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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.

Electric buses on Charlotte streets and other climate progress 

032221 CATS electric bus charging .jpg
Charlotte Area Transit System
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A Charlotte Area Transit System worker plugs one of the city's new electric buses into a charger. Two buses are now running, the first of a planned 18-bus pilot. 

There's still a long way to go before the city of Charlotte meets its climate goals. City staff reported signs of progress this week, such as the debut of electric buses on city streets. But they also said the city may need to buy carbon offsets to hit its target of eliminating fossil fuel emissions in its buildings and vehicles.

Those were among the messages from the Office of Sustainability & Resilience at meetings this week of the city council environment committee and a citizen advisory group.

Just a reminder: The city's 2018 Strategic Energy Action Plan calls for shifting to 100% zero-carbon energy in municipal buildings and vehicles by 2030. And city leaders are calling on the rest of us to take steps to become a "low-carbon" city by 2050. That means cutting per-person carbon emissions to 2 tons per year across the city. In 2019, it was 11 tons.

Here are a few updates reported this week:

  • E-buses are on the road. The city's first two electric buses began running last week. They're part of a $23 million 12- to 18-month electric bus pilot that will allow Charlotte Area Transit System to test drive models from two different manufacturers. The pilot also will help CATS determine what it will take to convert the entire 300-bus fleet to electric vehicles. "We are looking forward to learning how this technology is going to work in our community with our topography and our temperatures. With our operators, we're hoping to better understand range and energy use," Catherine Kummer, CATS sustainability officer, said at a meeting of the Strategic Energy Action Plan External Content Group on Monday. 
  • Electric buses on "Corridors of Opportunity" first. City officials said electric buses will be tested first on its identified "Corridors of Opportunity." Those are six corridors stretching west, north and east from uptown that have lower average incomes, a higher percentage of people of color and poorer air quality. 
  • Solar farm opening pushed to 2023. As the city tries to cut its use of fossil-fuel-powered energy, it's planning to buy power from a private solar farm in Iredell County through Duke Energy's Green Source Advantage program. The 35-megawatt solar farm is still going through permitting, but it's expected to be finished next year, according to Heather Bolick of the city sustainability office. The city says it will provide about 16.8% of the city's electricity by 2030. That's less than a previous estimate of 24%. City officials have said it will save about $2 million over 20 years.

    032122 City energy use 2030.jpg
    City of Charlotte Office of Sustainability & Resilience
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    Officials say this is what the city's energy mix will look like in 2030, based on current projections. There's still an 18% gap that the city needs to fill to become carbon-free by then.

  • A future gap. Besides the solar farm, Charlotte city facilities will still get most of their energy in 2030 from Duke Energy, which will have a mix of fossil-powered and renewable energy sources. The city is counting on further de-carbonization by Duke to help meet its goals. It also will have more solar on its own buildings. But there's still an 18% gap, Bolick said at a meeting of the city council environment committee earlier Monday. "That is (the) gap we are trying to close either, through offsets or further investments to reach our 2030 goal," she said. That could mean buying carbon credits, which pay for investments elsewhere such as tree planting or renewable energy projects that would make up for continued carbon emissions. (City buildings and facilities exclude the light rail system and traffic signal network.)  
  • Charger network expanding. The city now has 105 electric vehicle charging stations, with 194 ports. Of those 50 are available to the public. One interesting statistic: The city now manages 41% of all charging stations in Charlotte, public or private. 

The city's internal goal may be easier to meet than the community-wide goal. A rough estimate is that city governments typically account for no more than 10% of a city's carbon emissions. Reducing the other 90% of emissions will take a community effort, Bolick told the SEAP external committee.
"The community is the largest part," she said. "And so that's why we will really depend upon our partners, all of you, to help us get there. What we're tasked with doing is leading by example, and hopefully showing how it can be done and instigating. But we definitely are not going to be the major piece of the pie."

READ MORE: Jan. 22, 2022, "As Charlotte pursues climate goals, some worry they're unreachable"

A version of this story originally appeared in WFAE's weekly Climate newsletter on March 24, 2022. Subscribe at https://www.wfae.org/climate-newsletter-signup

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.