By Todd Cohen
RALEIGH, N.C. — In 2007, North Carolina lawmakers passed a law requiring electric utilities in the state to phase in the use of energy efficiency and renewable energy sources as part of their production of energy. The measure was the first of its kind in the Southeast.
Today, clean energy represents a $7 billion industry in the state, accounting for 34,000 jobs, and North Carolina ranks second among all states in use of utility-scale solar farms.
And this year, state lawmakers enacted a Republican-led bill that calls for roughly doubling renewable energy in the state by 2022.
Playing an instrumental role in passage of both laws was the Raleigh-based Southeast regional office of the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit that works to protect the environment and community health by building bipartisan collaborations and using science, economics and law to underscore the interconnectedness of environmental protection and economic prosperity.
“We have had since the 1980s a very strong focus on having economists on our staff, and understanding the realities of the marketplace and how capital is invested and decisions are made, because so much environmental progress and harm flows from those investment decisions,” says Hawley Truax, who joined the Raleigh office of EDF in January as Southeast regional director.
That approach is critical today in the face of EDF’s “grave concerns about the Trump Administration’s commitment to undermine fundamental environmental and health protections that our organization was instrumental in helping to put in place in the early 1970s that have served this country well — the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act,” says Truax, a former program officer for the environment at the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, and before that a senior policy adviser on environmental and energy issues for Govs. Jim Hunt and Mike Easley.
Operating with a staff of 25 people, and raising $4 million to $5 million a year in contributions from individuals and foundations, the Raleigh offices focus mainly on North Carolina.
Its current focus is on issues such as helping the state shift from dependence on fossil fuels such as coal to energy efficiency and clean energy resources, particularly for production of electricity; reducing the use by industrial-scale agriculture of excess nitrogen fertilizer, which is a big source of water pollution, particularly in Eastern North Carolina, and a big source of global warming; and improving the state’s approach to the restoration of rivers and streams harmed by development, particularly highway construction.
In partnership with crop consultants and the Cooperative Extension Service at North Carolina State University, for example, EDF works with farmers to reduce their use of nitrogen fertilizer. It also partners with Smithfield Foods, which has asked farmers in Eastern North Carolina that supply grain for its operations to reduce their use of excess nitrogen fertilizer in their growing process.
EDF also is partnering with the North Carolina National Guard to develop a computer-based system to help it assess the return — both financial and in its ability to respond quickly to disasters — from investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy opportunities as it upgrades its facilities throughout the state.
“We are very committed to broadening the array of voices that are part of the clean energy conversation,” Truax says.
“We’re continuing to grow as a state, and we believe at EDF that economic prosperity and environmental sustainability go hand in hand,” he says. “A prosperous state needs to have a high quality of life, and its human communities need to be healthy. On the flip side, the most durable environmental solutions are economically sustainable and forged through bipartisan cooperation.”