In late August, I embarked on a trip to coastal North Carolina to meet business-owners, citizens and local decision makers to involve them in the regional climate and energy work that we do through the Southeast Coastal Climate Network. This Network, that SACE hosts, represents concerned citizens from Maryland to Louisiana and among other things, calls upon regional leaders to take immediate action to reduce global warming pollution while advocating for meaningful solutions to the most urgent matter of our lifetime.
In addition to bringing new coastal voices into the climate and energy debate, I wanted to see first hand how global warming impacts such as sea level rise, stronger storms and shoreline erosion are already affecting local communities. It is important for me to understand what coastal North Carolinians believe are viable solutions to our climate crisis that could work for their communities. What I discovered is that from Elizabeth City to Wilmington, North Carolinian’s struggles, hopes, and concerns about climate and energy echo throughout our region. They are the ties that bind and the reasons why we must come together as a region to protect our southeastern coasts from the common threat of global warming.
Tourism and Real Estate Threatened
In South Nags Head I met the Mayor of the Town of Nags Head, Renee Cahoon, and a colleague of mine Carolyn McCormick, former Outer Banks Visitors Bureau Director. Here they showed me homes that are in grave danger of falling into the sea, rows of homes that are already lost, and water, sewer and power lines that were moved at the public’s expense. Oceanfront homes are anchored by sandbags with boarded-up windows that once looked over the glorious horizon.
I immediately took notice of an interesting juxtaposition; families building sandcastles 25 yards from condemned beach mansions. A singular tropical storm can wash away hundreds of yards of beach and ruin an otherwise bustling tourist season.
“Along with the sand,” Mayor Cahoon said, “goes millions of tax dollars that the town depends on for schools and services. Tourism is our life-blood here. Without tourism dollars, no one would be able to afford to live here.”
Nags Head is not an exception in North Carolina, many other coastal communities are at risk. The entire state relies on its 300 miles of coastline as its primary economic engine that attracts diverse visitors and outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy the unique natural and historic features the region has to offer. Coastal tourism creates thousands of jobs and generates millions of dollars in the state. A 2007 publication titled “Measuring the Impacts of Climate Change on North Carolina Coastal Resources” estimates that lost recreation value of southern North Carolina beaches due to sea level rise will total $93 million in 2030 and $223 million in 2080.
Adapting to Climate Change
While the most economical and environmentally sound adaptation measures are being debated, there are two positive and progressive coastal adaptation projects going on in North Carolina right now. I was fortunate to visit one of them on my trip – the one run by The Nature Conservancy. TNC received a $1 million grant from Duke Energy in April of this year to make the shoreline of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge near Kill Devil Hills resilient to encroaching seas. Some of the adaptation measures that they will implement include planting salt-tolerant species, hydrologic restoration and building up oyster reefs to buffer wave activity. The Nature Conservancy is hoping that lessons learned from this pilot project can be utilized in other parts of the state.
Our friends at the North Carolina Coastal Federation are also implementing a coastal adaptation project. They are working with private land owners, specifically farmers, who have watched their lands die back from salt water intrusion and rising seas. The project includes restoring the land’s natural hydrologic conditions, planting salt-tolerant species and utilizing other “soft” structures to deal with increasing erosion rates. The NCCF published guides for homeonwers such as “Erosion Control: Non-Structural Alternatives A Shorefront Property Owner’s Guide” as a way to arm people with information about solutions that can help save their properties.
Renewable Energy Businesses Need More Incentives, Fewer Roadblocks
Although the state of North Carolina is somewhat forward thinking on climate and energy issues, renewable energy businesses need more incentives and less road blocks. I met a few truly inspiring businesspeople throughout my trip (and heard of many) who are trying to do the right thing for the environment, their pocketbooks and for their children, but are finding themselves bound in red tape.
It took Aubrey and Karen Davis owners of The Outer Banks Brewing Station, “America’s first wind powered brewery” nearly 6 years to get the permitting for their 10kw wind turbine. They encountered many, perhaps unnecessary, roadblocks while trying to do the right thing. Their wind-powered business is coincidentally in full view of the nearby Wrights Brothers’ memorial where the Brothers also harnessed wind to accomplish their dreams. The Davis’s were determined to partially run their business on wind energy and now they save nearly $300/month on their utility bills (watch this great video about it!). Their wind turbine is only one part of their sustainable business model. They also compost most of their waste (some spent grain from their brewing process goes into pizza crust and some gets shipped to local farms for feed) and operate their business very energy efficiently. Their hope is that any federal climate legislation would include incentives for businesses like theirs.
In 2008, Scott McKellar owner of Alternative Builders in Elizabeth City, NC built and/or upgraded over 200 homes saving the average homeowner 75% off their utility bills. He provides affordable options for weatherproofing, solar and wind to his customers.
Scott helps homeowners receive direct checks and tax savings from the state and federal government to make projects more affordable. His work is guaranteed and he promises his customers a check if they do not save a certain percentage on their utility bills. It’s businesses like Scott McKellar’s that deserve a chance to flourish.
Erica Ramjohn of the River City Community Development Center works with “green” entrepreneurs like Scott McKellar to provide much needed resources to make their businesses successful. While clean energy work is not in her job description – she realizes that the future lies in such ventures. She has started “Green Meetings” so that green business leaders and those who want to become green can meet one another and exchange ideas. Erica wants to see the passing of strong climate and energy legislation so that communities like Elizabeth City who are struggling can find a new “calling.”
Right now, our U.S. Senators are working to produce climate and energy legislation that will shape the future our coastal businesses and communities. They are hearing more from big coal and oil special interests then they are from their own constituents who care about addressing climate change. In order to maximize this historic opportunity to pass strong climate and energy policies, citizens and businesses from all over our region must get involved.