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North Carolina’s Clean Energy Sector Aims to be Equitable for All

Employee, Alton Greene (113255) conducting a pre-job safety briefing to crews preparing for restoration work after ice storm. Little Rock Operations Center, North Carolina, NC, line crews

In 2019, North Carolina released a Clean Energy Plan designed to facilitate the use of clean energy resources and to update and secure a resilient electric grid from Manteo to Murphy. The plan includes reducing power sector green gas emissions by 70 percent by 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. 

Employee Bilbo Garrison (440654) working on solar panels at Capital Partners Solar. Elizabeth City, NC. North Carolina.

North Carolina is on a path to a renewable energy future, one that offers encouraging solutions to urgent challenges the state faces including unemployment, job quality, climate change, and racial inequity. This new energy economy is revving up and ready to go: more than $2 billion has been invested in North Carolina’s clean energy economy since 2018 and more than 112,000 North Carolinians are employed by the clean energy sector. Pre-pandemic, North Carolina led the way in clean energy usage in the American South. 

Organizations across the state are stepping up to reach the Clean Energy Plan’s goals. Duke University is spearheading the effort to bring together state agencies, environmental non-profits, utility commissions, and other stakeholders to develop policies that aim to fund clean energy, enhance carbon storage opportunities on natural and working lands and reduce power sector emissions. Each of these goals has an additional emphasis: equitable access to clean energy, which includes helping residents understand the benefits of renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Though the pandemic set this process back a little, it has also given the state a roadmap through economic shock. The Clean Energy Plan is undoubtedly a win-win: it creates clean energy and puts people back to work. It presents an incredible opportunity to ensure that historically-marginalized people have equitable access to the benefits of this burgeoning clean energy industry. The plan clearly shows how to maximize the benefits of clean energy to build a low-carbon, high-growth energy system with equal opportunities and benefits for all. One important note in the plan is the important connection between lack of access to clean energy and poverty rates. In North Carolina, 1.4 million people can’t afford to pay their monthly energy bills. The plan explains that when people are unable to participate even in small clean energy projects, access to good job opportunities narrows and the industry suffers. North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis is leading the charge to boost clean energy jobs.

Wind technicians, Angel Cariaga (440464) and Joshua Jackson (362391) uptower, working on turbine Los Vientos wind farm. Lyford, Texas, LVI, LVII, turbines, renewable power, wind energy, employees

“As we work together to rebuild our post-pandemic economy we can grow clean energy jobs, promote American innovation and continue to lead on driving down our carbon emissions,” he said.

Tillis’s approach follows pre-pandemic economic trends. Before the COVID-19 crisis, the state’s clean energy industry was creating jobs 70 percent faster than the rest of the economy. With solar and wind now among the cheapest forms of energy, the boom is likely to expand. Tillis is also pushing for a move into electric vehicle production, arguing that the state has the potential to become a world leader in that field. This transition to clean energy will undoubtedly foster more good-paying jobs, plus long-term energy affordability and price stability for residents.

As the job field expands, the state must make sure that everyone has access to the many new occupations across clean energy industries. These jobs often provide healthcare benefits and higher wages than similar positions. But right now, only about six percent of solar installers are Black – and only eight percent of metalworkers who build clean energy infrastructures like wind turbines and transmission lines are Black. North Carolina plans to change that for good. 

A clean energy boom is taking shape in the Tar Heel State, and it’s poised to power racial equity in a way that can provide a model to other states. As the move toward a clean energy economy advances, North Carolina will accelerate clean energy innovation and deployment to both urban and rural areas. Rural areas are often overlooked, in particular poorer communities. A Duke-led Clean Energy Fund will help ensure access for all.

“The fund [will be geared to] populations that might not always have these opportunities available,” said project lead Jennifer Weiss, a Nicholas Institute Senior Policy Associate. “This kind of model would grant security, in the form of credit enhancements, to private lenders who might not normally lend to low-income households. Lots of people can get loans for solar right now, but the Clean Energy Fund will ensure that low-interest financing is accessible to all.”As North Carolina’s economy starts to recover from the pandemic, the clean energy industry is a driver of economic health, job growth, and job quality. It’s also an important tool in addressing racial inequity, spurring a much-needed opportunity to ensure equitable access to affordable and clean energy in the future. The industry also provides an opportunity to directly address the state’s issues of racial inequity and climate change. The state has long been a leader in the South for the renewable movement, and now – as conversations turn to action – it stands poised as a shining example of how to build a low-carbon, high-growth future that includes equal access and opportunity for everyone who lives there.

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