The green light has been lit: Now in its ninth year, the three-day Southern Energy and Environment Expo has "reached the mainstream," says event founder Ned Doyle. What was seen as a fringe movement in S.E.E.'s early days is now almost mainstream, he explains. Solar-powered hot-water systems aren't so new any more. Even some of the most conventional businesses are trying to be green. And everyone's figuring out that saving the environment can keep more green in your wallet too, Doyle observes.
"The same environmental reasons still hold for making sustainable choices, but we've finally reached the regular citizens and those who care about the economics," says Doyle. People are also more willing to talk about environmental and climate-change issues these days instead of pretending the problems don't exist, he continues. That sea change has allowed the S.E.E. Expo to evolve from offering presentations that explain why solar energy helps the environment to ones that detail how to build a working system (and get tax credits to boot).
Hence the theme for the Aug. 21-23, 2009, event: "The ABCs of Action: Agriculture, Buildings and Cars." Says Doyle, "I wanted action-oriented presentations [showing] what people can do now, and we got them."
With his long gray beard, he looks the part of a solar-loving hippy, and indeed, Doyle has been living off the grid in Henderson county for about 20 years. Get him talking about any number of green topics — from electric vehicles to energy efficiency — and he becomes an outspoken but easy-going, knowledgeable advocate who's always looking for solutions.
Many activists are fighting tooth and nail against the companies pushing to build new power plants, says Doyle, mentioning Duke Energy's pending Cliffside project and Progress Energy's Woodfin proposal, which was canceled after residents organized against it. He suggests collaboration. "It's not us versus them. It's all of us in the same boat," says Doyle.
A joint, yearlong campaign — 250 Megawatts of Community Action — is being launched in conjunction with the expo, he continues. The project calls on residents, business owners and the utility companies to track efforts to reduce energy use, boost efficiency and increase the use of alternative energy sources such as solar power. "We may not reach the goal of saving 250 megawatts in the coming year, but if we gather the data, educate the public, get the utilities involved and apply pressure to them," says Doyle, "we'll [demonstrate] that we simply do not need new power plants and that it's cheaper and easier to use the energy we've got now more efficiently."
That point reminds him of another way the expo has changed with the times: the acknowledgment that pursuing the latest newfangled approach isn't the only path to take. "In the beginning, people wanted to see windmills on the roof, all shiny and turning," says Doyle. Some still do, so they're a little disappointed "when you tell them better insulation will save energy and money." While simple weatherization isn't as sexy as installing new equipment, he assures them, it's a great start — and something that anyone can do, without being an expert or a geek.
Perhaps that's why last year, as the economy was tanking, he noticed an increase in first-time attendees, especially those looking for practical ideas. He expects high attendance this go-round for sessions such as "Energy Efficiency on a Budget."
Overall, attendance has steadily increased since 2001, when about 3,000 people came to the premier expo. Six years later, attendees numbered 8,000, Doyle recounts. Given the increased attention sustainability issues are getting, he expects to "crack the 10,000 ceiling this year." Doyle attributes the expo's growing popularity to the comprehensive range of sessions offered, as well as the vendor booths that attendees can explore. Combine the old standbys — electric cars and solar energy, for example — with some new features, and you've got an expo that attracts visitors from all over the region, he says.
For the first time this year, the nonprofit Western North Carolina Alliance is offering a full day of "Passion in Action,"which showcases a variety of ways to get involved in sustainability issues, from writing letters to using the power of the Internet to advocate for change. Another new series, "Faith in Action," has been added, as more members of the faith community join the forefront of environmental stewardship. Further, several presentations have moved past last year's introductory-level classes to offer a you-can-do-it twist: "Electric Vehicle 'How To,'" for example.
For the policy wonks, there are also updates on the latest legislation, energy regulations and more. For those passionate about sustainability issues and itching to write a book, there's a presentation by New Society Publishers, which is looking for submissions. And for folks looking at their bottom lines, there's "Powering Your Business: Profiting from Renewable Energy."
There will, of course, be displays of electric cars. "You can build your own electric car now. You don't have to wait till new batteries are invented," Doyle says. "If you're driving less than 30 to 40 miles per day, electric vehicles are practical now."
And for those who want to see firsthand what else can be accomplished, a Green Home Tour is being hosted Saturday, Aug. 22, in conjunction with the expo. Sponsored by the Hendersonville-based environmental nonprofit ECO, it includes a registered historic home, a small cottage replete with radiant floor heat and organic gardens, a self-built home that uses a gray-water system, Habitat for Humanity homes that adhere to N.C. Healthy Built standards, and Kanuga Conferences, an Episcopal retreat center that has one of the largest solar-hot-water installations in the region, says ECO Director David Weintraub.
These buildings demonstrate "how following the green path is a twice-green proposition: green for the environment and green financially," he says. At Kanuga, it's estimated the switch to solar will cut hot-water costs by 80 percent, reducing the electricity produced by the nearby coal-fired plant and saving money, Weintraub says.
As Doyle says, "The purpose of the expo is to get people on the sustainability path. Once they take that first step or two, the journey starts to fall in place."
For more information, visit www.seeexpo.com. Daily passes are available for $10. The event will be held at the WNC Agricultural Center Friday, Aug. 21, through Sunday, Aug. 23.
For information about the Green Home Tour, visit www.eco-wnc.org or call 692-0385. Tickets are $15 each, $25 for two, or $13 for carpools.