Like ripe, red tomatoes or the Perseid meteor shower, the Southern Energy & Environment Expo is an annual August event. But year by year, both the projects and technologies it highlights and the audience it draws have shifted markedly. Not surprising, perhaps, for an event whose slogan is “S.E.E. the Future.”
In a sense, the future may be catching up with the expo. In the last year or two, the general public has been inundated with reports confirming the reality of global climate change. So far, 2007 has been characterized by a spate of extreme climatic and meteorological events worldwide, such as record-breaking heat waves, rare snowfall in South Africa and Argentina, and the first cyclone ever documented in the Arabian Sea, according to an Associated Press report. Meanwhile, corporate giants like BP oil and DuPont—traditionally viewed as the enemy by many environmentalists—have announced eco-friendly initiatives and resolved to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.
At the local level, the number of green businesses and environmental nonprofits has grown, and general support for sustainability seems stronger than ever. Since the expo’s debut in 2001, attendance has more than doubled, to roughly 8,000 last year. And for those looking to get up to speed on alternatives to fossil fuels or the latest environmentally friendly products and services, this year’s S.E.E. Expo (which runs Friday through Sunday, Aug. 24-26 at the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center) may be the place to go.
Many shades of green
For founder Ned Doyle, the weeks leading up to the event are marked by an exhilarating blend of excitement and sleep deprivation. Pulling together the conference—now the largest of its kind in the Southeast and among the largest nationwide, according to Doyle—becomes ever more daunting. Nonetheless, he sees the steady growth as a sign that “going green” is no longer a fringe phenomenon.
Once more of “an esoteric, imaginative, futuristic option for the public,” says Doyle, today’s S.E.E. Expo “is demonstrating and highlighting sustainable technologies, products and materials that are now mainstream. They’re no longer preliminary or questionable: These are legitimate, currently available, proven technologies.”
And as “green” sheds its radical mantle and edges its way toward the norm, the conference is drawing participants from increasingly varied walks of life. Besides environmental groups focused on land conservation, air and water quality, and other traditional concerns, an assortment of green businesses will help fill up the exhibitor booths and presentation slots. “It’s not just philosophical for them—it’s good business,” notes Doyle about these environmentally friendly companies, which range from eco-certified real estate agents to green builders to alternative-energy outfits. “They’re not doing it strictly out of the good of their hearts.”
But while the S.E.E. Expo gives green businesses a chance to attract new customers, it remains a major soapbox and networking opportunity for environmental activists. Avram Friedman, executive director of The Canary Coalition, will talk about building a grass-roots movement for clean air. Stewart David, president of Carolina Animal Action, will deliver a presentation on how going vegetarian can help combat climate change. Mary Olson of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service will give details about nuclear power plants proposed for the Southeast. And Richard Fireman, regional director of NC Interfaith Power & Light, will explore the spiritual challenges of coming to grips with climate change. If you’re interested in meeting Western North Carolina’s environmental movers and shakers, these workshop offerings are just the tip of the iceberg.
“The Southeast is traditionally not a very active area for environmental concerns, but that’s changing,” Doyle observes. “There’s a growing uneasiness and discontent with our energy policy.” This year’s expo, he adds, will feature “an expanded focus on opportunities for citizen activism.”
At the same time, other workshops will cover basics like reducing personal energy consumption. “Coming to the expo gives regular people something they can do on any scale,” notes Doyle.
As alternative technologies mature, a lot more options are becoming available for folks who want to lessen their individual environmental impact. But making sense of all those choices can be daunting.
Accordingly, a number of workshops at this year’s expo are designed to provide some answers. The Clean-Air Car Fair, a S.E.E. Expo mainstay produced by Hendersonville’s Environmental and Conservation Organization, is a prime example.
“Car dealers in the area bring the vehicles that we feel are the greenest, based on which have the best mileage and the lowest emissions,” explains Tom Davis, volunteer coordinator for ECO. This year’s featured vehicles will include hybrids, electric cars and the Honda Civic GX, which runs on compressed natural gas. “One of the big features is going to be a plug-in, hybrid Prius that Progress Energy has begun using. They’re also bringing a hybrid bucket truck that they’re using.” Spectators are often surprised at the wide array of alternatives now available. “A lot of this is about education,” notes Davis. “Half the people who come in essentially don’t know what a hybrid is.” Besides checking out the cars (which will be on display all weekend), expo visitors can attend the Alternative Fuels Forum, which will feature a variety of speakers (see grid for time and location).
Another major emphasis this year will be biofuels, with four different workshops on the subject. “It’s incredibly diverse,” notes Brian Winslett of Blue Ridge Biofuels. “One person’s biodiesel may not be as sustainable as the next. It’s almost like looking at organic or nonorganic food.” Comparing the various production methods and raw materials of different types of biofuels can be every bit as complicated as deciding whether to go with a hybrid, compressed-natural-gas or other type of alternative vehicle, he explains.
There’ll also be numerous opportunities to learn about green building. From introductory courses to an in-depth exploration of specific techniques, workshops will cover the full spectrum: design, retrofits, heating-system options, wind power and more. Isaac Savage of Home Energy Partners, for example, will present “Marketing 101 for Builders and Realtors,” which he says will outline the basics of a “new vocabulary” for the green housing market.
We live in a complex and rapidly changing age, and the S.E.E. Expo aims to help all of us adjust to the brave new world that’s being born.
S.E.E. you there
To learn more about the expo, visit the Web site (www.seeexpo.com), which includes a complete list of workshops and exhibitors as well as details about admission fees and registration. For an overview, check the workshop list and schedule accompanying this story. The S.E.E. Expo runs Friday through Sunday, Aug. 24-26 at the WNC Agricultural Center; admission is $8 a day.