Future vision: Local sustainability graduate research targets real-world benefits

Looking forward: Graduate students in Lenoir-Rhyne’s new sustainability studies program are hoping their research projects will make a big community impact. Pictured from left to right: Lenoir-Rhyne Director Paul Knott; students Maria Wise and Alisha Goodman; Professor Keith McDade. Photo by Shara Crosby.
Looking forward: Graduate students in Lenoir-Rhyne’s new sustainability studies program are hoping their research projects will make a big community impact. Pictured from left to right: Lenoir-Rhyne Director Paul Knott; students Maria Wise and Alisha Goodman; Professor Keith McDade. Photo by Shara Crosby.

The first group of students in Lenoir-Rhyne University’s new sustainability studies program may be small, but the fruits of their research might eventually have a big local impact.

Based at the Asheville campus, the new master’s degree program requires students to complete a “capstone” project combining graduate-level research with real-world conditions and needs. This spring, the program’s five second-year students are embarking on a range of projects that, if realized, could have far-reaching effects: from generating renewable energy (by constructing a major new solar farm) to drastically reducing the area’s commercial waste.

“Being good community citizens means working with the community in ways that improve it,” says Keith McDade, the school’s assistant professor of sustainability studies, who’s overseeing these projects. “It’s not only about the education we’re providing: It’s also looking beyond our students, not only for opportunities for them to learn on the job and try things out, but also to improve the conditions of the community.”

Shining a light

Maria Wise grew up on an Asheville farm. After earning an undergraduate biology degree at N.C. State, she moved to Florida and worked to protect manatees. Wise came back home nearly six years ago to work for the Buncombe County Soil and Water Conservation District, where her focus is arranging farmland preservation easements.

“I think there’s no better place to be able to promote sustainability than within government,” she says. “Because where else do you really have the liberty to look at the big picture and say, ‘We’re not just supposed to help our bottom line: We’re supposed to help all the people of this county.’”

In December, the Buncombe County commissioners adopted an aggressive carbon reduction policy (see “Shrinking the Footprint,” Dec. 11, 2013, Xpress). Achieving the proposed 80 percent reduction, notes Wise, is “going to take a lot of innovative ideas.” Hers is to lay the groundwork for persuading a solar development company to invest in making the area a major renewable-energy hub. Wise’s study will determine how much space is available on government-owned property and rooftops and then calculate how many megawatts solar panels placed there could produce if the space were leased out.

“Sustainability has many aspects, but it always comes back to clean energy at some point,” says Wise. “I thought … what a great way to expand my career a little bit by branching out from farmland preservation to carbon reduction. And those two things are related: By keeping farmland out of development, they are really good carbon sinks.”

To make the investment feasible for a solar company, the project would need to have the potential to generate 4-5 MWs of electricity that could be sold to the grid, Wise estimates. That, she says, would require about 20 acres of solar panels spread around the county.

Wise is using several similar projects across the state as case studies. Charlotte Douglas International Airport’s plan for 128 acres of solar panels capable of generating an estimated 53 MWs tells a cautionary tale, however. According to a March 12 Charlotte Observer article, officials withdrew their initial request for proposals in February amid concerns that the panels could interfere with airport expansion and, because panels placed atop parking decks would generate revenue, jeopardize the tax-exempt bonds used to finance the decks.

On the other hand, the town of Cary successfully installed a 7-acre solar farm at its water reclamation facility in 2012, generating 1.89 megawatts of electricity — enough to power nearly 200 homes, Wise notes. It didn’t cost the town anything, and it generates an annual revenue stream through a lease agreement with FLS Energy, an Asheville-based solar development company, according to the town’s website.

Brownie Newman, the company’s vice president of business development, is a key adviser for Wise’s complicated study. The Buncombe County commissioner also authored the county’s 80 percent carbon reduction goal. To avoid any conflict of interest, however, Newman says his company “would not be involved in any way” in the local project. But “on a personal level,” he adds, “I think it’s a neat idea, so I’m happy to assist and share ideas.”

Zero waste Asheville

Alisha Goodman’s capstone project also aims to help a local government make progress toward a lofty target: in this case, the city of Asheville’s ambitious vision of eventually eliminating all governmental, residential and commercial solid waste. In her role as client services manager at Blue Ridge Biofuels, she helps facilitate the conversion of spent cooking oil from local restaurants into biodiesel, a clean-burning renewable fuel that powers vehicles and furnaces.

Goodman, who earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies at UNC Asheville, says her scholastic and professional work go hand in hand. “I think waste is one of the most common-sense things to target, because the rate we’re going through resources is unsustainable and wasteful,” she says. “No one wants to be wasteful. It’s something everyone can agree on. If something’s still useful, why throw it away if someone’s going to buy it from you?”

Asheville has made significant progress in residential recycling since 2012, when the city delivered 96-gallon blue carts to households. The total weight of recycled material has increased by 25 percent, and the weight of material going into the landfill has dropped 6.5 percent, according to the city’s website. In February, City Council set a more specific goal: reducing total residential and governmental solid waste by 50 percent by 2035.

Goodman’s project focuses on commercial recycling, which isn’t regulated in the city policy but could, in the long term, help move Asheville closer to achieving zero waste, she notes. As a first step, Goodman — in cooperation with Maggie Ullman, the city’s chief sustainability officer — plans to conduct a comprehensive survey of business owners “to identify barriers and benefits to recycling downtown and business recycling in general. I’m trying to find out why people behave the way they do with their waste,” Goodman explains.

The project will also include a detailed study of the barriers to food composting by local restaurants. Identifying those obstacles, says Goodman, could help the city take steps to eliminate them. She also hopes the study will encourage people to see the value in things like food scraps that have traditionally been viewed merely as waste.

Sustainability, says Goodman, is ultimately about thinking more holistically and steering mass behavior toward triple-bottom-line benefits.

“Compost is soil for local farmers,” she notes. “I want my project to contribute to actual positive change in the community. … It’s about finding out what makes sense in the economic, environmental and social realms, and how to be as efficient and operate as smoothly as possible. And if you can make it make economic, environmental and social sense, then it isn’t a cost — it’s a benefit.”

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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