Trump Can’t Stop This: Climate Action in the Southeast

The South may not be the region that first comes to mind when it comes to clean energy, but its cities and states are pushing to change that perception.

Amazon Wind Farm in North Carolina

Courtesy Avangrid Renewables

This post, authored by Elisheva Mittelman, originally appeared as a guest post in Kevin Steinberger's blog.

Welcome to the third blog in our series highlighting the clean energy achievements and climate action continuing across the United States―despite the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back federal climate policies. Each blog will focus on a different region of the country. (Check out our previous posts on the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic and Midwest.)

Once laggards on clean energy, cities and states across the Southeast are taking significant steps to develop smart, clean energy plans―with more than 47 Southeast cities and 2 states pledging to accelerate clean energy development to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. This region will face some of the worst climate change impacts in the country, and its citizens and lawmakers are realizing that clean energy not only protects them from the dangers of rising seas, deadly heat waves, and extreme weather but is also a potent economic force that can spur tens of thousands of new jobs and bolster growth across the region.

Renewables and Energy Efficiency Are Gaining Momentum

Investment in clean energy is steadily increasing throughout the Southeast as the region moves toward a more affordable and efficient low-carbon energy system.

Solar installation is accelerating rapidly nationwide, and this part of the States is no exception. As prices keep falling, solar capacity in the country is expected to triple over the next five years, and the Southeast continues to rise through the national ranks. In fact, three of its states placed in the top 10 for solar PV installation in 2016: Georgia (#3), North Carolina (#5), and Florida (#9). North Carolina also has the second-most installed solar capacity among all the states, and that leadership shows no sign of slowing down: North Carolina added 108 megawatts (MW) of utility-scale solar capacity in the first quarter of 2017 alone―the most in the nation during that time period―while boasting more than 9,500 solar jobs.

Meanwhile, several utility companies are determined to cut emissions and increase the prevalence of solar in the region. Georgia-based Southern Company owns nearly 480 MW of solar-generating capacity in Georgia and North Carolina, while Florida-based FP&L recently announced plans to complete 600 MW of utility-scale projects by 2018 and add an additional 1.5 gigawatts (GW) by 2023―enough to power more than 420,000 homes.

Data source: Energy Information Administration. Map created by Emily Barkdoll, NRDC Energy & Transportation program

Although wind development in the Southeast has historically lagged behind the rest of the country, this sector is also starting to grow: The first offshore wind auction in the region recently took place off the coast of North Carolina, for a lease that could accommodate almost 1,500 MW of wind power, or enough energy to power more than 500,000 homes. And North Carolina is not just taking the lead with offshore wind; it is also home to the largest onshore wind project in the region. Advances in turbine technology are allowing developers to access higher-altitude wind resources, unlocking previously untapped potential in the Southeast. With wind component manufacturing facilities in every single Southeast state, the area is well prepared to take advantage of the soaring wind growth occurring across the country.

The economic growth and increased job opportunities that often accompany clean energy development have contributed to the acceptance of renewables in areas where one might least expect it. For example, solar was not at the forefront of energy discussions in the small, rural town of Camden, Arkansas, but last year’s 12-MW Aerojet Rocketdyne solar project helped revitalize the struggling local economy and brought 225 new manufacturing jobs to the area.                                                        

And growing support for renewables can be seen across the Southeast, as state leaders and regulators recognize the significant economic benefits of clean energy sources. A former member of Kentucky’s Public Service Commission declared that “the future is renewables,” and a commissioner in Georgia agreed that renewables are “cheaper than running existing capacity” (which is partly why Georgia Power will be adding about 1,600 MW of solar, wind, and/or biomass over the coming years). Even a coal museum knows that this trend is here to stay—the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum will be switching to solar power in order to save money.

Several southeastern states have also implemented successful energy efficiency programs that reduce electricity demand while driving down utility bills. For example, “on-bill” financing programs, such as those developed by co-ops in South Carolina and North Carolina, are increasingly popular as they provide a low-cost opportunity for customers to install energy efficiency retrofits in their homes.

Arkansas is a particularly influential leader on energy efficiency in the region, demonstrating that it is possible to ramp up efficiency measures while generating savings and creating jobs. The state’s Public Service Commission (PSC) adopted ambitious energy efficiency resource standards (EERS) with electricity savings targets that began at 0.25 percent in 2011 and have since been increased to 0.9 percent annually through 2018 and 1 percent in 2019. But many Southeast states continue to fall behind the rest of the country, receiving low scores on the annual Energy Efficiency Scorecard published by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy; these states should make stronger investments in energy efficiency in order to achieve maximum environmental and economic benefits.

State and Local Leaders Are Committing to Climate Action

In the absence of federal leadership, cities, states, and businesses of all sizes are taking charge and making decisions that will help the United States continue to work toward its climate goals. Most notably, the city of Atlanta recently pledged to reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. However, it is not the first city in the Southeast to do so. St. Petersburg, Florida, and the town of Abita Springs, Louisiana, are already working toward a goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.

Despite President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, support for the accord and the goals it represents is only getting stronger. Following the withdrawal announcement, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina (and cochair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors), stepped up efforts to get his city and others across the country closer to 100 percent clean energy. Universities and businesses weighed in on the Paris decision as well, with several prominent southeastern schools―including Wake Forest, Furman, the University of Richmond, and the University of Miami―joining dozens of the region’s cities and more than 1,000 others in adding their names to the “We Are Still In” statement, while Atlanta-based Coca Cola signed an open letter in support of the Paris Agreement prior to President Trump’s decision.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a major electric utility in the region, has cut its carbon emissions by 50 percent below 2005 levels this year, and the company is not stopping there, even after the Paris exit: TVA’s emissions are expected to drop to 70 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. However, in order to continue that emissions trajectory, TVA will need to dramatically scale up its support for clean energy, including but not limited to transmission projects such as the Plains and Eastern Clean Line, which could bring wind energy from the Midwest to utilities and customers across the Southeast.

As communities throughout the Southeast come around to renewable energy, one state in particular is taking its commitment to climate action a step further. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe recently directed the entire state to cut carbon pollution from its power plants, making him the first governor to do so during the Trump administration. He also announced a $5.6 million loan program for energy efficiency improvements in local schools and was quick to pledge support for the Paris Agreement (followed by North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper soon after). McAuliffe has made it clear that his state will do its part to reduce climate impacts, saying that “if President Trump refuses to lead the response, Virginia will.”

Although much more work is needed to fight climate change and fully transition to a clean energy economy, McAuliffe’s actions, and those of his neighbors across the Southeast, represent a significant step in the right direction. The Southeast has enormous untapped potential and should prioritize investments in wind, solar, and energy efficiency in the years to come. While we will need strong federal action to achieve our long-term climate goals, the Southeast should join other regions across the country in picking up the mantle of climate leadership and driving forward on clean energy.

About the Authors

Elisheva Mittelman

Program Assistant, Climate & Clean Air program

Kevin Steinberger

Policy Analyst, Climate & Clean Air program
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