Raising the roof—and consciousness, too

Aside from a Garth Brooks- or Madonna-style exploding-set extravaganza, at most concerts the stage itself remains, well, backstage.

It certainly doesn’t take center stage, anyway — unless it’s the set for the upcoming Party for the Planet, a fundraiser-cum-dance-party in support of and in conjunction with this year’s Southern Energy & Environment Expo at the WNC Agriculture Center.

Sure, the seven acts appearing there should provide plenty of high-energy entertainment. Local favorites Sons of Ralph take the evening off from their usual gig at Jack of the Wood to open the show. Asheville’s “oldest party band” Free Flight will do its rock ‘n’ roll thing. The gypsy-jazz Motors make the trip up from Atlanta. Rhythm Method featuring Sis Landreth adds “powerhouse jazz” to the mix. Blue Collar Groove blends (yes) Southern rock with jazz and Latin sounds. Little Mike and the Blue Giants, of Hannah Flannagan and College Street Pub fame, offer non-traditional blues with hot harmonica riffs. And Atlanta’s Grendle, the enigmatically styled “official party band of the Amalgamated Fraternity of Philanthropic Oxen,” rounds out the evening. (FYI, the AFPO is an actual organization with the motto “World Peace Through Drinking Beer,” the idea being that if everyone sat down and had a beer together, we’d probably get along a lot better than we do right now. Many AFPO volunteers — including Grendle’s headman, Kirk Banner — have participated in making the Southern Energy & Environment Expo and Party for the Planet a reality.)

All the bands are donating their time and tunes. And none of them seems in the least concerned that — for some folks attending the show, anyway — the set might just upstage the musicians.

“It won’t look much different from any other stage,” cautions David Hollister, owner of Madison County’s Sundance Power Systems, one of the concert’s primary sponsors. But it will be powered differently.

The average concert set, of course, simply plugs into an outlet that’s fed by the local electric utility; here in WNC, that’s Carolina Power and Light, and its 595-megawatt coal- and natural-gas-fired plant in Arden.

The stage for Party for the Planet will plug into Sundance Power System’s 15,000-watt solar and wind system. The whole show will run off energy garnered directly from the sun and wind and stored in a battery bank with, David estimates, a capacity of “1,000 amp hours at 48 volts.”

Hollister, who installs solar, wind and small hydro systems for a living, is borderline blase about the feat. “Hey, we’ve done this before. In fact, we’ve done a number of concerts” (including last year’s Party for the Planet).

The biggest event Sundance has powered was a 2000 Indigo Girls show for a clean-air rally in Atlanta. “That was a huge system — like for a stadium.” And it came off without a hitch.

“Typically,” Hollister explains, “[sound systems] don’t draw a whole lot of power. They’re fairly efficient. The lights are the real energy hogs; they’re what consume the most power.”

Even with bright lights and thumping bass, though, Hollister estimates last year’s Party for the Planet required less than 10-kilowatt hours of electricity. To put it in terms the average American understands, that would mean a CP&L bill for the whole show of about, Hollister guesses, “sixty-four cents.”

He quickly qualifies that price tag. “Sixty-four cents — and mountain tops that are dying. And people who can’t breathe the air. And global temperatures on the rise. Everyone wants to say, ‘Oh, solar’s too expensive.’ I say, fossil fuel is too cheap!”

Hollister explains, “the big thing about solar and about all renewables … is that they’re competing on an unfair playing field. Fossil fuels [such as coal, natural gas and oil] are an almost 100-percent subsidized industry. They’re subsidized through corporate welfare, they’re subsidized through the cost of infrastructures and low-interest loans to establish infrastructures. And they don’t have to incur any of the costs associated with the down sides of that industry — for instance, the air quality in North Carolina. They don’t have to incur the cost of the forests dying. They don’t have to incur the cost of people with emphysema and their health-care costs. All of these things are being socialized, you know.

“And so,” he concludes, “if in fact the true cost of that energy were placed on the cost per kilowatt, it would be astounding.”

In other words, CP&L’s sixty-four-cent bill might be a lot more pricey than anyone cares to admit.

“Solar power is still expensive,” Hollister concedes. The components for the solar and wind array Sundance will be bringing to Party for the Planet are worth “probably around $25,000,” he says.

“But let’s put this into perspective, okay?” Hollister continues. “There are people who are willing to pay $20-, $30-, $40,000 more than they have to on an automobile. They’ll spend, what, $85,000 on a Mercedes Benz SUV and they’ll drive away feeling all ecstatic, going, ‘Woo-who, man, I am just big and bad and bulky.’ And that thing will never pay them back. Not one cent.”

He goes on, “But when it comes to spending $40,000 on a solar system, they’re asking, ‘Well, when’s it going to pay me back?’

“Those people who are spending $85,000 on an automobile have the consciousness that that’s somehow what they’re supposed to do — that it’s the right thing, that it makes sense. But actually it makes no sense! So the more we can do to shift that around and give people the opportunity to wake up to what they’re actually doing, the better. And that’s why Party for the Planet is great to have out there — to get people closer to this technology, to show them it can work.

“It’s all about consciousness,” Hollister sums up. “It’s about shifting consciousness.”

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