As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we reflect on what we do everyday as an agency, and specifically air quality, to promote the values of this year’s Earth Day theme: climate action.
Climate action is more than just using metal straws and recycling a plastic bottle. It involves thinking outside the box with all types of minds to innovate the future that we want. Over the past few years, North Carolina has made strides in improving our state’s air quality, particularly in response to climate change.
Ground Level Ozone –
After 2016 wildfires in North Carolina, DEQ saw the need to take a more localized approach to how we assign daily Air Quality Index and forecasts. Since then, our meteorologists and environmental monitors began making plans to switch to more localized forecasting after we saw that our regional approach wasn’t capturing every county precisely. Where some counties were in code orange or higher because of the fires, others were not. We wanted to show each county individually so that people know what’s happening in their county, rather than their region. So, there’s additional attention paid to specific counties where the AQI value may be a little higher or lower -- relatively speaking -- depending on the forecast, and that is the biggest change for us with this new forecast process.
This also comes with acknowledging that all North Carolina counties are in attainment for ozone, as classified by the EPA. Attainment, as defiend by the EPA, is any area that meets the national primary or secondary ambient air quality standard for a National Ambient Air Quality Standards.
North Carolina is making great strides in solar: from widespread utility-scale solar installations, high demand for rooftop solar, electrified transportation, microgrids, and new energy efficient technology. Today, we have the highest concentration of smart grid companies in the world and are second in the nation for installed solar capacity (behind California).
Solar energy also addresses the urban-rural divide. While climate change affects both urban and rural populations, rural populations are at a particular disadvantage because of higher unemployment, access to resources in the face of crisis, and less diversified economic landscape. DEQ’s Clean Energy Plan addresses this urban-rural divide through different recommendations for rural communities. Along with state and federal renewable energy tax credits, as well as the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA), NC has become a solar industry leader, bringing associated jobs and economic development opportunity in rural areas of the state.
The way we inspect our cars is changing. The requirements for a vehicle emissions inspection and maintenance (I&M) program in a county are driven by Clean Air Act requirements and U.S. EPA regulations if in the past the county violated the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for ozone or carbon monoxide, or contributed to a NAAQS violation in an adjacent county. In 1999, the NC State Legislature expanded the I&M program to nearly half of NC’s counties to help get counties back into attainment with the ozone NAAQS.
Cars are much cleaner today than 20 years ago. NC’s air quality has improved significantly over the past 20 years to the extent that based on technical analyses conducted by Division of Air Quality, the NC State Legislature removed 26 counties from the program in 2018 and, for the 22 counties remaining in the program, reduced the vehicle model years covered by the program.
I&M program requirements are very state-specific depending on the air quality history in the state. NC’s I&M program has evolved over the past 30 years and is frequently reviewed and updated as allowed under federal regulations.
All of these efforts are the backbone of the Department’s initiatives to build a more efficient, clean, and beautiful North Carolina for all to enjoy.