A Standing Ovation for cleaner air

As any good manager knows, the carrot is often as important as the stick. And for the second straight year, the agency that regulates Buncombe County’s air polluters put that precept into practice by handing out awards to businesses and organizations that have gone above and beyond what the law requires in reducing their contributions to local air pollution.

The approaches taken to achieve that goal varied widely. But whether it was retrofitting school buses to run on “clean diesel” fuel, landscaping with native plants to reduce the use of lawn-maintenance equipment, or putting inactive computers to sleep to save energy, the Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency found no shortage of voluntary clean-air projects to honor in a public reception at its Jan. 10 board meeting.

“We’ve got four [adjacent] counties … that operate clean buses. Nobody else in the state can say that,” boasted agency Director Bob Camby after helping present Standing Ovation Awards to the transportation directors of the Buncombe, Haywood, Madison and Transylvania school districts for converting the more than 400 buses they collectively own to a new technology that reduces diesel emissions by up to 50 percent. Funded by a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the project is the first of its kind in North Carolina and “one of the largest individual projects in the country,” noted Justin Greuel, the air-agency staffer who spearheaded the regional effort following a successful pilot retrofit of part of the Buncombe fleet two years ago.

The retooled yellow buses don’t just smell better — they emit 20 percent less of the fine particulates that health researchers say are partly responsible for skyrocketing local and national rates of childhood asthma and bronchitis. And since the buses in Buncombe County’s fleet alone — the seventh largest in the state — burn 400,000 gallons of fuel while traveling some 3 million miles a year, Transportation Director Harold Laflin pointed out, “What we can do for diesel emissions is a benefit to all the citizens of Buncombe County.”

UNCA, meanwhile, won a Standing Ovation Award for “xeriscaping” (using plants native to WNC) on its sprawling campus. “It’s low-maintenance, doesn’t require a lot of watering, [and] survives wet years like this year, as opposed to trying to bring in [high-maintenance] daffodils and Kentucky bluegrass,” Associate Vice Chancellor Steve Baxley explained.

And campus landscape director Melissa Acker added: “You can use a lot of different things. One of the things we use is different native grasses. Also, you can get grasses that don’t grow a lot. You can also use ground covers as a no-mow situation. … In some cases, you don’t have to mow at all — maybe once a year.”

That’s important, because lawn-and-garden equipment powered by combustion engines is particularly polluting. According to the National Wildlife Federation, a lawnmower spews 10-12 times as much hydrocarbon into the summer sky per hour of use as a typical automobile. A string trimmer produces 21 times as much as the average car, and a leaf blower blows both of those polluters away, with 34 times as much hydrocarbon emissions.

Acker advises developers or homeowners who like the idea of low-maintenance, low-pollution xeriscaping to consult with a qualified specialist at a local nursery. The university also cuts back on air pollution by mulching its cleared brush and tree limbs in a tub grinder (instead of piling and burning them) and by spreading the mulch on-site (instead of trucking it elsewhere).

Ten local businesses and organizations received recognition for joining the federal “Sleep Is Good” Million Monitor Drive, which provides free Energy Star network software that automatically powers-down computer monitors when they’re not in use. Computers account for 7 to 8 percent of all the electricity used in the United States — but close to half of it is wasted, because they’re used an average of only four hours a day, yet they continue to consume electricity the rest of the time they’re left on.

And when that electricity comes from coal-fired power plants (as it does in our area), those idle gigabytes are responsible for megatons of air pollution, as well as $900 million in needless electric bills each year. Putting just 1,000 idle monitors to sleep can save up to 300,000 kilowatt hours and nearly $30,000 annually, according to agency Engineering Supervisor Melanie Pitrolo.

More than 2,800 Buncombe County computers are now taking power naps, thanks to the governments of Buncombe County and the city of Asheville, and Warren Wilson College, the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, Basofil Fibers, BorgWarner Turbo Systems, B.V. Hedrick Gravel and Sand Co., Ohio Electric Motors, Rockwell Automation and Volvo Construction Equipment North America.

“The energy savings from putting these monitors to sleep will be enough to light 857 homes for a year,” noted Pitrolo. “Emissions of smog-causing pollution will drop by over 9 tons per year, and greenhouse-gas emissions will drop by about 1,000 tons a year.”

Environmental Health and Safety Manager Marc Scripps of Volvo told Xpress: “To me, it’s a no-brainer. It will help us meet goals in saving money and reducing energy consumption and environmental impact.” And Scripps earned an extra round of applause at the awards ceremony when he said he’s gotten the other Volvo plants in both the U.S. and Sweden interested in joining the program — a total of “70-some thousand people globally.”

To obtain free Monitor Power Management software for your organization, call the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency at 255-5655, or go to www.wncair.org.

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