Charlotte wants all clean energy by 2050. Is it realistic or just a feel-good plan?

Charlotte wants all clean energy by 2050. Is it realistic or just a feel-good plan?
(Davie Hinshaw | The Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Steve Harrison/The Charlotte Observer) - Was it a feel-good resolution or an achievable goal?

Last November, the City Council debated – and then rejected, for now – a resolution for the city to run on 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

Council members said they care about the environment, even if they rejected the resolution. They said they will consider it again, though they said they want a concrete plan to get there.

"When President Kennedy went up and announced that he wanted to put a man on the moon, I don't think he just got up in the morning and walked up to a microphone," said Republican council member Ed Driggs when the issue was first debated in November. "I think we owe it to the supporters of renewal energy to give more substance to a resolution like this by doing a little more research about what it really is."

If Charlotte is serious about becoming a clean energy city, it has a long way to go.

Rob Phocas, the city's sustainability director, estimates less than 1 percent of the city's energy use is from renewables, such as trucks running on natural gas or buildings with solar panels. And much of that energy is solar energy that's sold to Duke Energy, and not consumed internally by the city.

"We have a very small portfolio of clean energy," he said. "We are interested in growing that."

The resolution would apply to how much energy the city of Charlotte produces – not how much energy private businesses and homes produce inside the city.

Here is a look at the city's few clean energy projects:

? It has solar panels at six places: the parking deck outside the Government Center; the parking deck at Discovery Place; the transit system's bus maintenance building on South Tryon Street; Fire Station 41; A Department of Transportation building; and the CLT Center at the airport.

? Seven other buildings have either geothermal heat pumps or solar thermal water heaters. Most of them are fire stations.

? Solid Waste Services has been one of the most aggressive city departments, with 28 trucks running on compressed natural gas. The city also has a fleet of electric vehicles.

Though the city has taken baby steps toward renewable energy, Charlotte does not have a set policy on what kinds of vehicles it will buy, for instance.

For instance, the Charlotte Area Transit System last year bought 11 new express buses. But they were traditional diesel buses.

Other cities have made similar pledges, though it's unclear whether they are realistic.

Asheville, for example, wants its entire city – including private businesses – to operate on renewable energy by 2050.

Charlotte is supposed to finish a draft plan by the end of this month. Phocas said Charlotte will likely focus on how much energy its vehicles use, as well as its buildings.

One challenge for Charlotte is that Duke Energy generates 37 percent of its energy from coal, though the utility says it's transitioning to more natural gas and renewables. So long as coal remains a large part of Duke's power source, transitioning to electric cars wouldn't necessarily help the city.

Phocas said some cities reach clean-energy goals by simply buying clean-energy credits or offsets. He said Charlotte doesn't want to take that approach.

Since the council rejected the plan in November, five new members have been sworn in.

Of the council members who remain, Democrats Julie Eiselt, Greg Phipps and Vi Lyles voted to send the measure back to committee. Driggs, a Republican, also voted with them.

Democrat Dimple Ajmera, James Mitchell and LaWana Mayfield voted against sending the resolution back for more discussion.

Eiselt said she was concerned that the city didn't have a detailed plan.

"I would like to take it more seriously and say, 'What is the blue print? What do we need to do to get there? " she said.

Phipps said he is in favor of renewable energy, but wanted to know "what it would mean for our business, our economy and what our normal way of life is right now."

Ajmera, who now chairs the environment committee, said the city needed to pass the resolution to show "leadership and we need to show that we are serious about this."