Chevy Volt arrives in Asheville; City and County flag efforts to shrink our carbon footprint

Leaders from Asheville and Buncombe County governments and a host of nonprofit organizations gathered at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce Thursday morning, July 28, for the Land-Of-Sky Regional Council’s unveiling of the 2011 Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, which General Motors boasts has lower emissions and is less expensive to operate than a regular hybrid vehicle, such as the Toyota Prius. Xpress’ environmental reporter Susan Andrew was invited to take the Volt for a spin.

Land-of-Sky Environmental Services Manager Bill Eaker explained the significance of such vehicles to the future of clean air in Buncombe County. “We formed the regional Clean Air Campaign in the late ‘90s for the purpose of educating the public about our air quality issues, and some of the solutions. The solutions are to conserve electricity, at home, at work, everywhere, to reduce the demand on our power plants, and reduce emissions. Driving low-emissions vehicles is a key part of that strategy.”

Eaker told the crowd how Land-of-Sky is developing an electric-vehicle readiness plan, an effort to break down the barriers to the widespread adoption of electric vehicles, and streamlining the process for getting charging stations installed in strategic locations. More charging stations are on the way for Buncombe County, he reports. The first two stations were installed out at Biltmore Park; now, thanks to a grant from the N.C. Department of Energy, 25 more charging stations will soon be in place in Land-of-Sky’s four-county area. “We’ll know in the next couple months exactly where the stations will be placed,” he told the crowd, adding that they should all be installed by the end of November.

Local elected officials took the opportunity to toot their sustainability horns.

Buncombe Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt pointed out that the county has a full-time energy coordinator on staff, whose job is moving Buncombe toward energy independence. And if such moves make oil executives nervous about their bottom lines, Gantt was blunt: “We’re not going to run the oil companies out of business; they’re getting too many subsidies, and too many tax breaks. What we need here in Buncombe County are alternatives that make sense, that are readily accessible.”

Toward that end, he said, “We have a large fleet of gas-electric hybrids already. We’re using biodiesel in our vehicles and landfill equipment. We will have two public locations for the plug-ins [charging stations]: one will be on Coxe Avenue at the Department of Social Services Building, and the other will be in our parking deck across from the courthouse and City Hall. This is where we’ve gotta go as a community. You know we can’t do things the way we have in the past. We are using way too much energy, way too much of the world’s resources for one small group…. We’re energy hogs. We’re gonna stop that.”

Ad libbing a bit, Gantt pointed out that the Volt allows buyers to take advantage of a $7,500 federal energy tax credit. “Is there a state credit?” he asked aloud. “No? They don’t do tax cuts too good in Raleigh right now. … It’s gotta change. It starts with us.”

Asheville City Councilmember Jan Davis, who owns the eponymous tire shop on Patton Avenue, put it this way: “Cars will develop with the rest of the things we’re trying to do, to be more efficient and sustainable. Cars are what our economy has been built on since the turn of the last century. We need to see them get more efficient, cleaner, and more affordable all the time. And I think we will.” 

As for city government, Davis argued, “We’ve made a commitment to reduce our carbon footprint by 4 percent per year until 2029, which would reduce it by 80 percent of what we have now.” He said Asheville got started with five hybrid buses, a fleet of cleaner, lightweight diesel vehicles, plus encouraging more pedestrianism, and adding more bike lanes. Perhaps the biggest change, Davis said, is the city’s plan to change all street lighting from halogen to LEDs — “a very expensive change,” estimated at $900,000, enabling the city to move from the 2 percent annual reduction in carbon emissions they considered earlier, to the larger 4 percent reduction.

James Brazell, billed as the first Volt owner in WNC, was in attendance.  Now retired, Brazell worked for Texaco for 40 years. “I think it’s important that my generation shows the generations that follow that there is an alternative to oil. The oil companies did a good job of providing energy for a long time, but we’re in a new era now.”  He purchased the car in Virginia in February, and didn’t need put gas in it until July — 2,500 miles later.

Katie Yates, GM district salesperson, doesn’t want us to think of the Volt as just another hybrid vehicle. “This is an electric vehicle with extended range,” she pointed out. What’s the difference? “You can drive 35 miles totally gas free; after that, a 1.4-liter gas engine kicks in to power an electric generator. You’ll get 379 miles on one charge. The gasoline engine is there to power the electric generator.” For all you speed demons, it goes from 0 to 60 in under 9 seconds, which is quite respectable for a compact car. The battery is guaranteed to last for eight years or 100,000 miles; it charges in about 10 hours on standard house wiring, but with a 240-volt circuit it can charge in as little as four hours. It takes 12.9 kWh to fully charge the Volt; since the average consumer is paying about .12 per kWh, it costs about $1.50 a day to charge the Volt. Mileage will vary depending on the user, but on average, the Volt gets 93 mpg if it’s running electric-only; on gas only, it gets about 37 mpg. When running on both gas and electric, mileage is in the middle of that range, around 60 mpg.

After the speakers had their say, it was time for a test drive. If you’ve never driven an electric vehicle, you’re in for a treat. The car starts silently, with the push of a button. There’s no engine noise; in the Volt, acceleration is as strong as a V-6 as you enter the highway, and the speedometer heads up to 70 mph before you realize what’s happening. The Volt was designed so that when you coast (and even more when you apply the brakes), the energy in the wheels is transferred back into the power system for more drive time. The net energy flow at any given time is displayed on a monitor on the dash, a key feature for all you high-milers out there. (You know, the people who operate their cars to conserve every drop of fuel, avoiding pressing the accelerator unless absolutely necessary, to the exasperation of the speed demons piling up behind them.)

The Volt has many high-end features, including a rear-view video system that delivers an image to the dash monitor, allowing the driver to view objects behind the vehicle in real time as she operates the car in reverse. (I admit, I still turned my head when backing up, as I just couldn’t trust any video image over my own eyes in a $40,000 car that doesn’t belong to me.) Built-in measures keep the gas from going stale in the tank, including having the engine come on at least once every few months, if the driver’s habits don’t permit the gas engine to come on automatically. I had hoped to drive the car long enough to hear the gas engine come on, but that time didn’t come before we had to return to the Chamber and let the next driver have a turn.

Kit Cramer, President of the Asheville Chamber, said that a cleaner energy future is at the heart of what Asheville is all about.

“We are thrilled to profile green products and green industry because that means green jobs, and that’s something that is a core value for us in Asheville.”

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