CHARLOTTE, NC (Bruce Henderson/The Charlotte Observer) - As critics bemoaned President Trump's decision Thursday to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accords, business experts say the move will have little practical effect on Carolinas businesses.
Power companies like Duke Energy are already moving away from coal, the fuel whose carbon emissions are linked to climate change, and toward cheaper, cleaner natural gas and renewable energy. Those moves won't be reversed because of policy changes.
Many smaller companies, meanwhile, have found that energy efficiency and emission-free rooftop solar panels save them money.
"It's my personal belief that U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement will have little to no effect on the strategic approach of energy companies in the Carolinas," said David Doctor, CEO of the Charlotte-based energy trade association E4 Carolinas.
North Carolina fought former President Barack Obama's plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants, Doctor said, negating any policy implications of the Paris agreement. But energy companies and their customers have also grown to expect to operate more cleanly than in the past, he added.
"Energy companies, and I would say nearly all, have a clear understanding that clean energy is good business," he said. "They're paying attention to their customers much more than they are to policy and world opinion, and their customers have decided that clean energy is good."
Duke Energy, one of the nation's biggest utilities, has retired half its 14 coal-fired power plants in North Carolina in recent years and moved to natural gas. It's also invested heavily in solar and wind energy, including a 200-megawatt wind farm dedicated Wednesday in Oklahoma.
Duke's corporate goal is to reduce its carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030. In a statement Thursday, the company acknowledged that climate change is a "key issue" for many of its stakeholders – and that it has to plan its investments in power generation decades into the future.
"As we continue to modernize our system and deliver increasingly clean energy, reducing emissions cost-effectively remains an important tenet of our investment strategy," spokeswoman Dawn Santoianni said. "We believe a balanced portfolio of energy resources is important to providing reliable electricity at affordable rates. As we had previously announced, over the next 10 years we plan additional investments of $11 billion in cleaner energy and $25 billion in grid modernization to meet the needs of our customers."
Santoianni said Duke will work with the administration, Congress and others "to advance energy policies that balance affordability, reliability and protection of the environment and are in the best interests of our customers and investors."
Frank Knapp Jr., CEO of South Carolina's 5,000-member Small Business Chamber of Commerce, predicts Trump's decision will at most slow the transition of U.S. companies to a low-carbon economy.
Knapp himself will pay off in four years the solar panels he installed on the small Columbia office building he owns. Bigger businesses are making the same calculations, he said.
"Businesses that have to make 10- to 20-year plans have already made their plans for alternative energy and energy efficiency," he said. "They may be inspired by a desire to reduce their carbon footprint or because they can save money. Businesses are in the business of saving money."
The Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute said in a statement that Trump's decision "will not change the commitment of the ... industry to energy efficiency and environmental stewardship."
Local governments were charting their own paths even as candidate Trump was promising to cancel U.S. participation in the Paris agreement.
Columbia, S.C., Mayor Steve Benjamin said Wednesday he would submit a resolution to the U.S. Conference of Mayors to formally support a goal of 100 percent renewable energy in cities nationwide. Tiny Cottageville, S.C., aims to become the state's first municipality wholly powered by renewable energy.