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Rajesh Kapileshwari: Clean energy is in our future

Rajesh Kapileshwari: Clean energy is in our future

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As Winston-Salem was recovering from widespread and costly flooding recently, the City Council unanimously adopted a resolution to help combat climate change. The city committed to use 100% clean and renewable energy (CRE) by 2050, with interim targets of 50% for its buildings and fleets by 2030. The city also plans a 40% reduction of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. In short, the resolution reaffirmed Mayor Allen Joines’ pledge toward the Paris climate accord, and echoed targets set in Gov. Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 80.

The Community Sustainability Program Committee, of which I am a member, recommended its original Clean Energy Resolution at the city’s General Governance Committee meeting, as reported by the Journal (“City climate change plan faces pushback from Winston-Salem council, staff", Sept. 21). The original resolution presented was, in my view, achievable, economically sound, just and simply necessary to mitigate environmental issues we face. After feedback from council members and negotiations with the staff, we amended it to focus on more modest but achievable 2030 goals and to leave the city utilities out of the interim targets. Another concession was an escape clause offered by words such as “strive to” achieve targets “where feasible,” which we hope the city does not use to get out of its responsibilities.

The work ahead may seem daunting, especially in the context of a pandemic and a stark economic downturn. The confluence of crises resulting from racial injustice and social inequities have complicated the priorities of our government. However, there are practical, cost-effective ways to not only achieve the targets, but also save taxpayers’ money and improve quality of life for our residents.

First, we must invest in commonsense energy-efficiency projects with a quick payback and a high rate of return — projects like the 2017 LED lighting retrofit at the police headquarters, where the city reported that the investment was recovered in 30 months, translating into money savings ever since. With pragmatic projects such as HVAC retrofits, building tune-ups and lighting upgrades, we can rapidly reduce our energy footprint.

After initial investments are recovered, future savings can be invested in modest but strategic rooftop solar photo-voltaic projects. Solar panel prices dropped 60% in 10 years, making them cost competitive. The city can also participate in various renewable energy programs offered by Duke Energy. For just $12 one can purchase Renewable Energy Credits for 1,000 kilowatt-hours (about one month’s power consumption of an average home) via the Renewable Advantage program. A more cost-effective option would be to follow Charlotte’s example and participate in Duke’s Green Source Advantage program to get competitive proposals for a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) from third-party installers of renewable energy systems.

Duke’s power generation from renewables was 8% in 2019 and is on target to be 20% by 2030. Having a higher CRE target than what Duke can provide means that the city must find a way to meet the balance of its energy needs from renewables. A well-balanced portfolio of energy efficiency, in-house solar PV projects and negotiated PPAs, is the way forward.

Georgetown, Texas, went 100% renewable in 2017, not because the elected officials were tree-huggers, but solely on long-term economic merits. After energy efficiency upgrades, the city could exceed 2030 targets with a very low annual premium by purchasing Renewable Energy Credits. As Duke expands its CRE offering, the city’s burden would drop.

It is time to pursue the full benefits of a market transformation from polluting fossil burning to a clean and green economy, a process that would add high-paying jobs locally. Programs recommended in the resolution will develop options for marginalized communities to reduce their energy bills and improve their environmental quality of life. The Biden climate change plan promises an influx of grants for clean green infrastructure upgrades. With proper planning of shovel-ready projects, the city will be perfectly poised to use such grants.

Decarbonizing the economy is our best weapon to fight pollution and the climate crisis. I am glad that the City of Arts and Innovation began its challenging but rewarding journey to address several problems simultaneously — improve air and water quality, bring clean and green jobs into our economy, and do it in a just and equitable manner.

Rajesh Kapileshwari serves on the Community Sustainability Program Committee and is vice-chair of the board of Piedmont Environmental Alliance.

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