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WFAE reporter David Boraks explores how the way we live influences climate change and its impact across the Carolinas. You also can read additional national and international climate news.

Boone hits a goal many seek: 100% renewable energy in town buildings

 Blue Ridge energy's Brighter Future Solar project in Caldwell County now supplies part of Boone's electricity.
Blue Ridge Energy
Blue Ridge energy's Brighter Future Solar project in Caldwell County now supplies part of Boone's electricity.

As local governments across the country puzzle over how to eliminate their use of electricity generated by fossil fuels, one North Carolina town has met that goal.

The mountain town of Boone had a goal of running town operations on carbon-free electricity by 2030. Beginning Feb. 1, all town buildings and facilities will be powered entirely by renewable energy, said town sustainability director George Santucci.

 George Santucci, sustainability and special projects manager for the Town of Boone.
Town of Boone
George Santucci, sustainability and special projects manager for the Town of Boone.

"All the energy that we use in our buildings, to run our wastewater treatment plant, run our water treatment facilities, all the electricity used for all the town's operations is coming from either solar or hydropower," Santucci said.

Boone has about 19,000 residents. It's about 115 miles northwest of Charlotte, and it's home to Appalachian State University.

Boone is meeting its goal eight years early because the Town Council voted Jan. 12 to adopt a new arrangement for electricity purchases from its two providers. Santucci believes it's the first local government in North Carolina to reach the milestone.

"I can't find any," Santucci said. He's part of a statewide network of sustainability directors and said he talks regularly with colleagues.

"I've done as much research as I possibly can to find out if any town in North Carolina has achieved this. And I don't have any evidence that any town has actually done this," he said

There's no place that formally tracks municipal energy sources. And people WFAE talked to this week say they haven't heard any other municipal governments make the same claim.

So how did they do it? 

The Town Council vote came a little over five years after Boone officials first decided to set their own climate goals. A 2019 update to the goals calls for reaching carbon neutrality in municipal operations by 2030. The plan also seeks to shift the entire town of Boone — including homes and businesses — to 100% renewable energy by 2050.

Electricity generation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in North Carolina. Local governments rely on what's available from their utilities, so they can't do it alone.

 Boone Town Hall and other town buildings, including the water treatment plant, will now run on hydro and solar power.
Megan L Sheppard
Town of Boone
Boone Town Hall and other town buildings, including the water treatment plant, will now run on hydro and solar power.

"We could not have accomplished this without the help of our utilities, and their willingness to pursue and step out and invest in these hydro and solar facilities," Santucci said.

The town has two electricity utilities — an electric cooperative called Blue Ridge Energy and New River Light and Power, which is owned by App State.

New River provides electricity to both the university campus and most of the town of Boone. The university itself recently announced that it now gets about 18% of its electricity from renewable sources.

"About 25% of Boone's total usage is on New River Light and Power, so we (now) have 25% hydro. And then 75% of our consumption is actually on Blue Ridge. And that's all solar," Santucci said.

A complicated series of contracts lies behind the shift. Among those changes, both utilities recently added renewable energy sources to their mix. Previously, they got nearly all their electricity from the region's major generator, Duke Energy.

Blue Ridge now gets part of its electricity from a large solar farm in Caldwell County. And New River contracted to buy hydroelectric power from Brookfield Renewable US, which owns four dams in western North Carolina and Tennessee.

Now they're sharing with their customers.

A slightly higher cost 

Switching to renewables came at a price, said Santucci. The hydroelectric and solar power will cost about 2 cents per kilowatt-hour more than what Boone had been paying. It's now about 12 cents on average, he said.

So to complete the plan, the Town Council last month had to add about $60,000 to its electricity budget for the rest of the fiscal year that ends June 30.

Santucci said as more early adopters like Boone go carbon-free, costs will come down.

"Unfortunately, renewables are still a premium product," Santucci said. "We see that changing over time. And so the Town Council knew they needed to achieve these goals. And by investing early, I also knew that we could drive that market, we could drive the demand for renewables, which would then decrease the overall cost over time."

The town is buying the hydroelectric power under New River Light and Power's new Green Power Program. Residential and business customers in town also can sign up to use renewable energy from the program. That would help the town meet its broader 2050 goal of having all of Boone carbon-free, Town Manager John Ward said in a news release.

“I'm very proud of our accomplishments so far," Ward said. "The recent approval to move to 100% renewable energy in all of our town facilities is a significant step for the town in achieving our goals and will serve as an example of how private business and residents can join us in making a difference in our local community.”

More work to do 

While Boone can check renewable electricity off its climate to-do list, the town still must address vehicles and heating costs, said Santucci.

"It's awesome that we've hit this milestone," he said. "But (there are) still big things to do. We have to convert all of our fleet of vehicles over to electric vehicles. We need to convert heating and cooling systems in our buildings from fossil fuel-based systems to electric systems."

This is a first step.

"I think for anybody if you can eliminate any fossil fuel burning in your life, that's really what needs to be achieved to reduce the greenhouse gas effect," Santucci said.

"Climate change is a critical challenge and an existential threat to the world, never mind our own citizens and populations," Santucci said. "We know we need to take action, and governments need to step up and lead the way and demonstrate that this is possible. If we can show our power utilities that there is a demand and there is a need out there, then they will invest more quickly in renewable energies and upgrade their portfolios quicker."

A version of this story originally appeared in WFAE's weekly Climate News newsletter. 

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David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.