Energy action plan for Charlotte inches ahead

A long-range game plan to dramatically reduce Charlotte’s greenhouse gas footprint has been an on-again, off-again priority since 2007. That’s when Charlotte City Council adopted its first greenhouse gas emission reduction resolution. And now, after a lapse of 11 years, it’s on again.

In one of his first initiatives as newly elected mayor in 2009, Anthony Foxx signed the Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement from the U.S. Conference of Mayors. By September 2010 the city released a 68-page “roadmap” report called “Charlotte’s Energy Future.” But the report was limited primarily to identifying a wish list of short-term, city-funded projects and creating a sustainability office, led today by Rob Phocas.

It wasn’t until last November that an updated resolution with a longer, 2050 view and a targeted metric was brought to the full City Council, through its Environment Committee, for another vote. It was based largely on then-Mayor Jennifer Roberts’ commitment to the Sierra Club’s “Ready for 100%” initiative. By that November meeting, Roberts was a lame duck, having lost the mayoral primary to current Mayor Vi Lyles. After debate, the council decided, on a bipartisan vote, to postpone approval until the committee provided a better idea of what goals and actions it would take to reach a low-carbon future. With a new mayor and five new council members taking office in December, the resolution bounced back again to the committee and its new chair, Dimple Ajmera.

Ajmera has championed passage of a resolution and development of a robust plan. Earlier this year she convened meetings with stakeholders who raised a variety of concerns. These included questions about overall methodology, the role of Duke Energy in the ongoing planning process, and even a call for radical life-style reform, among others.

Some stakeholders have contended that nuclear energy should be phased out as a long-term energy source, because uranium itself is arguably nonrenewable. Phocas has pointed out that this may be easier said than done, because Duke Energy’s two nuclear power plants supply roughly 50 percent of Charlotte’s energy needs. Stakeholders included representatives from the Sierra Club, Clean Air Carolina, the North Carolina Climate Solutions Coalition, Sustain Charlotte and others.

On June 4 the Environment Committee approved the new resolution 4-1, with District 4 council member Greg Phipps opposed. The capacity audience for the committee meeting included Roberts, the former mayor.

The nonbinding resolution refers to the “Strategic Energy Action Plan” (SEAP). Development of that plan itself is just beginning, but according to the new resolution, it “will contain short, medium and long-term actions to deliver deep reductions in carbon emissions spanning all sectors so that CO₂e targets can be met.”  

CO₂e, or carbon dioxide equivalent, is a standard unit for measuring the impact of each greenhouse gas in terms of the equivalent amount of CO2, or carbon dioxide, that would occur for the same level of global climate change. Other gases that play a significant role in global climate change, besides carbon dioxide, are methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride. One kilogram of methane, for example, is equivalent to 25 kilograms of carbon dioxide when measured over a period of 100 years.

From data already provided by Duke Energy, Phocas reported June 4 that “SEAP has tapped into a much more accurate inventory of emissions than Charlotte has ever had.” Using 2015 as the baseline year, his team, which includes Emily Yates, deputy director for Envision Charlotte, a local energy reduction nonprofit, and Dr. Sebastian “Seb” Carney, a United Kingdom-based climate change expert, calculates current per capita greenhouse gas emissions in Charlotte at 12 metric tons per year.

Carney has noted that, although this is lower than the national average (16 metric tons), it would need to drop to 7 metric tons by 2030 to stay on track with the SEAP’s ambitious target of less than 2 metric tons of CO₂e annually per person by 2050.

According to Phocas and his team, the Strategic Energy Action Plan will emphasize three “pillars of energy usage”: buildings, transportation and energy generation, as well as a fourth – innovation – that touches on all the others. The plan is expected to map out a strategy leading to zero carbon emissions for all municipal buildings and a portion of government transportation fleets by 2030. The strategy for 2050 will be to widen the scope to include businesses, households and nongovernmental sectors. 

A detailed energy action plan is not expected to be in a form in which the council could review it until this fall.

The latest resolution goes to council for approval on Monday, June 25. It reads:

RESOLUTION OF THE CITY OF CHARLOTTE CITY COUNCIL IN SUPPORT OF A SUSTAINABLE AND RESILIENT CHARLOTTE BY THE YEAR 2050

WHEREAS, the Charlotte City Council committed in the FY 2018-2019 Environment Focus Area Plan to “become a global leader in environmental sustainability, balancing economic growth with preserving our natural resources;” and,

WHEREAS, Charlotte will strive to become a low carbon city by 2050, spanning all sectors, to bring city-wide greenhouse gas emissions to below 2 tons CO₂e per person annually; and, 

WHEREAS, Charlotte is currently developing a Strategic Energy Action Plan (SEAP), which will contain short, medium and long terms actions to deliver deep reductions in carbon emissions spanning all sectors so that the CO₂e targets can be met; and,

WHEREAS, a low carbon city is delivered through processes, strategies, practices, tools, and institutional structures that promote collaboration between city, public, private, academic, and nonprofit constituencies to develop and implement long-term, deep reductions in carbon emissions, and,

WHEREAS, these processes, strategies, and collaborations will balance economic considerations with advancement towards the 2050 goal, and

WHEREAS, low carbon cities improve their environmental sustainability, social capital and economic mobility through growth in clean energy industries and workforce development opportunities; and,

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the City of Charlotte will strive to become a low carbon city by 2050 and will develop a Strategic Energy Action Plan to be presented to City Council.

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the City of Charlotte will continue the work currently under way to advance short term goals for reductions in energy consumption in city operations as a first step on the path towards a low carbon future. 

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the City of Charlotte will strive to source 100% of its energy use in its buildings and fleet from zero carbon sources by 2030.


Martin Zimmerman is an urban planner, journalist and civic activist who writes frequently for PlanCharlotte.org. He consults under the moniker City Wise Studio USA.