Apr 24, 2023 - Climate

Charlotte appears unlikely to meet its ambitious climate goals by 2030

An electric street sweeper. Photo: City of Charlotte

The Government Center erupted into cheers more than four years ago as Charlotte City Council took what member Dimple Ajmera described to the crowd as a “historic step” toward reducing emissions.

In December 2018, council unanimously approved the Strategic Energy Action Plan that set two major environmental goals in motion. The most immediate would strive to power the city’s fleet and buildings with 100% zero-carbon sources by 2030.

Driving the news: Now, despite receiving national attention for its climate efforts, the Charlotte leaders responsible for implementing the plan admit it is unlikely they will fully meet that goal in time.

And in February, City Council narrowly voted to authorize CATS to purchase 15 new hybrid diesel buses, which have a lifespan of 12 years, all but ensuring that the city’s fleet will not be all-electric in time.

  • What’s more, environmental advocates say Charlotte hasn’t been transparent enough with the public about its progress on the climate targets.

Why it matters: The climate is expected to warm to catastrophic levels sometime in the early 2030s, per the landmark IPCC climate report released last month, unless we can cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than half in that time. Actions taken by local, state and national governments over the next decade will be critical to that effort.

What they’re saying: Former mayor Jennifer Roberts, who left office in 2017, helped shepherd the plan before its passage. She tells Axios she’s disappointed that the city appears to be falling short of meeting the goal it set out.

  • “Seven years early to give up seems to me underly-ambitious,” she says. “I think that you need to message that you’re still hoping that technology changes, that supply chain ramps up that there are more grants that come forward.”

The other side: Sarah Hazel, the city’s chief sustainability and resiliency officer, tells Axios that the city’s fleet will not be entirely zero-carbon by 2030 due to limitations with the technology of EVs. She calls the SEAP “aspirational.”

  • Instead, the city is looking at offsetting its energy usage while it makes the transition to an all-electric fleet as a way to meet the 2030 timeline. Even if it could purchase all electric vehicles by then, the electricity being used to charge EVs comes from Duke Energy’s grid that isn’t 100% clean.

By the numbers: The city has 90 EVs in its fleet, not including what it has on order, which is just 2% of its 4,351-vehicle fleet. Around 17% of non-patrol sedans are electric.

  • But the city has heavy-duty vehicles in its inventory, like fire, pickup and garbage trucks, for which there are fewer options for hybrid or electric vehicles. The Charlotte Fire Department is gaining its first electric fire engine, but Hazel says they are not widely available enough to replace all of the city’s fire trucks yet.
  • “There are many things that are not within our control,” she says. “We just have to pull all the levers we can to get as close as we can, as far as we can, as fast as we can.”

Details: The SEAP focuses on buildings, transportation, energy generation and workforce development. The city points to a number of achievements in those areas.

Buildings: Building energy usage accounts for more than half of the city’s carbon emissions, according to a city report. The report calculated whether a city-owned building is using more or less energy compared to similar buildings or its historical use.

  • 60% of municipal buildings are performing below their national medians, while 40% are at or above.
  • On Friday, the city launched a program to track and reduce energy usage in buildings, which local organizations like UNC Charlotte, Honeywell and Novant Health joined.

Workforce development: The city partnered with the Urban League of the Central Carolinas to fund a paid training program in HVAC and electrical trades with a focus on renewable energy and energy efficiency. Over 120 have graduated so far.

Energy generation: Charlotte has installed solar panels on facilities it owns and has more in the works. They will create the energy equivalent to the electricity usage of about six city buildings.

  • But the city only has so much rooftop space on its properties, Hazel says. That’s where offsite projects, like a 35-megawatt solar farm council voted to invest in in Iredell County, can make up for the rest. The facility, being constructed through Duke Energy’s Green Source Advantage program, will bring new renewable energy to the grid and offset 17% of the city’s existing electricity use.

Yes, but: As a Duke Energy customer, Charlotte is limited in its efforts to use clean energy.

  • The North Carolina Utilities Commission late last year released a plan for Duke Energy requiring it to retire its coal-fired plants by 2035 as it transitions to cleaner energy. Advocates urged the Charlotte-based utility company to move away from fossil fuels faster.
  • The city says it is working with the utilities commission and Duke Energy to push for a cleaner grid.
  • “The farther they move, and the faster they move, the less we have to offset the power that’s coming from Duke Energy with things like on-site solar or larger-scale solar projects,” Hazel says.

Zoom out: The broader Charlotte community also must reduce its carbon footprint, according to the SEAP. The city also set out an objective to become a low-carbon city by 2050, which translates to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to below two tons of CO2 equivalent per person annually, the target amount set in the Paris Agreement.

  • Duke Energy and the city announced a partnership earlier this month to retrofit the homes of approximately 500 customers in the area who qualify based on income requirements to be more energy efficient.

Such an effort requires widespread buy-in from the community. Yet, public engagement with the SEAP has dwindled, environmentalists say.

And they say corporations should be more involved with the SEAP discussions.

  • The city held citizen advisory group meetings for each of the four focus areas. Roberts, who is part of them, said there were around 400 people on the first invitation, including local corporations. But over time, people dropped off, and the groups met less frequently. She estimates that around 20 or 30 still attend.

A group of climate activists formed an accountability committee because of what they saw as a lack of reporting from the city on its climate targets.

  • They want the city to release specific figures such as the number of electric buses that would need to be purchased each year, or how many buildings should be retrofitted for solar panels.
  • “It doesn’t look like a plan. It looks like more of a PR statement,” says environmental advocate Dean Kluesner. “It’s kind of greenwashing in a sense.”

Charlotte discloses its progress on the SEAP through an annual report and to third-party national groups. The city is exploring sharing information in a more dynamic way, Hazel says.

What’s next: On Monday, city staff will provide the latest report on the SEAP to Charlotte City Council.

Ajmera, the council member who was chairperson of the environment committee when the SEAP was approved, raised concern about the bus purchases at the February council meeting. She says staff has assured her even with that decision, it is still possible to follow the 2030 timeline using offsetting.

The bottom line: Every few years, Charlotte galvanizes public support on issues like homelessness and economic mobility. And then slowly, momentum peters out.

  • Ajmera and others want to make sure climate change doesn’t suffer the same fate.
  • “I don’t want SEAP to be one of those plans that just sits in the shelf and collects dirt,” she says.

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