Since 2015 North Carolina has netted more than 110,000 new residents per year, one of the fastest growing of all the states. These newcomers are making increased demands on our roads, our schools, our recreational areas, healthcare facilities and utilities.
Let's focus this discussion on electric utilities. For much of our modern history we depended heavily on coal to generate electricity for our state. It was cheap fuel to purchase, therefore less expensive energy to customers. But coal fueled plants spewed harmful emissions - like carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen - into the air and contaminated our air quality. In 2014 we learned, from the Dan River containment pond burst, that coal ash residue also contaminates our rivers and streams.
Last year Governor Cooper signed a milestone energy bill into law that aims to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent below 2005 levels and reach carbon neutrality by 2050. To achieve these goals, we must close coal generation plants and focus on other sources.
The US Energy Information Administration reports that as of 2021, 33 percent of North Carolina's power was generated from natural gas, 31 percent from nuclear plants, 21 percent from coal and 15 percent from renewable sources.
So how does a fast-growing state meet its energy demands for both the short and long-term future?
While many advocate a full court press to increase renewable energy, for the foreseeable future we will require a mix of natural gas, nuclear and renewable energy to ensure we don't suffer "brown outs" or electrical shutdowns. Additionally, an urgent priority will be to secure our power grid from cyber-attacks.
North Carolina is already a leader in solar power generation, although solar has two major drawbacks. There is currently no way to store generated power and solar goes offline at night.
Wind turbines appear promising for new power generation. Currently, North Carolina has one land-based turbine farm in Pasquotank and Hertford Counties. The "Desert Wind" project, in operation since 2016, has 104 turbines generating power for Amazon distribution facilities largely in Virginia.
At least three other regional projects are in various stages of development. Dominion Energy has the "Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind" project that hopes to begin generating electricity in 2026 from a turbine farm 27 miles off Virginia Beach. Currently the largest wind project in America, it will provide power for 660,000 homes in Virginia. Project "Kitty Hawk," to be built by Avangrid Renewables, will be approximately 27 miles off Corolla and is scheduled to begin generation in 2030, providing power for 700,000 homes, with distribution lines running to Virginia. "Wilmington East" could bring wind turbines to Southeastern Carolina. Located 17 miles off Bald Head Island, it is projected to provide power for 500,000 homes and will begin leasing mid-year.
Environmentalists and tourism advocates have raised objections to the new wind farms, but a visualization demonstration on January 28th quelled the opposition of many, who agreed the turbines are little more than tiny specks on the horizon. "I don't think, personally, that it would affect our tourism," said Caswell Beach Town Commissioner Dan O'Neill. The federal Energy Information Administration says the turbines create fewer effects on the environment than may other sources.
We cannot rule out increasing nuclear power generation, especially since it is carbon-free. New technologies, including SMR, the small modular reactor, are less expensive to build and operate. And it will many years before we no are no longer dependent on natural gas, even though it is a fossil fuel product and has emission issues.
A Stanford research project said that if we completely shifted to renewable energy in North Carolina by 2050 we would stabilize our electrical grid 100 percent of the time. Such a move would create some 200,000 full-time jobs more than lost, save 1,600 lives from air pollution, and reduce annual energy costs by 52 percent. Most agree it is a desirable goal but a long time before materialization.
The bottom line is that we need to emphasize wind, water and the sun to have the energy we need for the future. Do we have the energy to produce the energy we need?
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He recently retired from writing, producing and moderating the statewide half-hour TV program NC SPIN that aired 22 1/2 years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.