As the planet warmed in 2023, North Carolina struggled for change
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It's been a big year for climate change news. 2023 will go down as the hottest year on record, clean energy development continued to grow, and the transition brought hundreds more clean-energy jobs to the Carolinas. This week, we take a look at some of the year's top stories on the climate beat.
Our warming planet
The year's biggest story has to be continued growth in the heat-trapping pollution that causes global warming. All the planet's warmest years on record have come in the past decade (see chart). That includes this year, which will top the charts as the hottest year on record.
As of November, global temperatures were averaging more than 1.3 degrees Celsius (2.3 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, according to the science and news organization Climate Central. That's fast approaching the Paris Agreement's goal of holding global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
"It's a remarkable number," Climate Central scientist Andy Pershing told me in November. "It's not a number that we would have without humans putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere."
Compared to the past 30 years, temperatures are above normal nearly everywhere on the planet.
As of November, Raleigh's average over the past 12 months was 0.9 degrees Celsius (1.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above 30-year normal ranges. Charlotte was 0.7 degrees over, and Columbia, S.C., 0.5 degrees above the 30-year normal.
The side effects of global heating include more intense hurricanes and other storms, extreme heat, drought, wildfires and sea level rise — all of which we're seeing to some degree here in the Carolinas. And those conditions mean more billion-dollar disasters, and more lives lost.
Temperatures in the 90s are more common in North Carolina than in the past, and this extreme heat is a risk for outdoor workers and for people with existing health conditions. Climate Central says the number of these risky heat days is up sharply in the past 50 years. As I reported in May, Raleigh-Durham now has 40 more risky heat days than it did in 1970. Other cities seeing big changes include Charlotte, 28 days; Asheville, 21 days; Greensboro-Winston-Salem, 26 days; Greenville, 31 days; Columbia, S.C., 34 days; and Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C., 31 days.
We didn't see a major hurricane in the Carolinas this year, according to a season recap by Yale Climate Connections. Tropical Storm Ophelia hit North Carolina in September with 70 mph winds.
Meanwhile, a lack of rain plunged western North Carolina into extreme drought this fall. December rains helped alleviate the situation. But as of this week, much of western and central North Carolina remains in severe or moderate drought, according to the North Carolina Drought Management Advisory Council.
The number of high-tide flooding days is on the rise this year in the Carolinas, due in part to climate change and a stronger El Niño. In August, federal forecasters predicted that the Carolinas could see an average of four to eight days when high tides are 1 to 2 feet higher than normal. That's for the period from last May through April, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The dry conditions also contributed to wildfires that affected parts of western North Carolina in November.
More electric vehicles on the road
As 2023 ends, more electric vehicles are on North Carolina roads — significantly more. The number of EV registrations is growing month by month, according to data from the North Carolina Department of Transportation. As of Sept. 1, the latest data available, there were nearly 75,000 fully electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles registered — 55% more than the year before.
EVs are still less than 1% of all vehicles in the state. And the number on the road is a far cry from Gov. Roy Cooper's goal of 1.25 million EVs in North Carolina by 2030.
EVs are also growing as a percentage of all car sales. North Carolina is a leader in the Southeast, with EVs accounting for 7.1% of new car sales in the second quarter of 2023, according to a September report from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. But that lags the national rate of about 10%.
North Carolina residents are eligible for federal tax credits when they buy both new and used EVs. But unlike some other states, there are no state or local incentives. And one change to pay attention to next year: Beginning in January, some buyers will be able to get tax credits at the dealer, instead of waiting to claim the credit at tax time. The dealers will do the paperwork on the tax credits.
The federal Inflation Reduction Act did put limits on the credits, which you'll have to pay attention to. That includes limits on the price of vehicles, requirements that cars be assembled in North America, and a mandate that batteries and critical minerals they contain must come from North America or other U.S. free-trade partners.
There's plenty of room for growth in EV sales and experts think we've hit an inflection point, with EVs now holding a 7% market share in North Carolina.
"When you look at disruptive technologies, historically, that have come to market, that 5% market share is a critical threshold. At that point, you begin to have enough of that technology in the market where consumers begin to pay attention and begin to adopt, beyond just those early adopter-type consumers," Stan Cross of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) said in September.
One more data point: The number of electric-vehicle charging stations in North Carolina continues to grow. In polls, drivers say that's one of their biggest concerns in switching to an EV. As of August, North Carolina had 811 Level 3 fast-charging ports and 2,601 Level 2 ports, both up about 60% from a year earlier, according to an Atlas Public Policy study for SACE.
Lithium mine plans advance
Because of growth in EV sales and demand for batteries, plans continued to advance this year for bringing lithium mining back to North Carolina.
Those content requirements for federal EV tax incentives mean that battery makers are hungry for U.S. lithium sources. Keith Phillips, CEO of Belmont-based Piedmont Lithium, said in November there's not currently enough capacity in the U.S. to meet coming market demands.
Piedmont Lithium continued to seek a state mining permit for a new mine in an area of homes and farms in northern Gaston County. The company has secured lithium from mines in Quebec and Ghana to begin shipments to customers in 2023. But the proposed Gaston County mine and processing operation remain the company's flagship project. Piedmont recently requested another extension on its application for the state mining permit. The project has faced stiff opposition from neighbors. It also still needs local zoning approval from county commissioners, who have been skeptical of the idea.
In November, Charlotte-based Albemarle Corp. took reporters on a tour of its former mine and processing plant in Kings Mountain, west of Charlotte. The company says it plans to begin draining the lake that now fills the old mine beginning in early 2024. The mine still needs a state mining permit, but Albemarle says it could open as soon as late 2026.
North Carolina is also home to Livent Corp.'s lithium processing plant in Bessemer City, in Gaston County. In a visit there last month, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen celebrated the region's role in an emerging "battery belt" across the South and Midwest to meet demand for domestically sourced lithium.
NC benefits from the clean energy boom
Yellen wasn't the only federal official to take note of North Carolina's growing importance in the clean energy transition. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm made several stops in Charlotte and visited Albemarle's Kings Mountain operations in June. Her southeastern tour in an electric vehicle caravan was designed to promote the Biden administration's clean energy policies and incentives.
"We wanted to come to the South because employers are coming to the South. And there, it's all of these irresistible federal tax incentives, so many of them are applying here. I wanted people to get excited about what the employers are doing," she said.
[A side note: Granholm's entourage sometimes found it difficult to find available and working charging stations. My National Public Radio colleague Camila Domonoske was along for the entire trip and reported on the situation in her piece "Electric cars have a road trip problem, even for the secretary of energy." ]
It's fair to say that North Carolina has been a winner in the economic development sweepstakes that come with expansion of electric vehicles and other types of clean energy. Gov. Roy Cooper made appearances with both Granholm and Yellin, to talk up the growth. This week, he issued a list of the top projects of 2023, ranked by number of jobs.
- Toyota announced plans to invest another $8 million and to create 3,000 more jobs at its electric vehicle battery complex in Randolph County. The company now plans 5,100 new jobs and a total investment of $13.9 billion.
- Kempower is building a $41 million factory in Durham County to build EV charging stations. It promised 601 jobs.
- Epsilon Advanced Materials chose Brunswick County for its first U.S. factory, which will produce synthetic graphite for batteries. The project will cost $650 million and create 500 jobs.
- Siemens Mobility announced plans for a $220 million factory in Davidson County that will employ 500. It will build passenger rail cars and be carbon neutral when it begins operating.
Dozens of other projects across the Carolinas were announced this year to supply the electric vehicle supply chain, including batteries and components, battery recycling and vehicle parts and assembly.
North Carolina's energy transition
This year also saw a continuing tug-of-war between climate and environmental advocates and Duke Energy over the pace of the transition to carbon-free energy sources to fight global warming.
Duke unveiled a revised Carbon Plan in August, which called for more renewables, battery storage and energy efficiency. But it also includes more natural gas-fired generating plants and a new generation of nuclear plants, known as small modular reactors, or SMRs.
This Carbon Plan 2.0 is a revised version of Duke's long-range plans that is required by the state's 2021 energy reform law, House Bill 951. The North Carolina Utilities Commission approved the first iteration of the plan a year ago. That gave Duke the go-ahead to pursue a multi-track strategy for achieving the goals required in HB 951 — 70% reduction in carbon emissions.
This year's plan, which will be up for hearings and approval next year, gets slightly more specific. It keeps Duke's goal of closing all remaining coal-fired power plants by 2035, and named a couple of new projects:
- Building more gas-fired power plants by 2031, including at the current Roxboro coal plant in Person County and Marshall plant on Lake Norman.
- Building new small nuclear plants at the Belews Creek coal plant in Stokes County and at another site to be named.
- Expanding the Bad Creek hydroelectric dam in South Carolina.
"We're putting forward a balanced kind of all-of-the-above proposed resource plan that puts North Carolina on a path to cleaner energy while protecting reliability and affordability," Kendal Bowman, Duke Energy's North Carolina president, said in August.
Duke got a little help this fall when the General Assembly approved a bill that will make it easier to build more nuclear plants. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed that and another energy bill in October, saying the bills would hinder the state's environment and climate efforts. But lawmakers overrode those vetoes soon after.
Environmental, climate and consumer groups have all been pushing back on Duke's proposals. They think the company is holding too tightly to the use of fossil fuels and pushing for the most expensive options for new generating plants. Even Gov. Cooper has expressed concerns about Duke's plans.
"We need to meet this goal of getting a 70% reduction by 2030 in carbon emissions, and by 2050 to get to carbon zero. And (Duke needs) to do more investment in renewable energy, like solar and wind. They're making progress, but it needs to go faster," Cooper told me in November during a visit to Livent's Gaston County plant.
Duke has pledged to generate or buy more solar energy. And it holds one of three leases for an offshore wind farm off the North Carolina coast. But don't hold your breath for offshore wind. Duke CFO Brian Savoy told me last month Duke has no current plans: "We see offshore wind as a really good option for our customers over the long term. In our resource plans (the Carbon Plan), we have it as an option, not as a resource we're going to build," Savoy said.
Duke's long-range plans are coming at a cost. The company warned in 2022 that the transition could require rate hikes of 1.9% to 2.7% a year through 2035. This fall, Duke's two North Carolina operating units won big rate increases over the next three years.
- Duke Energy Progress rates went up 3.3% Oct. 1 as part of an 11.3% increase over three years. The division includes the Asheville area, Raleigh and eastern North Carolina.
- Duke Energy Carolinas, which stretches from Durham to Charlotte to the mountains, will raise rates 8.3% on Jan. 15. That's part of a three-year 14.6% increase.
Energy efficiency efforts derailed
Even as North Carolina debates how to produce cleaner energy, advocates have been pushing for another option: Reducing demand so we don't need so many new plants. And that means improving energy efficiency. Requiring improved energy efficiency in new homes and buildings seemed an easy target.
For more than a year, the governor-appointed State Building Code Council met with stakeholders and drafted new energy efficiency requirements for new homes and building construction. The Cooper administration sees energy conservation as another way to advance the state's goal of reducing electricity demand and meeting state climate goals.
But the North Carolina Home Builders Association and Republican lawmakers oppose the idea. The proposed new rules got slapped down in July when the General Assembly passed a bill that bars the building code council from changing the rules until 2031.
The council is supposed to review building codes every six years. The current rules date from 2009 to 2012, though there were minor revisions in recent years. The council wanted to bring the rules up to 2021 international standards, to cut energy costs and reduce climate pollution. That means stricter standards for things such as walls, roofs, insulation, windows, and heating and cooling systems. The changes would have only affected new buildings and homes.
Besides outlawing new energy efficiency standards, lawmakers also reconfigured the State Building Code Council and took away some of the governor's appointment power. That could make it harder for the new council to try again to revise the code.
David Neal of the Southern Environmental Law Center said updating the code would make home ownership less expensive in the long term by lowering residents' utility bills.
"I'm certainly hopeful that whoever's sitting in those chairs will be able to take a dispassionate look at the facts and recognize that we're all going to be better off if we can build new homes to updated standards," Neal said. "The companies who are building those homes aren't the same people who have to pay the utility bills. So it's important to think about the big picture."