BEMC addressing energy efficiency, environmental issues

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

Energy efficiency is a hot topic, and Brunswick Electric Membership Corp. (BEMC), the county’s electric cooperative, is investing in ways to balance the need for affordable power with protecting the environment.

“We know what we’re supposed to do: provide safe, reliable and affordable power, and we also want to have a social conscience by learning about environmentally sound techniques,” BEMC CEO Chip Leavitt Leavitt said.

BEMC is a partner in GreenCo Solutions, a group of 23 cooperatives joined to form a nonprofit company focusing on energy efficiency initiatives and developing renewable energy resources.

The group is looking into bringing wind power from the Midwest and investing in solar and biomass projects around the state. The challenge GreenCo and the individual co-ops face is cost.

Renewable energy will cost customers more money, and sources like wind power will not be available at all times. So the ultimate goal for BEMC, according to Leavitt, is to have a blend of traditional fuels and renewable sources.

In his speech at the cooperative’s recent annual meeting, Leavitt commented on the changes on the horizon.

“It’s going to require a serious shift at all levels to accomplish this change,” he said. “We must ask ourselves: Are we willing as a society, as individuals, to make the decisions required to make this change happen over the long-term? Are we willing to make lifestyle changes to reduce our carbon footprint, to use energy more efficiently?”

Leavitt said it’s helpful the state legislature has provided a mandate the state use a certain amount renewable energy in the next 10 years.

During the last session, the N.C. General Assembly passed a law requiring all investor-owned utilities in the state to supply 12.5 percent of 2020 retail electricity sales from renewable energy resources by 2021.

Leavitt said federal tax incentives would also be a big step toward getting the public to invest in renewable energy.

“We’re bringing the issue to the legislators’ attention,” Leavitt said. “Our members sent numerous letters to their congressmen [about the issue].”

“Consumers think of it as a smart way to think, but they’re also asking ‘What’s the cost?’ That’s the tradeoff.”

“Most people want to do the right thing,” Leavitt said. “If people do make the investment, we are going to see rate increases.”

That’s why he supports federal tax incentives and use of a combination of energy sources as well as some type of “scoreboard” that would show the decrease in pollution and other environmental problems if renewable sources are used.

“Costs are going up 30-35 percent. Your smart consumer wants to know, ‘If I’m paying a rate increase to invest in renewable resources, what have I done to clean up the environment?’ They want a scoreboard. They want to know if they’ve done anything.”

Leavitt urges BEMC members to lobby their legislators.

“Tell your legislators that you want a balanced approach, that keeping energy affordable is critical and that you’re willing to do your part if they do theirs.”

Leavitt also believes nuclear and coal plants can provide energy with less waste and pollution than in the past, and combined with renewable sources, can provide reliable power without a major environmental cost.

“This country has a huge amount of coal,” he said. “It’s an abundant resource. If we could learn to burn it more efficiently with new technology, we’ve got a ready-made source of energy.”

Leavitt says it’s also time for the country to come to “some commitment” on nuclear energy.

“It does have a waste and pollution problem, but it can be taken care of,” he said.

By 2030, the country will need 50 new nuclear plants operating to meet needs.

“We’ve learned a lot. It can be viewed as an environmentally clean process.”

In addition to its lobbying and researching efforts, BEMC is also involved in educating young people about energy efficiency.

Leavitt said BEMC is planning to bring a fifth-grade course of study on renewable energy to schools in Brunswick, Columbus, Robeson and Bladen counties and is developing a scholarship for high school students who complete renewable energy projects.

sarah shew wilson is a staff writer for the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or swilson@brunswickbeacon.com.