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After 5 years, Charlotte still inching its way toward climate goals

 The city of Charlotte had 109 electric vehicles as of November, just a fraction of the 4,300 total vehicles in its fleet.
David Boraks
The city of Charlotte had 109 electric vehicles as of November, just a fraction of the 4,300 total vehicles in its fleet.

It's been five years since the Charlotte City Council set a goal of eliminating the use of fossil fuels in city vehicles and buildings by the end of this decade. The city is inching toward that, by adding electric vehicles and rooftop solar panels, improving energy efficiency and planning two solar farms. But officials acknowledge they won't make it, and local climate activists are pushing back.

In 2018, Charlotte was among the first big U.S. cities to set targets for reducing climate pollution. The city council passed a resolution declaring that it wanted cars, buses and other city vehicles to be carbon-free by 2030. City buildings, too, are supposed to be "net zero" by then. And the council set a communitywide goal of reducing carbon emissions per person by 2050.

Republican Ed Driggs voted for that resolution in June 2018.

"I think we can agree on the goals of the resolution. The only thing I would like to note is this resolution doesn't yet include the hard part, which is the commitment of resources, and how we're going to accomplish this," he said at the time.

He was right about the hard part. Make that hard, and expensive.

The city is spending a record $94 million this fiscal year—- 3% of its combined annual and capital budgets — on various initiatives that support the Strategic Energy Action Plan. The SEAP, adopted in December 2018, is a plan for how to meet those climate goals.

Signs of progress


Charlotte Area Transit System officials dedicated their first new electric buses in April 2022. The city still has only 18 on the road, out of more than 300 total buses.
David Boraks
Charlotte Area Transit System officials dedicated their first new electric buses in April 2022. The city still has only 18 on the road, out of more than 300 total buses.

But after five years, the city is only just beginning to show signs of progress. It had 109 electric vehicles in its fleet as of November, out of 4,300 total. Thirteen buildings now have solar panels, with another 19 in planning or construction. The city is working with developers on two solar farms.

"Overall, we're really proud of the infrastructure that we've been able to lay, really, the foundation to lead by example," said Sarah Hazel, the city's chief sustainability and resiliency officer.

Since 2019, Hazel has been the point person on the city's climate plan. City officials and climate activists alike give her high marks, even as they worry about meeting the goals. Hazel acknowledges the city's climate goals are "aspirational" and out of reach.

"But at the same time, there's always more that can be done. And absolutely know that we need to keep pushing forward," she said.

Many of the city's climate milestones so far are really more of what you might call "demonstration projects." They show that the city can make changes, but also how much work it will take to meet the goals.

"We have made tremendous strides. But we still haven't moved the needle on most indicators," said council member Dimple Ajmera, who chaired the city council's now-disbanded environment committee that drafted the 2030 and 2050 policies.

For example, the Charlotte Area Transit System, or CATS, has just 18 electric buses in a fleet of more than 300, and won't fully convert until after 2030. That alone will keep Charlotte from meeting the 2030 goal.

Interim CATS CEO Brent Cagle told the council in February that CATS is slowing down its purchases because the city lacks the charging stations and other infrastructure needed to expand the fleet. Cagle said at the time that CATS' replacement plan for old buses couldn't wait for the electric transition.

"I'm faced with a terrible dilemma. Right now, to make service, I have to start replacing buses," Cagle told WFAE.

Climate activists in Charlotte are concerned about the city's progress.

"They will not meet their sustainability goals," said Jerome Wagner, who is with the groups Charlotte Mecklenburg Climate Leaders and 350 Charlotte. He acknowledged that the city has adopted policies that commit to electrifying vehicles and buildings, and has completed some projects.

"The electric police station, that's pretty cool. The electric fire station, that's pretty cool. Those are novel. And that's worth, you know, being happy about. But it's only a fraction of the fraction of the goal," Wagner said.

City faces challenges

Part of the problem is that big cities like Charlotte haven't had a lot of experience buying electric vehicles or solar panels. But Charlotte has also run into factors beyond its control. Supply chain delays and high interest rates have slowed the city's first solar farm. The city fleet is hamstrung by long waiting lists for delivery of electric cars and pickups. And as Hazel points out, EVs aren't even available for some city functions.

"We have a lot of large vehicles where there isn't either an electrical equivalent one readily available, or that we have done operational testing on to make sure we can still meet city services," Hazel said.

But the biggest barrier to meeting the city's zero-carbon goal is Duke Energy, which is decades away from producing 100% zero-carbon energy. Duke won't finish closing its coal-fired power plants until 2035 and plans to keep building more gas-powered plants for the foreseeable future.

"The city is heavily dependent upon Duke Energy," said Jeff Robbins, executive director with the environmental group CleanAIRE NC. "We know that there is a vast amount of energy derived from natural gas that powers a lot of the buildings. So there has to be that hand-in-hand approach to putting pressure on Duke to make sure that they're doing the right thing so that the city can hit their mark."

The city recently posted a Strategic Energy Action Plan Dashboard on the web, a first attempt at showing citizens progress on the goals. It's an effort to go beyond the slide presentations and PDF reports of the past few years, Hazel said.

"What we wanted to try to start to do was … to create a more dynamic way to look at some of the data and the indicators related to the goals and the Strategic Energy Action Plan," she said.

It has data on greenhouse gas emissions, electric vehicles and charging stations, and a map of solar installations. There's also a section on clean energy workforce training programs that are part of the SEAP. And it spotlights a program called Power Down the Crown, which recognizes the climate efforts of a small number of local companies.

But the dashboard still needs work, said Jennifer Roberts, who pushed the city to develop climate goals back when she was mayor in 2017. Roberts has been following the city's efforts as a member of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Climate Leaders, which keeps watch on city and county climate actions.

"We just feel urgency. We're not certain that that the city feels the same urgency," she said.

Roberts also worries that the city hasn't done enough to promote the citywide goal of reducing private-sector carbon emissions. Charlotteans emitted 12.3 tons of carbon dioxide per person in 2015. In 2019, it had fallen slightly to 11.7 tons per person. The city's goal is 2 tons. Roberts wants to see more big companies involved.

"We don't see the collaboration. We don't see, you know, the competition that Charlotte is known for, you know, when the banks all compete to try to see who can be greener. We don't see that happening with the city or the county leading that," Roberts said.

The City Council adopted a new planning ordinance last year, known as the Unified Development Ordinance, that takes aim at the citywide goal. It has sections to protect trees, conserve land and promote climate-friendly development.

Former council member Braxton Winston helped draft the SEAP and supported the new planning rules.

"The ideals of the SEAP were part of the foundations of those policy processes," said Winston, who is now running for state labor commissioner. "And again, this is to set up for the long-term effect of reducing your average Charlottean's carbon footprint."

The question is whether those rules will actually change development and transportation patterns, and have the desired effect.

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.
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