A factory where charging stations for electric buses are made is an example of how North Carolina can benefit from the clean energy economy, North Carolina leaders said during a tour and media event this week. The 272,000-square-foot facility started operations in the early 1980s, but lost many positions to the off-shoring of manufacturing lines. In 2019, Siemens started making electric vehicle chargers for buses, trucks and other large vehicles at the facility, resulting in 100 new jobs. U.S. Rep. Deborah Ross, a Wake County Democrat, said the facility had been a warehouse that didn’t contribute significantly to the state’s economy. But, Ross said, “Because North Carolina is poised as a clean tech leader, Siemens is up-fitting this factory. It has already done it. It’s hiring hundreds of people and it is part of the clean energy economy.”

Electrification of cars, buses and other vehicles is receiving increased attention in North Carolina. Earlier this year, Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order calling on the N.C. Department of Transportation to explore policies that could ease the state’s transition to electric vehicles. A state report released in January found that the transportation sector results in more greenhouse gas emissions than any other part of North Carolina’s economy, including the power sector.

Cooper told reporters Tuesday that the upfront cost of electric vehicles is part of what’s keeping North Carolina consumers from swapping out their gasoline-powered cars. “The more (electric vehicles) that we can make, the more charging stations that we can have across the area, the more competition that we can create, those prices are going to come down and we are going to get more EVs on the road,” Cooper said. Barbara Humpton, Siemens’ president and CEO, said she is particularly excited about the Ford F-150 Lightning, the electric alternative to America’s best-selling vehicle. Siemens helped develop a custom charger for the F-150 that allows power to flow both to and from the vehicle. “Is it a car, is it a truck or is it a home energy resilience system? That’s the question we can now ask,” Humpton said. Among the products Siemens makes in Wendell are the charging stations GoRaleigh uses for its electric buses, including three DC plug-in fast chargers and six dispensers.

GoRaleigh has purchased five electric buses so far. While the upfront expense of electric-powered buses is often more greater than their diesel-powered counterparts, GoTriangle and other transit systems estimate that they will save money on maintenance costs over the vehicle’s lifetime. Charles Lattuca, the president and CEO of GoTriangle, said the electrification of transportation could lower costs, eventually allowing the transit systems to offer more services. “We’re going to build commuter rail, we’re going to build bus rapid transit systems,” Lattuca said, “and I think there’s a role for electrification in all of these new systems to play.” Monday, Lattuca told Wake County commissioners that GoTriangle is exploring a commuter rail line that would connect Johnston, Wake and Durham counties. The News & Observer reported the 43-mile proposed route would be built alongside existing rail lines. “At the end of the day,” Lattuca said Tuesday, “while we may want a new train, we would love that train to be a clean energy train.”

The $1.2 trillion federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law last year includes $65 billion to modernize the nation’s electrical grid. Those funds are key, Ross said, to shifting the nation’s energy away from fossil fuels and toward renewable power. “We know that we’re transitioning to a cleaner energy future, and yes that’s about putting up solar panels and wind turbines and other things, but we have to connect those things,” Ross said. Ross emphasized that the wide-reaching bill includes funding not only to repair roads and broadband and the electrical grid now, but to prepare them for future needs. The infrastructure act also included funds for energy research and development, including $420 million to research technologies like geothermal, solar and wind. Additionally, the bill included $6 billion over five years for carbon capture research and demonstrations and $355 million over four years for energy storage demonstrations. Brian Savoy, Duke Energy’s chief strategy and commercial officer, said those research projects could prove key to the state’s largest utility slashing emissions from power generation. House Bill 951, passed last year, requires Duke to submit a plan that would reduce its carbon emissions 70% from 2005 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.

Duke has also announced that it intends to retire its coal-fired power plants by 2035. “We see a path to decarbonization to about 75%,” Savoy said. “That last 25%’s going to take technology breakthroughs at commercial scale.” Driving down the research and development costs on new energy technologies could help utilities scale them up faster, Savoy said. “To hit our 2030 ambition, we need some,” Savoy said. “We need more by 2035 if we’re going to retire all of our coal and those are the steps that I think the federal government will take as we move forward.”