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Caught Off Guard

Amid looming perils, American Southeast struggles with climate change

  • 5 min to read
Amid looming perils, American Southeast struggles with climate change

Like hundreds of other cities, Louisville, Kentucky, is searching for a path to address climate change.

Mayor Greg Fischer has declared a climate emergency, proposed a climate action plan and set a goal of reducing citywide carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.

To get there, Fischer needs the cooperation of the region’s electric utility, Louisville Gas & Electric Co. But the power company depends on coal. And, with its related companies, it has committed only to cutting carbon emissions 70 percent from 2010 levels by 2050.

Even that more modest commitment, though, is now in doubt, based on recent comments by LG&E’s chief operating officer, Lonnie Bellar, at an energy conference last fall, dominated by coal interests. In discussing his company’s own carbon reduction plan, Bellar declined to make any promises about a clean energy future.

At the fall meeting of the Southern States Energy Board, an organization of Southern governors and lawmakers, Bellar said his company was planning for different carbon reduction options, “free of commitments.”

”We want to continue to provide energy to our customers at a low, reasonable cost,” he said. “If that means coal, it means coal. If that means some other resource, it means some other resource.”

Louisville illustrates a fairly common obstacle: communities with little control over the monopoly electric utilities that serve them.

Today, in Caught Off Guard, InsideClimate News and 10 newsrooms across seven Southeastern states are publishing stories on the progress and problems their communities face in relation to climate change. The region lags behind others in renewable electricity and faces some of the biggest global warming threats in the nation.

In reporting their stories, the journalists found communities struggling with funding, or with a lack of political will, and the need for technological breakthroughs to meet climate change head on.

The Southeast region extends from coastal areas, already experiencing sunny day flooding during high tides, to some of the highest mountains and narrow valleys of Appalachia, where flood risks are severe. The Southeast has been slower to warm than other parts of the United States, but that’s now changing, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment.

Regional electricity generation mix

Regional electricity generation comparison. Inside Climate News.

High-intensity hurricanes are expected to become more common, and storm surges more devastating from higher seas in growing coastal communities already occupied by millions of people.

Other regions of the country are steadily increasing their use of renewable energy sources, and there are areas of the Southeast where that is true, too. But the Southeast has lacked the wind resources that have been developed in other parts of the country, said Daniel Cohan, associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University in Houston. But there is abundant sunshine, he added, and that bodes well for solar power.

Some monopoly utilities, however, have been reluctant to develop solar, and when they do, they want to tap into it at their own pace, Cohan said. In most Southeastern states, there have not been strong policies or incentives to encourage solar.

“Just in the past few years solar has really plunged in price and become more affordable than almost any other option,” he said. “It’s taking a while for that to catch up” in the Southeast, Cohan said.

The stories came from Florida to West Virginia.

Across Florida, for example, local governments are bracing for higher tides and fiercer hurricanes. Miami Beach is installing pumps and raising roads, and other communities are moving critical infrastructure to higher ground.

But when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, land-locked Orlando is among the relatively few local governments in Florida working to do so. With its municipal utility, Orlando Utilities Commission, the city plans to generate as much as 13 percent of its electricity from solar power within five years. Still, officials are uncertain how Orlando will get to its 100-percent clean energy goal in three decades.

Florida’s first chief resilience officer, Julia Nesheiwat, said there is a misconception that only the coastlines have climate change concerns. “We tend to forget factors like precipitation, inland flooding, and aging infrastructure,” she said.

For the Jacksonville area, said Sean Lahav, resilience coordinator for the Northeast Florida Regional Council, a regional planning agency, “There is a long road ahead to figure out how to deal with these situations and these topics,”

Low-lying Charleston, South Carolina, is looking at spending $2 billion to gird itself against the impacts of climate change, but has done little to cut its emissions.

Mayor John Tecklenburg two years ago pledged to cut his city’s carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2050. But the city government has no solar panels on its buildings, no city vehicles that run on electric power or cleaner fuels, and it still hasn’t pushed its electric utility, Dominion Energy, to supply more renewable electricity.

Taking steps like converting to electric vehicles costs money, Tecklenburg said. “We’re consumers like anyone else, and we’re mindful of spending people’s tax dollars,” he said.

But the state is already experiencing the effects of climate change. Statewide, four hurricanes and a major flood in the past five years have swamped South Carolina, killing more than 30 people, pushing toxic chemicals into people’s yards and causing billions of dollars in property damage. Heavy rains have flooded crops, causing state financial bailouts. And droughts have strained some drinking water supplies.

South Carolina still has no comprehensive climate plan, which means there is no coordinated effort to cut greenhouse gas pollution, limit sprawl, develop wind energy or educate the public on how to adapt to the changing climate.

A spokesman for South Carolina’s Republican governor, Henry McMaster, said, “Private industry is more than capable of adapting to a 21st century economy without imposing more regulations.”

In Savannah, Georgia, no one was routinely counting greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s fourth busiest seaport. The Port of Savannah has no emission reduction goals because, officials said, it is not not required.

In North Carolina, a Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, has adopted a clean energy plan that puts his state’s power sector on a path toward carbon neutrality by 2050. Cooper's plan also calls for, among other things, tax credits for electric vehicles and converting the state’s fleet to electric vehicles, but North Carolina’s Republican Legislature seems unlikely to cooperate.

The state’s fragile, hurricane-hammered coast is dotted with small towns without the resources they need to adapt to more flooding and extreme weather.

In Birmingham, Alabama, residents are pushing city leaders to “lead the way in confronting the threat of climate change.” But so far there’s little action by city government.

Take transportation as an example: “We’re sort of caught in this vicious cycle,” said Darrell O’Quinn, a Birmingham city councilor. “Single-occupancy vehicle use is so high because we don’t have other options, and we don’t have other options because single-occupancy vehicle use is so high.”

In West Virginia, flat land, in short supply, is putting homes and businesses in floodplains at risk. But a statewide office to boost resilience across the state, set up after devastating 2016 floods that killed 23 people, has made little progress.

It’s hard to develop a meaningful response “unless we have honest conversations about climate change and what it means for West Virginia,” said hydrologist and climate scientist Nicolas Zegre, of West Virginia University.

“But,” he said, “climate change is largely absent from conversations in Charleston,” the state’s capital.

In Kentucky, LG&E and its sister company, Kentucky Utilities, have a current energy mix that is 80 percent coal and 19 percent natural gas. It has closed some coal-burners and added gas plants to its fleet. The utility touts a couple of dams for hydropower and new solar offerings, but together hydro and solar comprise only one percent of its power generation.

The Louisville-based utilities are subsidiaries of Pennsylvania’s PPL Corp., and a close reading of PPL’s plans for LG&E and KU indicates one scenario that would deliver only a 45 percent reduction in carbon emissions by mid-century.

That’s far short of Fischer’s goals, and falls even farther short of some scientists’ calls for net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Company officials say they are taking a balanced approach, while Fischer said he will continue to press them, even as some members of the city’s Metro Council are pressing Fischer toward a 100 percent clean energy goal.

“This really shouldn’t be a political football,” said Louisville Metro Councilman Brandon Coan. “Environmental justice delayed is environmental justice denied.”

InsideClimate News is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet that covers climate, energy and the environment. Caught Off Guard was produced as part of ICN’s National Environmental News Network.

About this project

Last September, InsideClimate News convened a group of Southeast journalists in Nashville, Tennessee, including one from The Post and Courier, at the First Amendment Center on the Vanderbilt University campus, to develop a joint reporting project centered on holding their communities accountable for responding to climate change. “Caught Off Guard: The American Southeast Struggles With Climate Change” features reports from nine newsrooms in seven Southeastern states and ICN.

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