For four days last month Portugal ran solely on clean energy. No coal. No crude oil. No natural gas. Instead, sunlight, wind, and hydropower helped Portugal set the latest milestone by a European country in using renewable energy sources.
The idea of the United States accomplishing the same feat any time soon is a wishful thinking. The size, population, density differences, and a myriad of other factors will keep that reality for us way into the future.
But could it be done in the Old North State? Given the right support, investment and development, could North Carolina go 100% clean and renewable for a significant period of time like Portugal? First, let’s compare the two.
North Carolina – 9.944 million (2014)
Portugal – 10.46 million (2013)
North Carolina – 53,819 mi²
Portugal – 35,603 mi²
Major Metro Areas
North Carolina – Three with 5.3 million people (Charlotte, Triangle, Piedmont)
Portugal – Two with 4.5 million people (Lisbon and Porto)
So we’ve established that Portugal and North Carolina aren’t dissimilar in size, population, and urban vs rural densities. European nations, like Portugal, have been implementing public policies that support, and promote investment in, clean energy technologies and industry growth for decades. The results of that are clear in the fact that Portugal could pull of this feat of clean energy sustainability over an extended period of time.
So how does North Carolina stack up in the three key pieces needed to produce all of its energy from renewable sources for a few days. Let’s see.
Location and Resources Conducive to Clean Energy Production
North Carolina tops their list for the best places to develop the next generation of offshore energy production. The energy experts at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) have determined that the winds off of our coast are some of the strongest and most consistent in the country. These winds could potentially produce over 4.5 Gigawatts of energy when fully developed.
It’s not just about the total amount of sunshine a place gets. As you travel south and closer to the equator, solar energy collection increases because of the stronger and more sustained sunlight, but the efficiency of the system is degraded because of the higher heat-stress on the system. As you move further north, towards where Alaska and Germany lay, the cooler weather helps the efficiency of the solar energy systems, but the production decreases due to less sustained sunlight.
The prime location for solar energy production on an industrial scale would be a place that has both strong and sustained sunlight during the summer season, and a cool and largely bright winter season. So, while Florida may be the Sunshine State, North Carolina’s coordinates are optimal to make us the solar state.
Investment and development of resources
Here in the Old North State the clean energy industry has had a huge impact on the state’s economy. According to a 2015 industry census, clean energy accounts for well-over 25,000 jobs in North Carolina. Between 2008 and 2015, the construction and maintenance of renewable energy facilities pumped over $2 billion of investments into the state’s economy.
Duke Energy Renewables, a commercial business unit of Duke Energy, has 22 solar facilities in North Carolina that are complete or under construction, representing 265 mW and an investment of more than $500 million. These projects include an 80 mW facility in Edgecombe County and a 120 mW farm in Currituck County. The latter will be the largest solar farm east of the Mississippi River when it comes online this year.
Corporations like Google and Apple have invested in their own solar energy generation, helping the state reach these incredible numbers. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has contracted for 61 mW of solar power with Duke Energy to power its North Carolina data centers.
“This is the first time that we’re purchasing solar power in enough volume to power one of our data centers,” – Gary Demasi, who oversees data center energy and location strategy at Google.
Support From Both Commercial Sectors and Regulatory Agencies
This is where the United States, and North Carolina in particular, fall well short of the advances made by our European brethren.
In European nations the clean energy industry is supported by both financial and public policy decisions, and the growth of that industry overseas is evidence of those benefits. Here in the U.S. the investments and advancements in clean energy technologies are clear from the numbers above.
Where we are lacking is in consistent and supportive public policies and regulations that would help foster even more investments and economic growth in the industry. With a dizzying variety of regulatory schemes from state to state, and a negative disposition towards the industry’s progress at many levels of government and bureaucracy, the clean energy industry struggles everyday to build on the promise it offers.
“In terms of overall [renewable] generation, the U.S. leads the pack,” said Daniel Simmons, the Institute for Energy Research Vice President for Policy, courtesy of Law Street.
Europe has shown that a future free of fossil fuels is indeed possible. The biggest hurdle in achieving the same successes for the United States, and North Carolina in particular, is the public and political will to support these growing industries and technologies. We can get there, one renewable-powered day at a time.