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Carbon Neutrality Planning in Mid-Size Cities

This past week, I moderated a panel at the North Carolina State Energy Conference. The discussion was titled Building a Carbon Neutrality Plan and an Energy Committee within your Organization. It centered around the internal processes required for mid-size cities to develop an energy resolution, and how to then operationalize such planning into tangible work. Panelists offered perspectives from three medium-sized North Carolina cities on how to develop a carbon neutrality plan/strategic plan for renewables deployment:

  • Bridget Herring, Sustainability Director, City of Asheville

  • David Ingram, Sustainability Project Manager, City of Wilmington

  • Amy Armbruster, Sustainability Manager, City of Durham


In the past couple of decades, cities across North Carolina have begun to implement sustainability planning into their operations. Large cities such as Raleigh and Charlotte have been visible frontrunners and are often publicly acknowledged for their progress. For example, Charlotte passed a renewable energy resolution in 2018 with plans for city facilities and fleet to be 100 percent zero-carbon by 2030. In Raleigh, the City Council adopted a community-wide plan to reduce City-wide greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

However, planning at a smaller-scale is less frequently discussed. Overall, options available to larger cities and counties may not always be available to mid- or smaller-sized cities and counties. These areas may or may not have a sustainability director or a budget adequate for taking climate action. Still, several smaller cities and counties in North Carolina have enacted renewable energy and sustainability resolutions. These include but are not limited to the cities of Asheville, Durham, and Wilmington, as well as Macon County and the Towns of Apex, Boone, Blowing Rock, Canton, and Clyde.

City of Asheville

Conference attendees first heard from City of Asheville’s Sustainability Director, Bridget Herring. Asheville has been on the low-carbon bandwagon for a while, first establishing an 80 percent carbon reduction goal back in 2007. Since then, the City has declared a climate emergency, updated their initial target to a 100 percent renewable energy goal, and published a resolution to operationalize that target. Actions are in motion to transition Asheville municipal operations to 100 percent renewable energy by the end of 2030. This action will also support Buncombe County’s community-wide target to 100 percent renewable energy by 2042.

In partnership with Buncombe County, Asheville in 2019 published an energy transition roadmap. This report included baseline data and analyses on government and community energy use, projections for future energy demand, cost implications, and potential strategies to reach existing targets. The roadmap was developed in collaboration with community and county-wide stakeholders, advisors, and local government officials.

Herring noted that working on this project comes with its own set of opportunities and challenges. Initially, there was some disappointment when discovering that government operations only comprise one percent of municipal energy use–getting just those emissions to zero carbon by 2030 is already a big lift. And for the most part, changes can only be made so long as there are adequate resources provided by the utility. There are limited options to procure renewable energy–third party sales can’t happen, and Duke Energy’s renewable energy procurement carve out (the Green Source Advantage Program) is already complete. What’s more, Asheville has struggled with lack of available sites for renewable energy, aging buildings and infrastructure, and difficulties with product availability. And as a rapidly growing area, the City will be forced to continuously evolve to and grow its city services footprint.

While there are challenges,there are also many wins and exciting developments on the horizon. The City sees opportunities to increase utility partnerships for climate-friendly development, support expanded procurement, improve renewables access, and empower the community to advocate for and invest in a renewable energy future. Asheville is increasingly involved in state energy policy and has issued a request for proposals for solar leasing. In 2018, Asheville received the SolSmart Gold designation, which recognizes the City for taking steps toward solar energy growth. Onsite solar systems have been installed at five City sites, with two pending, and through the Asheville-Buncombe Solarize campaign, they have added 1.45MW of residential rooftop solar. The City is also participating in an exciting agreement with Buncombe county to issue aggregated solar procurement; this includes a county-wide mixed portfolio of solar canopies, rooftop systems, ground mounts, and other structures totaling 7MW.

City of Wilmington

Wilmington has also been in the carbon reduction game for quite some time, and Sustainability Project Manager David Ingram ran through its history. In 2009, the City adopted its first resolution to reduce greenhouse gases by 58 percent by 2050. In 2017, the City passed a resolution addressing climate change. As a coastal community, the area is already feeling the climate impacts, and recognizes that things may only continue to worsen. Therefore the resolution asked that state and national leaders support carbon reduction policies.

This resolution was bolstered in 2020 with the creation of the Ad Hoc Clean Energy Policy Task Force. Grassroots action spurred this committee development, and work was significantly bolstered by stakeholder action. It was and remains key in Wilmington that community members and their needs drive the City’s progress. In 2021, the Task Force released a report with clean energy goals and recommendations to the city council, which ultimately resulted in a 100 percent clean energy goal.

From there, Resolution R-2021-62 set clear targets: transition municipal operations to 50 percent clean energy and electrify 50 percent of the city fleet by 2035; and, transition municipal operations to 100 percent clean energy and electrify 100 percent of the fleet by 2050. A Clean Energy Advisory Committee oversees the process to achieve these goals, in collaboration with other governments, the private sector, and local residents. Wilmington is in the early phases of enacting their plan, given that the Advisory Committee was only established in February. But progress is already underway. The city currently has four photovoltaic arrays and a solar hot water system. New municipal facilities are being constructed under energy efficiency principles (LED lighting, chiller/HVAC updates, etc.). Wilmington has been designated as a Bronze-level SolSmart Community.

Challenges are similar to those in Asheville–square footage for solar siting is slim, both for rooftops and large-scale land arrays. As Wilmington’s population grows, more space will be required to meet increasing service and infrastructure needs. Funding could always be more plentiful. Lastly, as climate impacts grow more severe, damage from more frequent, intense storms further strains budgets and limits access to resources.

Even still, Ingram noted that opportunity is always on the horizon! As national and state-level funding and planning come down the pipeline, Wilmington will only continue to build out the necessary tools to meet carbon goals. Advocacy, collaboration with utility partners, community outreach, and stakeholder education will be key. The City hopes to soon achieve SolSmart Silver or Gold in the near future.

City of Durham

We also heard from Amy Armbruster, Sustainability Manager for the City of Durham. In 2019, Durham City Council approved a resolution acknowledging the reality of climate change and its consequences. The resolution committed to transition all city operations to 80 percent renewable energy by 2030, achieve carbon neutrality by 2040, and reach 100 percent renewable energy sourcing by 2050. As a result, the City recently completed its Carbon Neutrality and Renewable Energy Action Plan (developed in part by Diane Cherry Consulting).

The plan centers first around easy, early wins and sets multiple milestones to build upon one another. For the time being, it targets Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions (i.e. city fleet, natural gas facilities, water/wastewater, streetlights/traffic signals, and building electricity). Goals include maximizing energy efficiency in city buildings/operations, expanding renewable energy generation and procurement, increasing city building and fleet electrification, and establishing innovative practices and partnerships.

Durham’s work is still in the early stages, but already the City has converted 39 facilities to all-LED lighting through the Duke Energy Energy Saver Program, with seven more projects on the way. A comprehensive energy management tool is under development and will benchmark, track, and report progress once it comes online next year. On the renewables side, two solar projects have been completed on City buildings, with two more planned for this year. Electrification is also progressing; there are currently 18 electric vehicles in the city fleet, with more to be purchased in 2022 and 2023.

As in Asheville and Wilmington, Armbruster noted that renewable siting is a challenge. Even if all available rooftop and open space was developed, Durham would only reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by nine percent. Thus, the City must rely on large, off-site procurement; Durham was the last to receive designated megawatts from Duke Energy’s Green Source Advantage program. Durham is also facing supply chain challenges such as labor shortages, supply scarcity, and higher costs. And as more strategies are deployed, sticking points emerge–think electric vehicles not getting as many miles per charge as anticipated, or accounting for overlooked charging infrastructure challenges.

No matter where you are, there will be hurdles and triumphs. Over 20 years, Durham’s investment to meet carbon goals will be around $88 million total, but will be offset to the tune of nearly $85 million. Armbruster notes that this is an incredibly exciting time not only for the City of Durham, but for all. There are opportunities out there for cities and towns of all sizes to jump into carbon neutrality planning. Take a look at Armbruster’s ten tips to help get the ball rolling on climate action, carbon reduction, and sustainability:

  • Leverage the fact that other cities have set goals and developing plans: they’re figuring it out, and you can too! Learn from them, collaborate with them…we can do this together!

  • Employ enough expertise to draft a really solid plan.

  • Make sure there’s buy-in from top to bottom. This includes mayors, city councils, grassroots stakeholders, people implementing the plan on the ground– “change champions” throughout the whole process.

  • Hire a talented consultant!

  • Data is key. Getting the right data may be arduous, but it is incredibly important. Make sure that all stakeholders are involved and that the information and analysis can hold up to scrutiny in practice.

  • Build in easy early wins and multiple milestones throughout the process.

  • Keep it simple. You need to be able to communicate clearly the problem in one slide.

  • When talking to city council and other decision makers, focus on the overall vision provided by the plan. Leave out any jargon.

  • Take advantage of internship programs–interns can be very helpful in implementing project action!

  • Remember to keep things focused on climate justice. Equity should be central to all sustainability work.

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