The town of Hillsborough and Orange County have turned the holy grail of environmentalism into official public policy. They want to transform into 100 percent renewable energy-powered communities. 

But beyond the attention-grabbing headlines, and a 2050 deadline, details matter. 

Would sprawling, utility-scale solar power plants be built, and where would they go? Would homeowners be forced to install rooftop solar panels? Will municipal vehicle fleets be powered by renewable fuel, and would drivers have to buy renewable-powered vehicles? Is it possible to store enough electricity to power street lights and traffic signals, hospitals and factories, at night and on cloudy days, when there’s no sun to fueling those solar panels?   

Neither government can say how it plans to accomplish what even green energy proponents say would be an extraordinarily expensive mutation of energy policy. Nor have they defined phases or outlined fine points of the changeover. 

“We are at the very, very beginning. It primarily goes back to our strategy map: Do we have sufficient support? How are we going to measure progress in a practicable, meaningful manner?” said Hillsborough Commissioner Kathleen Ferguson.  

“We all recognize there are things we can do with today’s technology. We’ll have to see how things evolve over time.” 

“If we would try to go off the grid today, 100 percent renewable today, it just wouldn’t be feasible,” said Brennan Bouma, Orange County sustainability coordinator. “Thirty years is a long way off. … A lot has to change if we’re to meet that ambitious goal.” 

Neither Bouma nor Ferguson could say where the massive amount of money would come from to buy the technology in its many forms, install, operate, and maintain it. 

The N.C. Climate Solutions Coalition has some funding recommendations. It’s the organization pushing North Carolina’s local governments to adopt a boilerplate resolution committing to total renewable energy economies. 

The climate coalition’s website includes a FAQ page that lists a number of revenue-generating policies: 

  • Adopt Renewable Portfolio Standards. Those generally force utilities to purchase growing amounts of renewable energy, which is more expensive than traditional fuel sources. The costs are passed on to ratepayers and taxpayers.
  • Tariffs and subsidies.
  • Investment incentives, which could be direct or indirect payments by governments to energy producers to build energy infrastructure, and for loan guarantees.
  • Municipal financing for residential energy-efficiency retrofits and solar installations, and/or purchase incentives and rebates for electric vehicles.
  • A revenue-neutral pollution tax on energy sources, with revenue transferred to nonpolluting energy sources.
  • A straight pollution tax, such as a carbon tax.
  • A program reducing demand by improving energy efficiency, or substituting low-energy activities and technologies for high-energy ones.
  • A command-and-control policy option of mandated emission limits for technologies.
  • Cap-and-trade, a system that includes an ever-stricter greenhouse gas emissions limit and penalties for exceeding it.
  • Community renewable energy programs. 

The climate coalition seeks to implement the elements of the 2015 Paris climate accord at the local level, even though President Trump withdrew the United States from the international pact. 

The climate coalition’s board of directors comprises representatives of environmental groups and renewable energy advocates. Executive Director Joel Segal is a self-described social justice activist, former senior legislative assistant to U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, and senior technical consultant to progressive film maker Michael Moore on the health care documentary SICKO. 

To date at least 16 North Carolina municipalities have passed resolutions or endorsed a 100 percent renewable goal, with Buncombe County being the most recent, on Dec. 5. Others are Asheville, Boone, Canton, Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, Franklin, Raleigh, Sylva, Waynesville, Webster, Chatham County, Macon County, and Watauga County. 

The Orange County resolution, passed Sept. 5, includes language similar to the others. It states the county, state, and United States “shall transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to a 100 percent clean renewable energy for all energy sectors-based economy, by January 1, 2050 or sooner to avoid climate catastrophe, to promote job creation and economic growth, and to protect the Earth for current and future generations.” 

Bouma said the county is continuing to ramp up its award-winning energy efficiency program to ensure every possible savings is achieved before investing in renewable infrastructure. Some government buildings are being studied for placement of rooftop solar panels. 

He concedes success of the transition depends in large part on changing consumer habits, an evolving market, and a plunge in prices that make renewable energy a preferred option. But is it reasonable to expect the county can persuade its residents to voluntarily cast away all of its current practices and technology to buy renewable-powered replacements? 

“I understand your skepticism on this,” Bouma said. “There’s going to be a lot of physical things, questions like this to answer when we’re going to try to make it happen.” 

Ferguson said Hillsborough, unlike the county, doesn’t have a firm goal to push all its residents into renewable energy. It is working with Triangle J Council of Governments to develop strategies that its small municipal staff would be hard-pressed to devise given its heavy workload. 

“The goal is aspirational,” Ferguson said. “Hillsborough is small. We do not have a local utility. We’re not going to form a local utility” to operate a utility-scale solar plant to power the town. 

“We can set a standard within the community, but we do not have control over other folks,” she said. Putting up solar projects in the heavily regulated Historic District could be tricky, for example. 

The town is unlikely to go out and buy bucket trucks and heavy equipment that run on renewable fuels, she said. But it can do things such as switching from paper records to electronic ones, consolidating buildings, and making other improvements to use energy more efficiently. 

Among the many barriers to a city or county becoming totally powered by renewable energy is its intermittent nature. Solar panels collect sunlight to generate power just a few hours a day. They produce none when the sun isn’t shining. Wind power fails when the air is still. Renewable advocates say improving battery storage technology is a solution. 

Gary Rackliffe, vice president for smart grids at Raleigh-based ABB Inc., said it’s possible to go 100 percent renewable, but it’s also complicated. An electrical grid must be formed, and it must maintain a constant balance of voltage generated to demand frequency. One way to achieve that is through battery storage that can be tapped when electricity isn’t being produced. 

“You can push to get to 100 percent renewable operation, but that’s going to be limited to the amount of storage that you have, and right now huge amounts of storage is still very expensive,” Rackliffe said. It also has limitations. Batteries wouldn’t last through three or four days of clouds and no wind. 

Hydropower and geothermal power are other backup energy sources, where the right circumstances exist. 

Steve Goreham, a Heartland Institute climate change and energy policy expert, and author of two books, says officials in municipalities pledging to go 100 percent renewable don’t realize the challenge, especially for battery storage. 

“To store all of the electricity in Germany used in a single day … would require all of the car batteries in the world — a billion car batteries — hooked together,” Goreham said. 

“It is remarkable how much electricity this society uses, and people have no concept,” Goreham said. Battery storage could cost $4 for every $1 spent in generating renewable electricity. 

Battery storage is “completely goofy,” and flies in the face of the manufacturing industry trend of “doing everything possible to reduce inventory,” Goreham said. “Obviously all the people who want to do this never ran a business, never had inventory,” which is a major expense. 

He was dismissive of the municipal resolutions’ goal of reversing climate change. 

Nature releases something on the order of 20 times as much carbon dioxide into the air out of the oceans and the biosphere as all of earth’s industries, he said. 

“So, what you do in North Carolina isn’t going to make any difference. The only thing it’s going to do is raise electricity prices,” Goreham said. It’s nice the municipalities have a green dream, he said, “but you’re spending the taxpayers’ money, the ratepayers’ money to do that.”