Essential oils

Crude-oil prices hit $48 per barrel recently, and experts say $50 is on the near horizon. Meanwhile, Green Toe Ground, a community-supported-agriculture farm near Burnsville, is running its tractor on biodiesel made on-site from discarded cooking oil collected — free of charge — from local restaurants.

Of course, there’s presumably not enough used deep-fryer grease in the United States to wean the country from its dependence on increasingly unstable foreign oil supplies. But visitors to this week’s Southern Energy & Environment Expo will learn that there are more domestic sources of oil (and other fuels) than meet the eye (or the french fry).

The bargain bin

When it comes to cheap fuel, nothing’s better than free — unless it’s free and also reins in air pollution (a major problem in the region). From that standpoint, the fuel we don’t burn could be the biggest bargain of all. And at this year’s S.E.E. Expo (see box), more than a dozen companies will be highlighting ways to reduce energy use.

Architects, engineers and builders will be on hand to explain how decisions about buildings — from project design through completion — can contribute to energy independence. Whether you live in an apartment or a home, want to improve the efficiency of an existing structure or build from the ground up, experts at the expo will have ideas and answers based on today’s affordable, off-the-shelf technologies.

As Aldo Leopold famously observed about ecosystems, “You can’t do just one thing.” And this is amply illustrated by “green” living solutions. Making a home more energy-efficient through improved insulation, vapor control and ventilation also makes it healthier and reduces energy bills. The same crawlspace treatment that reduces mildew and wood rot makes a living space more comfortable, with warmer floors and reduced drafts. Recycling reduces resource use, saves landfill space and creates jobs.

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch

Superficially cheap solutions often carry hidden costs (like the coal smoke that contributes to Western North Carolina’s extremely high age-adjusted mortality rates for pneumonia, flu, emphysema and asthma). In the long run, initially costly technological fixes may wind up looking like bargains.

And so it is with alternative energy. Another dozen S.E.E. Expo exhibitors will highlight various systems for locally harvesting renewable energy. Wind is the hands-down cost/benefit winner: Across the country, today’s wind farms are underselling coal-fired power. Meanwhile, solar panels are popping up everywhere, lining highways (to power remote signage and emergency phones) as well as garden paths (to help homeowners find their front door). At this point, solar remains cost-prohibitive compared with grid power (except in remote locations with high costs for connecting to the grid). But prices are falling fast, and in the meantime, many people see converting to sustainable energy sources as a matter of conscience.

“Cutting down on fossil-fuel intake and localizing energy sources is important not just to oppose fighting a war for oil but for supporting the local community and building relationships with local businesses,” said Green Toe Ground co-owner Gaelan Corozine. “Hauling away used [cooking] oil is a service we perform for locally owned restaurants. We don’t get our oil from McDonald’s.”

Liquid fuels represented at the expo will include vegetable oil, biodiesel (made from either virgin plant oils or used fryer fat) and ethanol (a type of alcohol). All are currently in use in WNC as a growing circle of hobbyists cum business owners has tackled the challenge of producing commercially meaningful quantities of both the fuels and the engines that use them. (More than a few vehicles in our region now give off a faint odor of french fries when they’re idling beside you at the light.)

A race to the finish

This year’s expo will once again feature a Clean Air Car Fair showcasing the greenest vehicles on the market: hybrids, electric vehicles and compressed-natural-gas-powered trucks. Commercial models include the Honda Insight, Civic hybrid and Civic Gx (CNG) cars, the Toyota Prius hybrid-electric, the Toyota RAV 4 Electric ZEV, the city of Asheville’s electric GEM car, and assorted other CNG-powered vehicles, as well as bifuel vehicles (which can burn either ethanol or gasoline) from General Motors and Chrysler. The fair, sponsored by the Henderson County-based Environmental & Conservation Organization, will also feature a wide selection of high-efficiency, high-mpg conventional vehicles ranked according to their overall environmental friendliness (based on the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s Green Book), as well as owner-converted biodiesel and all-electric vehicles.

Demand for many of the commercial models has jumped this year, with customers now waiting up to a year for delivery. This reflects both escalating oil prices and the influence of high-profile Hollywood and political figures who’ve lately embraced green machines, showing up at the Oscars or political rallies in sexy e-cars.

Even this year’s presidential race is getting in on the action as Reggie the Rig (a Republican Party voter-registration tractor-trailer outfit) and its sidekick Reggie Jr. (a Hummer) have been shadowed by Heidi the Hybrid, a Sierra Club chase car that the organization loudly proclaims is winning a race for clean air with its two notoriously inefficient competitors.

Other voices, other fumes

A wide range of businesses and nonprofit groups will also be on hand touting a host of sometimes surprising ways to live greener and/or leaner. And with tables featuring everything from politicking to tie-dye to crystals to bumper stickers, the expo may also highlight the inevitable contradictions that crop up along the path to sustainability. The folks who want to remind us that industrial animal agriculture entails an inherently inefficient use of grain, for example, could wind up butting heads with the ones producing goat’s milk soap on their local, off-grid farm.

Choices will abound in workshops and seminars as well, with almost 70 options for lectures, demonstrations and hands-on learning opportunities (see grid). In addition, Green Building Tours will leave from the expo grounds at 11 a.m. on Saturday (returning around 4 p.m.) and at 1 p.m. on Sunday (returning around 5 p.m.). Additional information and registration will be available at both the North Carolina Sustainable Energy booth and the Western North Carolina Green Building booth.

BackHome magazine, the Hendersonville-based spiritual heir to the legacy of the Mother Earth News (which used to be produced in these mountains), is the primary sponsor of this year’s event. Other sponsors include Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine, Mountain Xpress and New Life Journal.

So whether you’re planning to cut loose from the power grid and go it alone in the wilderness or would simply like to shave a few kilowatts and calories off your monthly contribution to global warming, the S.E.E. Expo offers a wealth of answers and ideas for a modest price. And for an even better deal, you can travel via Asheville Transit System and get $3 off the $6 adult admission charge (drivers of alternative-fuel vehicles and bicyclists will be admitted free).

S.E.E. Expo basics

Where: WNC Agricultural Center in Fletcher

When: Friday, Aug. 27, 12:30 – 6 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 28, 10:30 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Sunday, Aug. 29, 10:30 a.m. – 6 p.m.

Cost: Daily admission is $6/adults, $3/ages 13-21, and free for children 12 and under. Drivers of hybrid-electric and alternative-fuel vehicles (including bicycles) will be admitted free; those arriving by bus will get a $3 discount. (Tip: Cyclists can use the Asheville Transit System, which will leave from the downtown Transit Center on the hour, Saturday and Sunday.) There’s also a $50 VIP Weekend Pass, which includes admission, a 2004 S.E.E. Expo T-shirt, a tent/van camping site at the expo for up to four nights, and a pass to the Friday-evening VIP/Exhibitors Networking Dinner.

For more info, visit www.seeexpo.com or phone (828) 696-3877.

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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