Forward momentum: A-B Tech’s Jon Snover brings people and technology together

The GIST of it: As director of A-B Tech’s Global Institute for Sustainable Technologies, Jon Snover plots the future with projects and people, from a solar-powered bus stop to regional initiatives that help develop a green economy in Western North Carolina. photo by Max Cooper
The GIST of it: As director of A-B Tech’s Global Institute for Sustainable Technologies, Jon Snover plots the future with projects and people, from a solar-powered bus stop to regional initiatives that help develop a green economy in Western North Carolina. photo by Max Cooper

Jon Snover thought he’d found his dream job at a fuel-cell company in 2001 — and that, as lead chemist for the company, he was going to change the world by developing advanced technology to solve society’s energy crisis. But an epiphany changed the course of his career, ultimately leading him to become director of A-B Tech’s Global Institute for Sustainable Technologies (GIST). “Technologies aren’t going to solve our problem. People are,” he says.

As his career evolved, the basic question that Snover pondered was this: If we’ve got the most amazing technology out there in a community that isn’t demanding it, or training for green jobs in a market that’s not interested, how can we move forward? “Technologies play a role, but we need to start with what we know — our habits,” he says. So Snover left the tech world and transitioned to teaching; he landed at Western Carolina University in 2003 as director of the Science and Entrepreneurship program. Five years later, he took on the leadership role at GIST, managing grant programs and connecting community stakeholders.

At GIST, collaborative impact outweighs individual achievement. So as director, Snover identifies good initiatives already underway all over Western North Carolina, and asks, “How do we make the industry work?” The answer, he says, is to unite as many sectors as possible — students, nonprofits, A-B Tech, local businesses, policy, industry leaders and more.

For example, Snover recently implemented the CleanTech Concept Lab initiative, which helps inventors and entrepreneurs “demonstrate the viability of a new approach or technology.” The approach means connecting great ideas in green energy, building and conservation with appropriate business models. It also means identifying what it takes to get these ideas on the market and attractive to consumers, he explains. Snover mentions working with Blue Ridge Biofuels and a “few independent inventors,” but notes that the initiative “is still relatively new in development and needs new funding to expand.”

Snover also plays matchmaker between GlST and projects across the region. One early success has been Field to Fryer to Fuel (F3): The Biltmore Estate grows canola for cooking oil in local restaurants; Blue Ridge Biofuels collects and recycles the used oil into several grades of biodiesel. The goal is to certify Blue Ridge so that all tests can be done locally rather than shipped out of state, as most companies do, he says. If successful, the initiative will ensure that the entire process is handled within the Asheville area. Snover helped link F3 partners with campus facilities for product development and certification testing.

“Environmental activism is not extremism, and it’s often sidetracked,” he says, remarking that the goal is to shift the mindset and behavior of local citizens. “It’s gotta be in line with a healthy economy” and a strong educational system, Snover says.

He manages a multiyear U.S. Department of Energy grant, too, for a program that trains teachers and provides classroom equipment that enhances sustainability initiatives in Buncombe County schools. Currently in its final year, the grant allows Snover to dabble in basically any aspect of community education that relates to energy-efficiency, clean-energy and green-building technologies. As part of the same grant, A-B Tech has created a degree in Sustainability Technologies and developed related continuing-education courses. As a result, A-B Tech is one of the few places in the state where technicians can get certified in both solar-thermal and solar-PV installation.

Activism and innovation

Snover also connects local activists in education, industry and innovation. Last year, Evergreen Charter School staff needed structures for an on-site, garden-education program. Snover put them in touch with Mitchel Sorin, an A-B Tech sustainability instructor, and called Hemp Technologies, a local green-building company. Sorin’s students took on the project as part of their coursework, partnering with Asheville-based nonprofit Green Opportunities to build the structures with material from Hemp Technologies. Funding provided through A-B Tech helped launch the project.

Another example is a local thermal storage company, rGEES, one of the dozen startups underway in A-B Tech’s Small Business Incubator. The company’s passive-heat regulation system had attracted the attention of commercial greenhouse growers but there was no working model that demonstrated its effectiveness. Snover paired rGEES with A-B Tech’s greenhouse, where the company installed a working system that builds its credibility, lowers the facility’s energy bills and gives A-B Tech students data for their studies.

For economic realists who aren’t quite convinced by Snover’s grassroots approach, he brings up a recent conference at which the vice president of Wal-Mart gave a sustainability presentation — a reflection of the economic imperative that is drawing even the largest players in the game into the conservation mindset. “Energy prices are continuing to rise, and this is one of the last remaining areas where corporations can cut costs,” Snover explains. This trend shows up in the local investment community, existing businesses and startups, he says: “Sustainability is fertile ground for business health to limit long-term exposure to fluctuations.”

As another example, Snover mentions Noble Rock Resort and Spa — a net-zero green resort with high standards for land-use, preservation and energy. Company owners, based in Atlanta, chose Buncombe County as a location for their newest resort. Why? “Because the market is speaking,” Snover contends. “Solar is becoming competitive. Companies and investors are voting with their money, and they’re beginning to vote for solar energy.”

In order to get beyond corporate interests, Snover strives to incorporate as many stakeholders as possible. To help expand green-technology-based industry, for example, A-B Tech is partnering with Advantage West, a regional economic-development nonprofit. Snover is also involved with various projects through the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, such as EvolveEnergy, a WNC partnership for empowering all sectors in developing a green economy; and GroWNC, which addresses sustainable growth across the region.

Ultimately, Snover’s work seems driven by a question with no simple answer, but which he pursues nonetheless: “What’s our moral obligation to posterity, and how much responsibility do we want to take for our lifestyles?”

— Rachel Winner is a freelance writer in Asheville. Her work can be viewed at winnerswords.com.

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