Why invest in local energy? That’s like asking why choose a local, organic apple over a Snickers bar. Sure, they’re both sweet and satisfying, but the candy, packed with additives and produced industrially by a large corporation, has long-term health consequences — few of them good. Buying the locally grown apple, on the other hand, bears health benefits and supports our local economy. It also keeps our area more resilient in times of financial disruption.
The same goes for energy choices. Typically, when you flip a light switch, turn up the thermostat or fill your vehicle’s gas tank, you’re choosing energy sources that carry negative consequences for your health, finances and environment. The fossil fuels that make up the majority of our energy in Western North Carolina are piped, trucked or freighted in from the states where they were mined, drilled, spilled, leaked and fracked.
Rather than sending armfuls of hard-earned money to large corporations that operate centralized coal and gas plants, why not keep that money circulating in the hometown economy by choosing local and renewable energy sources? You’d be helping local businesses and workers, and creating less waste in the process.
The least expensive and most accessible of the energy choices we can make lie in the area of efficiency — in other words, doing more with less. We can turn our thermostats down in the winter and up in the summer, walk and bike more, buy more energy-efficient cars and homes. And we can remodel existing structures with efficiency in mind.
If you can afford the initial cost, producing your own energy from renewable sources such as solar, water and waste products is the way to go. Many people in WNC are fulfilling their energy needs and earning a financial payback by taking advantage of available tax credits and incentives to install rooftop, solar-photovoltaic panels. These installations produce electricity and heating; they’re the most common way to generate renewable energy in green homes.
According to Dave Hollister, president of Sundance Power Systems, “Over the last four years, we have seen a more than 50 percent reduction in the cost of solar-electric systems, while most of the incentives have stayed the same. This has created a profound economic driver for both residential and commercial customers to capitalize on the benefits of solar energy and do their part in creating a sustainable future.”
Micro-hydro and windmill systems also exist in WNC, and firewood and bioheat (made from used cooking oil) are popular energy sources as well. The ideal energy-investment “apple” is a combination of efficiency and energy production. Net-zero homes — those that generate all the renewable energy required to operate them — are great examples and are growing in numbers in our region. Ultimately, reducing the need for home electricity reduces both the homeowner’s costs and the drawbacks inherent in generating electricity with fossil fuels.
Joining a community solar project, in which groups of local people invest in renewable-energy production, is another approach expanding across the country. The advantages are lower upfront costs, better availability of optimal solar-access sites and affordable energy options for people who don’t own homes.
Here in Asheville, members of the First Congregational United Church of Christ pooled resources to install solar panels on their church. The investors in the LLC (First Church Solar) own the system and benefit from the tax credits, depreciation and revenue from selling the electricity.
Transportation energy is another area in which local sources help our economy; it also makes us more resilient during extreme weather events or disruptions to the centralized supply of liquid fuel. BlueRidge Biofuels, which produces bioheat, also makes a diesel-fuel alternative that’s sourced and produced here.
Then there’s one of the cleanest transportation options of all — the electric, solar-powered car. We’re lucky in WNC to have the Brightfield Initiative at work. As a result of this U.S. Department of Energy clean-energy effort, several solar-charging stations have been installed in Asheville, as well as in Charlotte and Raleigh.
Of course, the most easily accessible transportation energy is human power. Walking and riding bicycles are as clean and healthy as energy choices get. And if you’re not fit to hike or bike, the Asheville Bus system is another good way to travel in town.
We’re definitely at the beginning of transforming how we power our lives. Not all of us have the money or an appropriate location for a perfect renewable-energy system, of course, but no matter what your budget is, there’s a local-energy “apple” within your reach.
Why not set that Snickers down and grab it?
— Boone Guyton is a partner in Cady and Guyton Construction, a HealthyBuilt Home builder. He is also a founder and current board member of the WNC Green Building Council.