By 7 p.m. April 12, a conference room at Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Montford campus was at capacity as dozens of community members gathered to hear a panel on balancing Asheville’s growth against different environmental initiatives.
Hosted by Lenoir-Rhyne’s Master of Science in Sustainability Studies program, the Sustainability Symposium featured six speakers from different areas of expertise in conservation, renewable energy, city planning and more.
Speakers included Stephen Hendricks, environmental planner; John Howard, a Charlotte-based historic preservation planner; Dave Hollister, president and CEO of Sundance Solar; Ed Macie, urban forester; Alison Ormsby, co-director of Sustainability, UNC Asheville; and Jamie Wine, Green Built Alliance and Blue Horizons Project.
The event was moderated by Asheville City Council member Maggie Ullman. Ullman was Asheville’s chief sustainability officer and is now the Council liaison to the city’s Historic Resources Commission. Ullman noted that in order for Asheville to reach its 100% renewable energy goal by 2030, experts from all areas of planning, conservation, technology and local government need to collaborate and compromise on differing needs and priorities.
“It’s not every day that we have a renewable energy leader, an urban tree leader and a historic preservation leader in the room at the same time. That’s special,” Ullman said. “We need to build hope in these possibilities. I’m tired of being worried. And it doesn’t do us any good. So we need to find hope. And I think collectively listening and sharing helps us do that.”
Hendricks explained that connecting Asheville’s “green infrastructure,” such as forests, greenways and other green spaces, has multiple benefits, including increasing climate resilience, biodiversity and energy conservation. He said residents need to push their elected officials to consider green infrastructure during zoning and development approvals.
Ormsby and Wine said that residents should take advantage of rebates offered for energy efficiency upgrades through 2022’s Inflation Reduction Act. Those offers include a tax credit to cover 30% of the costs to install rooftop solar and up to 100% of the costs to install electric appliances like heat-pump water heaters and clothes dryers, among other initiatives.
Urban Forester Macie noted the trade-offs that exist when residents choose to cut down trees on their properties to increase sunlight for solar energy production. He said that while solar offers environmental benefits, trees provide habitat, shade and carbon sequestration, among other benefits.
“We should never, ever forsake our trees to accommodate technology. That’s what got us in this mess in the first place, forsaking natural systems to accommodate our lifestyle,” Macie said.
Sundance Solar President Hollister said that net-metering, in which customers invest in shared solar energy generation outside of their own homes, could be a possible solution to the predicament, but the practice is not currently allowed in North Carolina. He urged those in attendance to petition local and state governments to expand access to energy production options.
“What is in the way between you wanting solar and getting solar? Who’s got trees in the way?” Hollister asked. “We want to take care of the trees. … If we want to change it, then we have to collectively change the game. Direct [your efforts] toward your representatives, because that’s the only way we’re going to change this thing.”
After the presentations, the panelists fielded questions and comments from attendees. Among the issues raised were Asheville becoming its own utility and city building codes that limit the installation of solar panels in historic neighborhoods.
“We have had 18 requests for solar on the front [of homes] in historic districts in Asheville, and all of them but two have been approved. Those two were withdrawn,” said Ullman.
To wrap up the meeting, Ullman asked each speaker what gave them hope after a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a “final warning” about the effects of climate change just last month. Panelists pointed to emerging technologies, collective human will and collaboration among different stakeholders as reasons to keep working toward sustainability goals.
“I am hopeful because of all of you,” Hollister said to the crowd. “We’re going to have to grapple with these things ourselves, in our own homes, and we have to grapple with them on a collective basis on a community level and state level and on a national level. I am just hopeful because I live in this wonderful community.”