firefighters and emergency medical service staff. The station, located at 5502 Leesville Road, can now generate approximately 60,000 kWh of its own electricity annually, covering about 60% of the facility’s annual energy consumption. Image provided by Lauren Davis.

What about Duke Energy?

One wild card in the mix is the future of Duke Energy itself.

Duke, one of the nation’s largest power companies, was recently the target of a buyout proposal from NextEra Energy, the parent company of Florida Power & Light. NextEra calls itself the largest generator of renewable energy from wind and solar, and if it acquired Duke, it is expected that it would speed up Duke’s renewables timetable.

Duke rejected the proposal, according to the Wall Street Journal, which noted that hostile takeovers in the utility industry are rare.

Whether Duke, in response to takeover attempts or the arrival of a significantly greener administration in Washington, will speed up on its own is uncertain.

“I think in terms of next steps over the next year,” said Duke’s Archie, “we’ll work with the city to help provide input and develop a work plan that will advance different priorities to achieve their goal around energy efficiency, economic development, electric vehicle infrastructure, and renewable energy expansion among other areas.”

“We understand that we’re an important partner in their ability to achieve their goals and certainly we want to. We’re committed to helping them get there,” she said.

Johnson believes the city’s pressure on Duke Energy could encourage other cities and states to put similar pressure on the energy provider. Locally, Chapel Hill has committed to the same 100% renewable goal by 2050, as have Orange County and Hillsborough. Gov. Roy Cooper in 2018 ordered that the state reduce its overall emissions to 40% of 2005 levels by 2025.

“What we hope will happen is if Durham starts pushing Duke Energy to make these changes, and they agree to do so, that can have a ripple effect on other municipalities,” Johnson said.

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at 

At top: Exhaust fumes flow out of a GoDurham bus downtown. Photo by Henry Haggart.