And yet with respect to how energy is generated and used--and especially considering the consequences of its generation and use--there is so much at stake.
We live in the most energy-dependent country on earth. With less than 5 percent of the world's population, the United States consumes a whopping 24 percent of the world's energy. We rank first in the world in annual petroleum consumption (25 percent) and natural gas consumption (25 percent), and second only to China in annual coal consumption. We emit more carbon dioxide than any other nation, and the federal government is doing curiously little about it.
Two years ago, The Economist magazine--hardly a mouthpiece of the rabid environmental left--called for a worldwide "energy revolution," arguing that "the needlessly dirty, unhealthy and inefficient way in which we use energy is the biggest source of environmental fouling." The Economist urged governments to (1) scrap subsidies that encourage the use of fossil fuels, (2) help poorer governments switch from fossil fuels to cleaner energy, and (3) price energy "properly" so that the consumer cost of fossil fuel combustion includes the external costs of human health and environmental degradation.
As it becomes increasingly clear that human dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear energy is unsustainable, unhealthy and uneconomical, some governments, businesses, organizations and individuals have taken action to lay the foundation for a clean, sustainable energy future.
North Carolina is not exactly the ringleader of clean energy innovation. Our state's electricity still comes overwhelmingly from dirty resources such as coal (62 percent) and nuclear (32 percent). But neither are we hopelessly far behind. In fact, with a combination of generous financial incentives; a collection of clean-energy programs; an armada of diligent nonprofit organizations, small businesses and individuals; a committed state energy office; and an abundance of indigenous renewable energy resources, North Carolina is poised to make the transition from old-fashioned, 19th century energy to clean, renewable energy.
To begin with, North Carolina offers homeowners and businesses a 35 percent tax credit on the cost of purchasing and installing most renewable energy systems. The credit, possibly the best of its kind in the country, is subject to various ceilings and distributions depending on sector and the type of system. Residents are eligible for a maximum credit of $10,500 for a photovoltaic system (also known as a PV or solar-electric system), $3,500 for passive and active solar space heating systems, and $1,400 for solar hot water heating systems. Businesses may take a maximum credit of $250,000 for all solar, wind, hydropower and biomass applications on commercial and industrial facilities.
The credit is, unintentionally, one of the best-kept secrets in North Carolina's tax code.
"People typically don't know about the credit," says Tom Wills, an installer of solar hot water heating systems for Louisburg-based Solar Consultants. Most of Wills' customers invest in solar hot water heating systems for environmental and economic reasons, but usually have no prior knowledge of the credit.
"To a lot of our customers, energy independence goes hand-in-hand with reduced air pollution," Wills said. "The tax credit is icing on the cake."
Additional incentives for new residential systems may be coming down the pipes. These may include payments from NC GreenPower for electricity generated by qualifying solar-electric systems, and a possible federal tax credit for various renewables. For more information on North Carolina's renewable energy tax credit and other financial incentives, see www.dsireusa.org .
If you're not in a position to buy your own renewable energy system, you can still support the development of renewable energy in North Carolina by purchasing "green power." Green power--electricity generated by resources such as solar, wind, small hydro, biomass (organic matter) and landfill gas--is considerably cleaner than electricity generated by conventional sources such as coal, nuclear and natural gas.
"So many people don't understand where our energy comes from," says Katy Ansardi, North Carolina's Million Solar Roofs coordinator. "We just flip the switch and don't really think about what's involved."
Actually, a lot is involved--and it's not good. Consider the following:
North Carolina's 14 coal-fired power plants spewed more toxic chemicals into the atmosphere than electric utilities in any other state, according to a 2003 report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
North Carolina ranks eighth in the country in smog-forming sulfur dioxide emissions by power plants, 12th in nitrogen oxide pollution and 12th in carbon dioxide emissions, according to the PIRG report.
North Carolina is one of 10 U.S. states with airborne mercury pollution that poses serious public health risks, according to a 2003 report by Environmental Defense. Most mercury "hot spots" come from nearby coal-fired power plants and other facilities.
In 2004, three of North Carolina's urban areas again placed on the American Lung Association's top-25 list of metropolitan areas with the worst ozone air pollution in the United States. Charlotte-Gastonia-Salisbury earned 14th place, Greensboro-Winston-Salem-Salisbury was awarded 16th, and Raleigh-Durham-Cary took the 23rd slot.
Air pollution comes from different sources, but electric utilities are a primary culprit. North Carolina's 2002 Clean Smokestacks Act will severely curtail nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and some mercury emissions by electric utilities over the next several years. However, carbon dioxide, mercury and other emissions and pollutants will continue to menace public health, the environment and economic development as long as coal is burned to generate our electricity.
NC GreenPower allows us an opportunity to get out of this dead-end rut. Residents and small businesses now can buy 100-kilowatt-hour "blocks" of green power from their electric utilities for $4 per block in addition to their regular power bill. (Large-volume electricity users may purchase 100 or more blocks of green power for an additional $2.50 per block.) Each block of green power purchased will add 100 kilowatt-hours of clean energy into North Carolina's power grid, displacing an equivalent amount of electricity that would otherwise be generated by coal, nuclear power or natural gas.
"Signing up for NC GreenPower is the easiest thing people can do to support renewable energy in North Carolina," Ansardi says.
Participation in the program is entirely voluntary. Customers can buy as many blocks of green power as they wish for any monthly billing cycle. Considering that the average North Carolina home uses around 800 kilowatt-hours of electricity per month, it would cost a homeowner approximately $32 more per month to purchase green power for 100 percent of their home's electricity needs.
NC GreenPower is an independent, nonprofit program established in 2003 by a statewide committee representing the North Carolina State Energy Office, electric utilities, environmental organizations and technology suppliers. The program has been approved by the N.C. Utilities Commission and is administered by Advanced Energy, an independent nonprofit organization based in Raleigh.
There are hundreds of green power programs operating in the United States, but North Carolina's is the only statewide program. To sign up for NC GreenPower, contact your electric utility. For more information about the program, see www.ncgreenpower.org .
The construction industry is another arena that could stand for a 21st century makeover. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, buildings account for 65 percent of total electricity consumption, 36 percent of total energy use, 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and 30 percent of raw materials use in the United States.
In recent years, more than two dozen residential "green builder" programs have sprung up around the country to promote the construction of homes in a more sustainable and environmentally safe manner. North Carolina's own green builder program, the N.C. HealthyBuilt Homes Program, was established this year by the N.C. Solar Center, the N.C. State Energy Office and local communities. Primarily geared toward residential builders, the N.C. HealthyBuilt Homes Program aims to develop statewide green building guidelines; provide training, marketing and technical support; and build partnerships to administer and promote the program in local communities.
"As more residents ask for green buildings, the market is evolving to deliver them," said Steve Kalland, associate director of the N.C. Solar Center. "If you asked for a green building a few years ago, most builders would look at you like you're crazy. But now, builders are finding ways to get the job done."
The N.C. Solar Center also provides an online database of green building technologies, allowing visitors to learn about completed North Carolina projects that incorporate various green building techniques, and a public directory of renewable energy professionals who offer renewable energy and energy efficiency products and services to North Carolina residents and businesses. The directory of professionals includes designers, architects, consultants, installers and manufacturers operating in North Carolina.
The N.C. Solar Center's own Solar House, located on N.C. State University's campus, has served as a public education and demonstration facility since 1981. The NCSU Solar House includes dozens of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies, as well as a public reference library, a wind energy system and an alternative fuels garage. For more information on services provided by the N.C. Solar Center, see www.ncsc.ncsu.edu .
If you want to see actual green buildings in action, a prime opportunity comes in the fall. The N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, a nonprofit advocacy organization, has been holding annual tours of local green homes for several years. The 2004 NCSEA Green Building Tour will take place on Oct. 2 in a handful of cities across the state, including Chapel Hill, Greensboro, Asheville and Boone. This list may be expanded to include other cities. See www.ncsustainableenergy.org for more information about the tour.
And North Carolina is home to eight local Million Solar Roofs partnerships. These grassroots partnerships--based in Durham, Chapel Hill, Greensboro, Charlotte, Wilmington, Asheville, Boone and Fayetteville--are part of a 1997 federal initiative to facilitate the installation of solar energy systems on one million U.S. buildings by 2010. Individual partnerships vary in terms of how they decide to promote and achieve the national goal.
"There's not a one-size-fits-all approach," Ansardi says. "We strongly encourage our local partnerships to get involved with environmental organizations, civic organizations, churches, business leaders and local governments."
Contact Katy Ansardi at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about North Carolina's local Million Solar Roofs partnerships.
The big tent
Whereas dozens of European and Asian countries have taken action (and devoted substantial funding) to ensure a cleaner, more sustainable energy future, the U.S. federal government's head remains stuck in the sand. Fearing the economic consequences of this lack of federal leadership, state governments have been taking matters into their own hands.
North Carolina's Clean Smokestacks Act--which regulates nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions--is one of the nation's strictest power plant pollution laws. In March 2004, North Carolina petitioned the EPA to crack down on pollution from power plants in 13 other states that the state says waltzes across its borders unchecked.
"I believe it's up to the states to move forward to clean our air," N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper told The New York Times. "I don't believe we can depend on Washington. We have to do it ourselves."
More recently, North Carolina received another dose of sobering information regarding the state's air quality. In April 2004, the EPA informed the state that 26 of its counties and parts of six additional counties are not in compliance with new, stricter ozone standards. The state is scrambling to come up with a plan to reduce ozone in these counties, which include Wake, Durham, Orange, Johnston, Granville, Franklin, Person and part of Chatham.
Some see North Carolina's air quality as an opportunity to jump-start an in-state renewable energy industry.
"There's a wide array of serious problems North Carolina faces that renewable energy can help resolve," says Steve Kalland. "These problems include air quality and EPA non-attainment issues, mercury contamination and other public health issues, economic development and the loss of jobs, a potential decline in the tourism industry, and animal waste disposal issues."
The prospects for homegrown, in-state renewable energy are tantalizing. North Carolina has favorable solar resources throughout the state, and excellent wind resources in the mountains and offshore. And if you haven't had the pleasure of driving through the eastern part of the state with your windows down on a hot summer evening, you may not know that North Carolina ranks first in the country in hog (and hog waste) production and second in poultry (and poultry waste) production. North Carolina could convert its ample (and often severely problematic) biomass resources--including animal waste and agricultural waste--to electricity with relative ease. Larry Shirley, director of the N.C. State Energy Office, has referred to the state as "the Saudi Arabia of biomass."
For that matter, conditions are ripe for a biodiesel industry in North Carolina, which likely would be based on soybean production. (Extricating our state and country from dependency on foreign oil is a different issue altogether.)
"This is about jobs and investment," says Mark Ginsberg, executive director of the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, who added that the organization is making a push to include more businesses in its efforts. His office "is trying to create a big tent. The more business members we have, the more interest we generate among policymakers in North Carolina."
The association is gearing up to convince the General Assembly to create a statewide "clean energy fund" and a statewide "renewable electricity standard." Clean energy funds, which provide financial support for renewable energy resources, energy efficiency initiatives and low-income assistance programs, have been created by 15 states. Renewable electricity standards, which require utilities to generate a specified percentage of their power using renewable energy resources, also have been implemented by 15 states.
The Sustainable Energy Association also seeks to allow owners of renewable energy systems to easily and cheaply connect their systems to the power grid and "net meter" these systems. With net metering, during times when a system owner's electricity output exceeds the owner's electricity use, the excess electricity generated will offset electricity consumed at another time during that billing cycle. North Carolina is one of only 11 states without some form of net metering.
On June 22, the the association helped organize "Renewable Energy for Economic Development Day" at the General Assembly to encourage legislators to adopt these and other policies that promote renewable energy commerce in the state.
"The biggest obstacle to the development of renewable energy in North Carolina is the simple fact that it's different," Steve Kalland says. "It requires a different way of thinking. It requires a different way of approaching decisions. You're asking the utilities, the coal industry, the nuclear industry and the railroad industry to change. You're asking for a major paradigm shift, and breaking that path dependency is a difficult process."
"But eventually," he says, "people are going to stop putting up with the status quo, because the status quo is not sustainable."