How green is Asheville?

Ray Cockrell remembers the first time he heard about the possibility of biodiesel coming to town.

“About five years ago, I received a phone call in the middle of the night from these guys who were all excited about biodiesel,” says Cockrell, who serves as the adviser to the auto shop on the Warren Wilson College campus. “I could hear them all cheering and clanking their glasses together in the background. They told me, ‘We’re going to start up a biodiesel filling station here in Asheville.’ Everyone was thinking about it back then. Today, we’ve got a pump at the auto shop, and I’m one of their customers.”

Chicken hill

Building green: Asheville is home to an expanding green-building industry. The first of the new Chicken Hill houses on Roberts Street in the River District, part of a planned semi-upscale housing cooperative that will be certified HealthyBuilt. Photo by Rebecca Bowe

The Blue Ridge Biofuels cooperative is just one example of the kinds of things that have contributed to Asheville’s alternative/eco-friendly image. Factor in an abundant supply of locally grown organic food, a recycling program that helps the city divert 45 percent of its waste from the landfill, and growing numbers of houses certified by the NC HealthyBuilt Homes Program springing up, and Asheville’s “green” reputation seems well deserved. Meanwhile, the Asheville City Development Plan 2025 — the official road map for the city’s future — espouses “smart growth” principles, improved air quality, green building and increased use of alternative fuels.

All those strategies are hallmarks of what’s broadly termed sustainability. Once a slogan championed by Birkenstock-clad environmentalists, the concept of “going green” has today become the buzzword for a new wave in urban design and city planning, with metropolitan areas across the country launching image-altering green experiments. In Chicago, more than 2 million square feet of vegetated “green rooftops” have sprouted up. In Portland, Ore., fare-free zones encourage public-transit use. And in Austin, Texas, a combination of photovoltaic arrays and wind power is expected to generate 20 percent of the city’s electricity by 2020.

Those are all much bigger cities, of course, but Boone Guyton, a local green builder who serves on the board of the nonprofit Western North Carolina Green Building Council, believes there’s much to be learned from such comparisons.

“Comparing cities’ environmental performance shows how they are doing and what can be done as far as becoming sustainable,” he explains. “For example, the idea that San Francisco is close to the same footprint, with 49 square miles — Asheville is 41 square miles — and has a population of 776,773, while Asheville is under 70,000, says a lot about urban density.” And in an increasingly urbanized world, argues Guyton, that density will loom ever larger. “More than half of the people of the world now live in cities, and more than 75 percent of greenhouse gases come from cities. Cities are important to the solution to our environmental problems and finding a way to have a sustainable human presence on the planet.”

That same logic, he asserts, suggests that now is the time to make key decisions to mitigate those problems. And since November, says Guyton, he’s been collecting statistics from a wide variety of sources (including, the Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency, Asheville’s Parks and Recreation Department and other local entities) to see how our mountain metropolis compares with cities regarded as national leaders in sustainability.

Not everyone is ready to jump on the green-cities trend, however. Opponents often cite the higher up-front costs of green buildings, alternative-fuel vehicles and renewable-energy infrastructure as the primary argument against embracing such initiatives (see sidebar, “The Question of Cost”).

To be sure, sustainability is a complex, multifaceted issue involving not only scientific analysis but also financial projections, political trade-offs and a fair amount of crystal ball gazing. What follows, then, is a snapshot of Asheville’s current status in the sustainability sweepstakes. What are the city’s strengths — and what lessons might be learned from our urban neighbors nationwide?

Air quality

In the 1800s, Asheville’s crisp mountain air was hailed as a cure for a broad array of ailments. And while few would make that claim today, the persistent rumor that Asheville’s air quality is as bad as Los Angeles’ is far from the truth. In recent years, our local air has been rated “good” about 70 percent of the time (compared to a mere 14 percent of the time in L.A.), according to information on the regional air agency’s Web site.

Nonetheless, the N.C. Division of Air Quality ranks North Carolina fifth among the 50 states for unhealthy ground-level ozone. And just two years ago, high ozone levels had the region teetering on the brink of being designated a “nonattainment area” by the EPA. Thanks to a shift in weather patterns, ozone levels haven’t reached those extremely unhealthy levels since, but the problem persists.

Western North Carolina is particularly susceptible to ozone because of its high concentration of trees and sunlight, whose byproducts combine with auto emissions to form the harmful gas. “One of the real concerns is that ozone triggers asthma,” notes John Brock, a professor of environmental chemistry at Warren Wilson who formerly worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “While there are a lot of causes for asthma, there is a great deal of scientific literature that points to ozone as a driving force.

“Basically, Asheville needs to make a decision: Do we want to turn into Atlanta or not? Because if we don’t come up with a good planning system and transportation system, we’re going to face the same sprawl and air-quality problems as Atlanta — and that can happen pretty quickly.” Indeed, the total vehicle miles traveled in Asheville are increasing more than twice as fast as the population, according to a 2000 report by The Brookings Institution (a Washington, D.C.-based independent research organization).

Yet Bill Eaker, who heads up the Clean Vehicles Coalition at the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, responds to queries about air quality with a clear sense of optimism.

“Everything I am hearing from state air-quality officials shows that they expect ozone levels to go down and air-quality levels to improve,” he reports, citing a number of measures taken to reduce emissions from cars, diesel-burning trucks and coal-fired power plants.

In 2004, armed with a $274,455 EPA grant, the Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency retrofitted all the school buses in Buncombe and surrounding counties to reduce emissions. “Basically, we retrofitted all the buses with diesel oxidation catalysts, which reduce airborne particulate matter by 20 percent, carbon monoxide by 40 percent, and hydrocarbons by 50 percent,” agency staffer Ashley Featherstone explains.

Climate change

The air agency has also applauded Progress Energy for spending $190 million to install scrubbers at the company’s coal-fired Lake Julian power plant. When the project is completed in 2009, it’s expected to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides by 93 percent, according to the company’s Web site. But what the scrubbers won’t reduce is carbon-dioxide emissions — the greenhouse gas that many scientists maintain is the primary culprit behind global climate change. All told, Progress Energy power plants emitted more than 63 million tons of carbon dioxide last year.

“This is for Progress Energy’s entire service territory, which includes … plants in North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida, along with four … in Georgia,” said company spokeswoman Dana Yeganian.

Last November, outgoing Mayor Charles Worley became the 188th city leader nationwide to sign the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, a nonbinding commitment to a 7 percent reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions by 2010. The move led the Sierra Club to officially designate Asheville a “Cool City.” Asheville’s new compressed-natural-gas filling station and attendant purchase of eight hybrid vehicles for the city fleet have begun the process of curbing greenhouse gases, but at this writing, no practical framework for meeting the goal is in place. Nor has Asheville chosen to follow the lead of cities like Austin and Chicago, which have committed to meeting significant percentages of their future energy needs via renewable sources, notes Guyton. Technologies such as solar and wind power are often cited as potential antidotes for climate change.

In North Carolina, municipalities also have the option of signing on to NC GreenPower, which allows subscribers to buy blocks of energy produced via less-polluting alternative technologies. As of last August, the program had roughly 7,000 subscribers, whose combined contributions were projected to offset an estimated 42 million pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions annually. Among those participants are cities across the state — including Newton, Shelby, Statesville, Lexington, Monroe and New Bern, according to the program’s Web site. Topsail Beach, for example, now offsets 14 percent of its power through NC GreenPower, reports Marketing and Communications Director Jeff Brooks. To date, however, Asheville hasn’t followed suit.

“The objective of the program,” Brooks explains, “is to diversify the state’s energy supply to add alternative methods to the power grid. The more we can add cleaner alternatives, the more we can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Municipalities signing on can make an environmental commitment while making a statement that they’re supporting a statewide program to build a cleaner energy supply.”

Alternative fuels and transportation

Those omissions haven’t prevented the city from picking up some impressive-sounding credentials, however. Besides being officially designated “cool,” Asheville has also been certified “clean.” Land of Sky spearheaded the local effort to reduce petroleum dependence by signing on to “Clean Cities,” a U.S. Department of Energy program promoting the use of alternative fuels. The Clean Vehicles Coalition was formed by a group of local stakeholders — including the city of Asheville — to implement the program’s agenda.

“In order to earn Clean Cities designation … you need to submit a program plan that details the region’s efforts to use alternative fuels, along with a five-year action plan to increase the use of biodiesel, ethanol, propane, compressed-natural-gas and pure-electric vehicles. We are required to have 400 vehicles running on alternative fuels in order to be designated. We currently have around 200 and hope to meet our target by the end of this year,” Eaker explains.

And with the city’s compressed-natural-gas filling station in place, a number of local businesses, agencies and universities have also committed to using CNG-powered vehicles. “It’s one of the cleanest-burning fuels,” he remarks. To facilitate the shift, Eaker is working to bring Phill, a home-fueling system that enables owners of CNG-powered vehicles to simply plug them in and fill up overnight, to Asheville. To date, the relatively new technology has been available in only a few parts of the country. And FuelMaker, which manufactures the system, must train local technicians in proper installation techniques before area residents can Phill up at home. The slow-fill technology, Eaker explains, would enable owners of CNG vehicles to top off their vehicles rather than relying solely on the relatively few CNG stations for fuel. “The more people we can get using CNG the better,” he notes.

Another plan in the works calls for converting methane gas produced by decomposition at the Buncombe County landfill into compressed natural gas to power the fleet. The project is “still in the planning process,” reports county General Services Coordinator Bob Hunter. “We’d expect to have that completed two to three years out.”

Biodiesel users, on the other hand, can expect to see increased local access to their fuel of choice soon. A $175,000 grant from the State Energy Office is helping Blue Ridge Biofuels upgrade its production facility. “We’ll be maximizing our production at this facility, hoping to approach 200,000 to half a million gallons by the end of 2006, with a final goal of producing 2 million gallons a year,” says Director/co-owner Brian Winslett. The cooperative is also negotiating for space to install an additional local biodiesel pump.

The homegrown company found itself in the spotlight when singer Bonnie Raitt hired BRB to supply her tour buses with biodiesel on a recent swing through town. Raitt’s production manager, Derek Williams (who lives in Asheville when he’s not on the road), says the tour began using biodiesel exclusively last September. “We find very few biodiesel pumps,” he notes. “Usually we have to rely on deliveries” from out of town.

Meanwhile, Asheville’s evolving greenway system will make walking and cycling more viable transportation options for increasing numbers of city residents in the coming years. When it’s finished, the 15-mile system will comprise 14 corridors and pathways.

“Greenways assist in air-quality and water-quality initiatives,” Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson explains. “[They help] with air quality by providing an alternative means of transportation and decreasing traffic. They are generally located near bodies of water, streams and creeks, and can serve as buffers and bioretention areas that preserve water quality.” Five miles have been built thus far, he reports, and the target date for completing the system is 2008. But the city is still in the process of acquiring land, and additional funding is also needed, says Brinson.

The built environment

WNC Green Building Directory

The new WNC Green Building Directory, co-published by Mountain Xpress and the Western North Carolina Green Building Council. Look for the free guide at Xpress newsracks around Asheville.

The new City Council is also turning its attention to green building. “We need to start building more energy-efficiently if we are going to save energy costs in the future,” Council member Robin Cape declared at the Feb. 21 work session.

Asheville already has something to strut about on this front: a pioneering local program that trains real-estate agents in the nuts and bolts of green building, alternative energy systems and indoor air quality. The ECO certification program, a 36-hour course developed by the Asheville Board of Realtors last spring, is the only program of its kind in the U.S.

But real-estate agents have to have homes to sell, and that’s where the WNC Green Building Council comes in. Nearly two years ago, the nonprofit began locally promoting the NC HealthyBuilt Homes Program, which encourages green residential construction statewide. Since the local program’s inception, 21 homes have been completed and certified in WNC, and a good many more are in the works. Director Matt Siegel says he expects to see more than 100 additional projects registered with the program this year.

At the national level, the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program has even more stringent standards. But LEED-certified commercial and institutional buildings typically require substantially less energy for heating, cooling and lighting than conventional structures of comparable size, yielding significant long-term savings. That’s getting the attention of cities across the country; in Chicago and in Scottsdale, Ariz., for example, all new municipal buildings are now required to meet LEED standards.

And though Asheville has no such stipulations in place, there are signs that City Council might be moving in that direction. “We don’t have existing city policies that say, ‘We want to use green building,'” Council member Brownie Newman pointed out during the Feb. 21 session. “But that’s an idea we might be interested in looking at.”

Cape, meanwhile, says she’s “100 percent in support” of green retrofits for municipal buildings. “I think we have the leadership opportunity to do it, and the responsibility — both economically and environmentally — to practice good stewardship,” she told Xpress. But Cape was hesitant to get behind a policy requiring LEED standards without knowing more about the program.

Looking ahead

As energy costs spiral ever higher, the appeal of cost-effective measures with a reasonable payback period seems likely to grow. But what about fixes for environmental problems that are harder to quantify?

Green-building enthusiasts maintain that “going green” will soon become a matter of necessity rather than choice for cities worldwide.

“Just as we must recycle, reduce and reuse as individuals, cities must adopt the same attitude and improve how they impact the environment if we expect to see our quality of life maintain, much less improve,” argues Guyton. “It is clear that we are not environmentally sustainable in the way we are doing things now, and unless we become less reliant on fossil fuels, we are headed toward eventual collapse of natural systems.” And in the long run, he notes, we may run out of options. “We cannot degrade the ecosystems on which we depend consistently without running into limits that threaten our survival.”

Far from regarding this as a doom-and-gloom scenario, however, some see it as an exciting opportunity.

“Post-9/11, post-Katrina and post ‘easy’ energy, we are at an important threshold,” architect Randolph Croxton asserted at a Feb. 18 urban-design conference in Raleigh. Croxton, the sustainability coordinator for the World Trade Center reconstruction, continued, “The inherently resourceful and resilient nature of sustainable design, planning and architecture is moving up to the next scale — the scale of broad public policy; the scale of city, state and region.”

Clean machines: The Clean Vehicles Coalition — a group of local stakeholders working to implement the steps needed to gain the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities designation — wants you. Anyone who’s interested is encouraged to get involved, but they’re particularly keen on attracting fleet managers, CEOs and anyone else who’s in a position to make decisions on using alternative-fuel vehicles. For more information, call Bill Eaker at the Land-of-Sky Regional Council (251-6622).


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