Green Scene: Looking to shrink your carbon footprint?

As we contemplate how Western North Carolina fits into the big picture of climate change and what we can do about it, acclaimed environmental author Bill McKibben recently suggested we connect the dots between some basic facts:

• According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has one of its main offices and research centers in Asheville, the planet has just come through the warmest decade, the warmest 12 months, the warmest six months and the warmest April, May and June on record. Here in WNC, we’re likewise in the midst of probably the warmest summer since 1895, when we started keeping local and national records.

• A new study published in Scientific American has shown that warmer sea water has reduced phytoplankton — the base of the marine food chain — by 40 percent since 1950. That’s a lot of food for a lot of marine life — gone. (http://bit.ly/9EgpFZ)

• Nine nations have set all-time temperature records thus far in 2010, including Russia (111 degrees), Niger (118), Sudan (121), Saudi Arabia and Iraq (126 apiece), and Pakistan, which also set the new all-time Asia record in May: a hair under 130 degrees, which is the low temperature in some ordinary kitchen ovens. (http://bit.ly/dasS5z and http://bit.ly/9LgGQF)

Although global warming is broadly accepted as fact in the scientific community, lawmakers in Washington have been slow to act. Late last month, “The U.S. Senate decided to do exactly nothing about climate change,” McKibben wrote in a recent blog. “They didn’t do less than they could have — they did nothing, preserving a perfect two-decade bipartisan record of no action.”

And now that lawmakers have dispersed for August recess, a legislative response to big issues like carbon emissions will probably wait at least another year, according to energy policy observers.

McKibben writes, “The time has come to get mad — and then to get busy.”

If you don’t know quite what to do about all this, help is on the way, right here in WNC: the 10th-anniversary edition of the Southern Energy and Environment Expo, set for Friday through Sunday, Aug. 20-22, at the WNC Agricultural Center. Perhaps the largest such event in the South, the three-day extravaganza offers workshops, seminars and presentations on dozens of green energy and environmental topics, such as permaculture, wind and solar power, environmental justice, economics, policy and more. Expo vendors, nonprofits and experts offer tons of practical information on virtually everything you need to know about living off the grid or just reducing your carbon footprint a bit.

S.E.E. Expo founder and ringleader Ned Doyle has been living off the grid for about 15 years in Henderson County. “It’s absolutely wonderful,” he says, with his usual enthusiasm. “I have a rainwater harvesting system and a composting system. Photovoltaic panels provide 95 percent of my electricity year round,” Doyle says. There’s also a gasoline generator for backup — he claims it uses only as much gas in an entire year as most folks use in one fill-up for their car.

“I started doing this stuff 30 years ago,” Doyle proclaims. “Got in on the ground floor before there was a ground floor. [My place] is mortgage-free and pay-as-you-go — my purpose was to prove that you don’t need a lot of money to ‘go green.’ I hardly have any bills.”

What’s more, Doyle claims that many of the environmentally oriented builders featured at the expo have fared reasonably well in the economic downturn: “The majority of our green builders are doing better than the traditional builders around here,” he says.

What does Doyle find most exciting about this year’s expo? “We have a brand new building to use for the Green Home Show,” which is filled to capacity, he says. “We have expanded classroom space, and [built] a real music stage to help celebrate the fact that it’s our tenth year.” The expo has come a long way in that time, he says, adding that 10 years ago, he would not have guessed they’d have Progress Energy as a sponsor.

The utility, which serves most of WNC, is jumping on the green bandwagon in various ways, such as developing a so-called “smart grid.” According to Progress Energy spokesperson Jeff Brooks, increased efficiency in the network reduces the need for additional power generation, which means less coal being burned, or fewer plants being built to support peak demand, and thus reduced emissions overall.

And a “smart” grid can harness the expanding generation of renewable energy. For example, when the solar panels on your house provide surplus power, the energy can be redirected back to the grid, effectively dialing your electric meter backwards.

The company will have a booth at the expo and will offer a free, one-hour session about smart grid technology, according to the expo website.

Some more intensive workshops include one that’s sure to sell out, Doyle adds: On Sunday, Mike Moore will teach up to 15 participants how to build their own electric car. Another four-hour workshop introduces permaculture concepts and offers practical instruction that’s hard to find, Doyle says. There’s also a full-day workshop for those who wish to design a passive solar home that’s being offered at less than half the usual cost.

If you’re not ready to build your own vehicle or go solar, but still want to get your feet wet, there are 56 free, one-hour presentations, each led by regional experts who’ll cover the latest in green living and environmental “news you can use.”

Many of the one-hour sessions take an applied, practical focus and provide attendees an entry-level opportunity to learn current options for clean, renewable sources of energy; protect our natural environment; and work towards a sustainable regional economy. Carl Donovan, owner of the Asheville building performance and contracting firm (and expo sponsor) Conservation Pros, will provide a one-hour presentation Friday afternoon entitled “Going Green Begins at Home” — five things homeowners can do now to reduce energy consumption for a greener lifestyle, including insulation techniques, door and window replacement, and solar and geothermal options.

Other sessions have a broader reach. Jennifer Rennicks, federal policy director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, will give a one-hour Friday presentation on how the Gulf oil disaster affects our national energy-policy process. Rennicks says participants will “get ideas and join others for responsible and effective civic engagement to ensure we are moving towards a sustainable energy future.”

That future’s not all bright and rosy, it seems. She points out that the rules and regulations governing cleanup when a polluter has caused a catastrophic spill — which were not strong before the Gulf disaster — have not been improved.

“The worst oil disaster ever in this nation should have been a call to arms, provoking Clean Water Act-level legislation,” she says. “Nothing like that has happened,” Rennick asserts. She cites the “lack of political will” on the part of lawmakers “and the stranglehold the special interests have in Washington.”

McKibben may provide the bottom line here: “If we’re going to slow global warming in the very short time available to us, then we don’t need an incredibly complicated legislative scheme that gives door prizes to every interested industry. Mostly, we need to tell the truth: Fossil fuel is wrecking the one earth we’ve got. If we want a world that works, we’re going to have to raise our voices.”
Daily admission to the Southern Energy and Environment Expo is $10 for adults, $5 for youth ages 13-21; free for ages 12 & under. Visit the website www.seeexpo.com for a coupon worth $1 off adult admission (one coupon per adult per day).

— Send your environmental news to sandrew@mountainx.com or call 251-1333, ext. 153.

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