MEM Student Helps Make an Impact on N.C.’s Energy Policy Future

January 15, 2019

Cooper signs Executive Order 80
N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper signs Executive Order 80, which commits North Carolina to addressing climate change and transitioning to a clean energy economy. Photo courtesy of N.C. Department of Environmental Quality

By Gennelle Wilson MEM’20

On Oct. 29, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper signed Executive Order 80, “North Carolina’s Commitment to Address Climate Change & Transition to a Clean Energy Economy.” This order recognizes climate change and commits to cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Gennelle Wilson

Gennelle Wilson

As an aspiring environmental policy analyst, this is an exciting time to be in North Carolina. I am a first-year Master of Environmental Management student at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, and I assumed that my goal of one day working to improve our state environmental policy would not be possible until after I graduated, or even years later.

However, thanks to opportunities provided through the Nicholas School, I do not have to wait until graduation to have an impact. I am already taking a part in implementing Executive Order 80 and am paving the way for a cleaner, more sustainable future for North Carolina.

The order mandates that the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) develops a Clean Energy Plan that “fosters and encourages the utilization of clean energy resources, including energy efficiency (EE), solar, wind, energy storage, and other innovative technologies.” This plan must be finalized and submitted to the N.C. Climate Change Interagency Council by October. Energy efficiency is the component to which I am contributing directly.

Energy efficiency is a straight-forward concept; identifying ways to use less energy to achieve a desired outcome. According to the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, approximately 56.8 percent of the state’s energy is generated by burning fossil fuels – largely coal and natural gas – releasing greenhouse gases into the air and contributing to global climate change.

"I assumed that my goal of one day working to improve our state environmental policy would not be possible until after I graduated, or even years later. However, thanks to opportunities provided through the Nicholas School, I do not have to wait until graduation to have an impact."
- Gennelle Wilson MEM’20

EE is an important mechanism through which society can reduce greenhouse gas emissions because the less energy we require to conduct our daily lives, the less fossil fuels are burned.

Through my research assistantship with the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, I am working on a project that aims to formulate a list of policy recommendations to improve the state’s energy efficiency.

The project is an inclusive and collaborative effort that involves more than 50 individual stakeholders from a diverse array of backgrounds—including industry, power providers, social justice advocates and local government representatives from across the state. The final set of recommendations we develop will be delivered to the DEQ in May.

The recommendations best suited for the DEQ’s purposes will be incorporated into the Clean Energy Plan for North Carolina. Through my work on this project, I have already begun to fulfill one of my career ambitions of contributing to future energy policy for my home state.
As a part of the project, I take an active role in research. At the beginning, I researched other states that have developed EE policies to inform our understanding of the full spectrum of possibilities. I looked at 10 states and found a wide variance in the approaches taken to grow EE. Some states implemented EE standards limited to state-owned buildings and vehicles. More aggressive states, like Massachusetts, established a committee whose responsibility it is to set EE targets for the entire state, review utility companies’ plans for EE programs and ensure that the programs are implemented fairly and effectively.

I also take an active role in designing the process through which we engage stakeholders and solicit their expertise. Given the diversity of perspectives in the room, interactions need to be well designed so that everyone can be heard.

Additionally, EE is a very large problem and requires a structure to ensure we approach each component of the problem systematically. For example, the team is concerned with issues such as a centralized administration of EE programs, EE building codes, workforce training for EE, energy poverty and equitable access to EE programs. Moreover, when North Carolina sets a target for EE, how will success be measured? What data will be used? How will the data be gathered? These are just a few of the questions with which our EE experts and stakeholders are currently grappling.

I am fortunate to do policy research as well as design and strategy development that is directly applicable to my career aspirations, that leverages my skillset from previous work experience, and that deepens the learnings from my courses.

Like most mid-career professionals, the decision to return to school was tinged with concerns about forsaking opportunities for advancement in the workforce. Within weeks of starting school and my research assistantship with the Nicholas Institute, those concerns evaporated. If I am already fulfilling my career ambition of working on state policy, I am excited to discover what more is in store over the next year, and beyond.