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Climate group presents petition to get Chapel Hill 100 percent renewable by 2050

The solar panels near Maple View Farm are an example of the solar energy powered by Duke Energy.

What will happen by 2050? For the Town of Chapel Hill, it might be 100 percent clean, renewable energy.

A “climate reality group” consisting of local citizens introduced a petition that would help the Town achieve this goal at the Town Council’s April 10 meeting. The petition was then referred to the mayor and town manager, and the council will now gather input from the community.

If the council accepts the petition's advice, it would be expected to commit to transitioning the Town from a fossil fuel-based economy to 100 percent clean and renewable energy for all energy sectors by Jan. 1, 2050.

Kim Piracci, chairperson of the Climate Reality Triangle Group, who filed the petition, said people cannot wait for the federal government to take action on climate change and that individuals and local governments will have to do it.

"Chapel Hill has shown itself to be leaders, in other ways, and I think this is one way they can show themselves to be leaders," she said.

Jason West, a UNC environmental sciences and engineering professor, acknowledged the petition’s feasibility.

“Going 100 percent to clean energy is looking much more feasible thanks to recent technological innovations,” he said in an email. “Solar and wind power have become much less costly and are comparable to or even less than the costs of coal-fired electricity. The costs and capabilities of battery storage of electricity have also fallen, which makes a transformation to solar and wind power more feasible.”

Another UNC environmental sciences and engineering professor, Felix Dodds, who is also active in the United Nations, said he's pleased with the petition’s goal. 

To meet the petition's requests, Dodds recommended the Town increase its solar coverage and adopt legislation to include solar coverage in building regulations. He said the Town could also encourage residents to adopt solar alternatives.

The more you can make it attractive for people to retrofit their own housing to include solar, the better,” he said.

The geography of North Carolina also makes using wave power, or a form of offshore wind power, feasible, Dodds said.

The process to transition to renewable energy, however, may not be easy. Rosa Fowler, a UNC graduate student and co-program director for the Bigfoot Project, recognized the challenges that are posed because of the nature of the energy industry in North Carolina.

“It’s just a lot harder to get these new energies into, like the infrastructure in the place,” she said. “It’s just been a greater challenge for a lot of these smaller companies to bring that in because it’s just been so monopolized energy-wise as a state.”

Despite the foreseen difficulties, Fowler, Dodds and others are hopeful about the prospects of energy reform because of the high aspirations of Chapel Hill.

“Clearly, people have been inspired by a couple of things. They've been inspired by the Green New Deal's conceptual framework for addressing some of these things, which should not be a political left or right issue, it should just be about the way we live,” Dodds said.

Hongbin Gu, a member of Town Council and the Environmental Stewardship Advisory Board, said she also appreciated the community’s initiative.

“I think it clearly shows the strong desire in our community and the urgency that people feel in our community, and they want to address that issue, and they want to be part of that solution, which I think is great,” Gu said.

She added the Town needs to have a survey of its current carbon emissions before incorporating petitions like this one into its climate action plan, which has not been written yet.

“For us to decide how to move forward, we first need to know where we are,” Gu said.

As a local resident, Fowler said she hopes the petition will eventually pass.

“Even when you don’t have nationwide policy, if local government can make these commitments, it can change the whole community,” she said.

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