Friday, August 12, 2022

Wilmington eyes 100% renewable energy, electric fleet by 2050

Electric vehicle charging stations in one of the parking decks in downtown Wilmington. (Port City Daily photo/Hannah Leyva)

WILMINGTON – The City of Wilmington is joining other urban cities across the nation in the fight against climate change by committing to clean energy over the next 30 years.

In March 2020 the city council established the Ad Hoc Clean Energy Policy Task Force to set the path for these green ambitions. Since then, a group of 34 volunteers – made up of residents, business and utility representatives, council appointees and others – have met to conduct research and study best practices.

“As we all begin to have to deal with the impacts from climate change, looking at ways that we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and lower our dependence on fossil fuels is going to be increasingly important,” said Wilmington Sustainability Program Manager David Ingram, who led the effort.

Related: Duke Energy wants to keep Brunswick Nuclear Plant running

The end product is a 52-page report with an 83-page appendix that includes summaries of the task force’s meetings over the last year. The committee, which formed just before the onset of the pandemic, produced the report entirely via Zoom. Released Jan. 19, the report recommends steps toward two ultimate goals:

  1. By 2035, the city will have transitioned its operations from using fossil fuels to 50% clean energy and at least half of the city-owned vehicles will be electric. 
  1. By 2050, the operations will no longer rely on fossil fuels, using 100% clean energy and owning a fleet entirely made up of electric vehicles.

As a first step, the task force is asking council to approve a resolution to officially adopt the 2035 and 2050 goals and establish an ongoing clean energy advisory committee to carry out its plans.

If passed, Wilmington would join at least 19 other local governments in North Carolina in committing to clean and renewable energy for the future.

The task force studied the already-established goals of statewide cities as it developed its report. Its objectives align with initiatives such as North Carolina’s Clean Energy Plan, Duke Energy’s commitment to cut carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050 and the Paris Climate Agreement.

“Our recommendations, I think, were very practical,” said Ruth Ravitz Smith, co-chair of the task force’s clean energy technology subcommittee. “When you bring together groups of people, you have the tendency to put the pie in the sky in writing, and then the book sits on a shelf. And I think from my subcommittee’s perspective I was really pleased with our recommendations. . . We’re driving collaboration; we’re driving culture change; we’re driving policies that’ll be adopted that will be great for our environment. I was just pleased that all our recommendations were practical and achievable.”

Zero emission

The clean energy report proposes a timeline for converting the city fleet to all zero-emission vehicles. By 2025 the task force is aiming for a 10% electric fleet. By 2035 that percentage is planned to rise to 50%, then 75% by 2045 and 100% by 2050.

To reach these benchmarks, the task force is proposing a policy where all vehicles purchased by the city moving forward are either hybrid or zero-emission. Currently, the city only has hybrid vehicles.

However, the city was recently awarded a North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality grant that will reimburse 45% of the cost of an eligible vehicle. Wilmington is eyeing a new model of an electric garbage and recycling truck that is still being developed; the city would be one of the first to have one.

Council will be presented the grant to accept at its Feb. 16 meeting. Ingram said a garbage truck is an ideal vehicle to kick off the transition to an all-electric fleet.

“The total distances they travel isn’t necessarily that great, but they do a lot of stopping and starting, which is both hard on vehicles, as well as produces a lot of emissions,” Ingram said.

But these vehicles will need places to charge, which is infrastructure the city currently lacks. The task force is recommending the city require electric charging to be a part of all new construction projects from here on out. Long term, the task force envisions electric charging stations installed at all city-owned locations, not just new buildings.

The city currently has Level 2 chargers set up in the Market Street and the 2nd Street parking decks. It also received a grant from the state’s share of the Volkswagen Settlement, the automakers payments for cheating on car emissions tests, to install two direct current chargers, which are faster than the Level 2s, in the Market Street deck in the coming year. The fast-charging stations will entice travelers passing by town to take a quick visit.

“They can stop to grab some lunch and charge their vehicle in an hour and then be on their way,” Ingram said.

UNCW Sustainability Officer Kat Pohlman, who co-chaired the transportation and fleet operations subcommittee, said implementing these sustainability initiatives is key to attracting people to the area.

“People don’t want to move to a city that doesn’t have charging stations if they’re coming from New York or San Francisco or something like that; they want the availability of being able to put solar panels on their roof,” Pohlman said. “So, as we continue to grow as an innovative and entrepreneurial kind of area, this is the same infrastructure that’s going to support the best and brightest minds coming to help us.

“I think it’s a win-win-win all over, honestly, for nature for health and for the economy.”

It is increasingly common for governments to strive for more electric vehicles, especially in environmentally conscious states like Colorado and California. Gov. Roy Cooper’s ​​​​​​​​​​Executive Order No. 80, signed in October 2018, aims to up the number of zero-emission vehicles owned by the state to at least 80,000 by 2025.

In October 2009 council established a goal for 2050 to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 58%. In addition to carpooling, teleworking and overall driving less miles, the transportation and fleet subcommittee is recommending the city take inventory of its vehicles and get rid of unneeded cars.

In fiscal year 2020, mileage odometers did not move on 52 of the city’s 608 vehicles. Another 32 were driven less than 1,000 miles. Still, the entire fleet consumes roughly a half million gallons of gas annually and contributes to more than 60% of the city’s greenhouse gas emission.

As part of the proposed audit, the city would justify the need for any car kept. It would do so through the utilization of telematics, data systems in the vehicles that track driving behaviors. Telematics record abrupt stops and starts, both of which use more gas, as well as idle time. Its information can also help inform decisions about where drivers can take more efficient routes to save mileage.

Energy efficiency

Another key to reaching the goals outlined in the Ad Hoc Clean Energy Policy Task Force Report is to focus on energy efficiency in buildings.

The committee suggests installing building management systems and taking advantage of Duke Energy’s new virtual energy assessment program.

“There are all sorts of just efficiency things that can be done,” Ravitz Smith said. “Things like installing the right light bulbs and automatic switches on the lights and those kinds of things that would affect city operations.”

It’s also proposing the city require new construction or major renovations to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards.

The Cinema Drive Fire Station, built in 2015 to replace two aging firehouses, is a recent model of a city-owned, LEED-certified building.

“That’s really been a good example and one that we use as we move forward to how energy efficient and how much less it is to operate buildings that are built to that standard,” Ingram said.

Bringing in the community

A social equity subcommittee of the task force is asking the city prioritize equity when taking action toward its goals. As it moves forward with clean energy projects, it is recommending the city award work to minority-owned businesses.

That subcommittee is also proposing the city create incentives for the clean energy and technology sector, hire an additional sustainability staff position for the city to assist with the workload of the clean energy plan, and pilot a backyard composting and agriculture program.

Long term, the task force wants the city to engage in collaborative opportunities with Duke Energy, as well as local utilities, UNCW, Cape Fear Community College, the ports and New Hanover Regional Medical Center. The report specifically calls on the city to persuade New Hanover County to adopt clean energy goals as well.

Ingram said he hopes to present the next steps to the council members in March, including the resolution to officially adopt the 15- and 30-year goals of the report and form the advisory committee.

“This is just another step in that process to be an environmentally-conscious city,” Ingram said, “to focus on the most efficient ways to operate our buildings and fleet and the use of taxpayer money as well as just addressing the impacts from climate change.”

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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at or on Twitter @alexsands_

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