In the wake of more severe and frequent climate disasters, many cities in the U.S. have adjusted or augmented their climate change mitigation strategies. According to USA Today, hundreds of local governments in the U.S. have established climate plans to curtail their greenhouse gas emissions.
Armed with an impressive 100% Renewable Energy Initiative, Asheville, North Carolina boasts one of the most progressive climate change plans in the nation. The city aims to convert all government operations to renewable energy by 2030 as part of Buncombe County’s goal to transition to 100% renewable energy by 2042.
While the goal of powering city operations exclusively with renewables by 2030 is ambitious, if any city can do it, Asheville can. Dubbed a “Climate City” by US News, Asheville is already home to some of the nation’s best climate infrastructure and thought leadership. For example, the following organizations call Asheville home:
- NCEI headquarters (largest climate change database in the world)
- U.S. Air Force’s 14th Weather Squadron
- University of North Carolina Asheville’s National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC)
- The Collider (a powerhouse climate change nonprofit)
In an encouraging sign of things to come, Duke Energy shut down a coal plant outside of Asheville in 2020 that was burning 400,000 tons of coal every year. Unfortunately, the facility will be replaced by a natural gas operation, however, Asheville city officials have ambitious plans in the works to aggressively cut greenhouse gas emissions.
How Asheville plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
Bridget Herring, the Energy Program Coordinator in the city’s Office of Sustainability said that the 2007 goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by two percent each year, was aimed at targeting emissions from vehicles and increasing energy efficiency. The plan placed Asheville on track for an 80% carbon reduction by 2047.
However, the city did not yet have a renewable energy program, and the goals weren’t ambitious enough in light of the urgent need to stem the rising tide of catastrophic climate change. So, the city got to work to set loftier goals.
Asheville’s current initiative focuses primarily on solar power, which is the region’s most readily available power source. However, Asheville’s power grid is also connected to the eastern part of the state where utilizing wind energy has become more common.
Asheville is looking to power government property with 100% renewable energy, but to reach the 100% renewable goal the city must also work to include commercial property in the plan, in part because government buildings alone don’t have the room for solar panels, and in part to bring the private sector along for the ride.
Asheville’s electric bus fleet
According to Herring, there is “equal amount of opportunity to make advancements in both” government buildings and vehicles. In fact, there are already five electric busses in the public transit fleet which the city hopes to expand upon and the first solar power system at a transit station began functioning in October 2020. The city is in the process of installing renewable energy systems at two recreational centers and two fire stations.
While Asheville has made progress towards this goal, its challenging terrain and high land prices pose some obstacles to renewable power development. Additionally, Asheville is “in a highly regulated energy market, so that limits our procurement options,” Herring explained. The city needs to maintain a relationship with utility providers and work with them to encourage state legislators to enable solar leasing and community solar power.
Solar leasing allows individual people or local governments to purchase solar power from a third party developer which owns the panels. Solar leasing laws are somewhat strict in North Carolina, but House Bill 589 (passed in 2017) established a solar leasing program.
Community solar is a system where a group of people, utilities, or developers own a solar power system collectively. According to the language of HB589, Duke Energy must offer 40 megawatts of community solar energy in North Carolina.
Asheville declares a climate emergency
The 100% Renewable Energy Initiative is just one part of Asheville’s climate plan. The city declared a climate emergency in January of 2020 and has a climate resilience assessment which identifies threats specific to the city, including flooding and landslides. In response to these threats, first responders are looking to see how the city can build more climate resilient infrastructure, like updating the city’s stormwater infrastructure and implementing more green infrastructure.
The city has also launched a Climate Justice Initiative to better assist communities that will face the greatest impacts of climate change, which are typically lower income communities. The initiative seeks to support these communities by involving them in climate justice planning and projects.
Asheville is North Carolina’s climate leader
Other cities in North Carolina, including Durham, Raleigh, and Wilmington, have committed to a major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions or 100% renewable energy by 2050, two decades after Asheville’s plan.
When asked if she sees Asheville as a state leader in responding to climate change, Herring said that though “Asheville has a history of being an early adapter of climate goals,” it is one in a network of many local governments in the Southeast Sustainability Directors Network (SSDN) which work together with utility providers toward similar initiatives.
The SSDN includes towns and cities across the southeastern U.S. The North Carolina members meet every month. “[It] has been a great resource,” Herring said. “I feel really fortunate that our network is so close.”
Asheville has also included local residents in its climate planning. In fact, Herring said that the 100% Renewable Energy Initiative was a “recommendation that came from the community to the city.”
While Asheville is just one city, progressive policies like theirs can put a noticeable dent in greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Let’s hope that other cities around the United States, and the world, can draw inspiration from places like Asheville who not only understand the threat of climate change, but take meaningful action to fight back.
Asheville is on my list of places to visit. I’ve heard it is progressive in many ways and that it’s a great area to raise kids and retire.