The road to a clean energy future

Western North Carolina, and particularly Asheville, has been called a “green oasis in the South” for its foresight on environmental and energy issues. From the first Biltmore forestry programs in the 1890s to solar energy and the green building industry today, WNC has been ahead of the national green curve. Now another leadership opportunity presents itself: transitioning from fossil fuels to a modern, affordable, low-carbon energy infrastructure that will protect the environment while helping create a sustainable economy.

Where do we start, as a region, to make this essential transition? Shutting down the coal-fired Lake Julian power plant is only a first step. Truly going green in meeting our electrical power needs will require the cooperation and education of both the community at large and Duke Energy. Clearly, this is a complex challenge offering many varying shades of green options. Proven technologies like emissions-free power generation, weatherization of existing homes and new net zero housing, energy efficiency, demand management and electric vehicles are just a few examples. Emerging technologies, such as batteries for energy storage, are also big factors in an unfolding and multifaceted investment in a green energy future.

Meanwhile, it’s important to recognize the wide range of shades of green, from the merest hint of hue that’s claimed for natural gas to the deep forest green of solar power and net zero energy homes. The Home, Garden & Green Living Show, happening March 18-20 at the U.S. Cellular Center, provides examples of the range of options that all of us can choose from in working toward a clean energy future. The 40-plus Southern Energy and Environment Educational Series workshops, free with daily admission to the show over the three days, are each deep green, but even here, there are different hues. And the more than 200 exhibitors will offer products and services that span the full range of shades of green.

Our region’s immediate challenge is reducing peak demand: those infrequent but crucial times when our electrical use skyrockets, such as on very cold winter days. Peak demand is a major factor in the controversy over the size of the new natural gas-powered plant that will replace the current coal-fired unit. Accordingly, nine different SEE Educational Workshops will present energy efficiency strategies for homes and businesses that can help reduce peak demand. Professionals experienced in building technologies will also help homeowners discover ways to save on energy costs and invest in their home’s value while lowering peak demand. Meanwhile, Duke Energy will highlight its existing energy efficiency and demand reduction programs, such as EnergyWise. These are certainly green initiatives, but as long as we’re still burning natural gas, they’re only a pale shade of green. To reach the deeper green, we need expanded reliance on truly sustainable power generation — primarily solar energy in our region — and a new, modern distribution system.

On Saturday afternoon, the Duke Energy Distributed Energy Resources Forum will discuss the utility’s opportunities and challenges, helping educate the community while providing an opportunity to pose questions to a panel of utility experts. In a Feb. 12 press release, Duke Energy president and CEO Lynn Good said: “To bring these ideas to life, the industry has to adapt and evolve faster than ever before. It won’t be easy. On the other side of your electrical outlets, there’s a highly complex system of power plants, transformers and other equipment. There’s no app update that can transform this vast, interconnected system. It takes vision and a long-term, customer-focused strategy.”

Transitioning to deep green energy in a modern grid will require individual homeowners, businesses and our community as a whole — including local governments — to expand their investments in solar energy. Sundance Power Systems and Sugar Hollow Solar are offering workshops on solar power, design considerations, battery storage and more. As more solar energy comes on line, less fossil fuel will be needed to meet everyday as well as peak demand.

But there’s more to clean energy than technology. On Saturday, Avram Friedman of The Canary Coalition, and Dave Hollister and Richard Fireman of the Alliance for Energy Democracy, will offer workshops on the social implications and emerging opportunities to literally bring “power to the people” in our changing energy and environmental landscape.

In the transportation sector, electric vehicles represent emerging options for energy storage at the homeowner level. Overnight charging helps level nighttime loads, and EVs parked at charging stations can return power to the grid. Newer models can even be used to supply backup power to homes during outages. Five EV workshops will be offered over Friday and Saturday, and a wide selection of such vehicles will be on display all weekend. There’ll even be a chance to test-drive one. Together, these components will highlight a much deeper green approach to transportation and energy issues, made possible by the efforts of Blue Ridge Electric Vehicle Club members, Black Bear Solar Institute and Stan Cross of BrightField Transportation Solutions. Yet here again, there are different shades of green: An EV charged directly from a solar array achieves a much deeper green than one charged from a coal- or even natural gas-fired power plant.

The WNC Green Building Council will offer a series of workshops on assessing, remodeling and building much greener homes. For existing homes — the primary challenge for reducing the region’s peak demand — the Green Gauge program helps assess where your home is on this sliding scale of green. On Friday afternoon, Amy Musser of VandeMusser Design will offer a workshop on net zero energy homes: those providing all the energy needed via on-site solar.

Transitioning to a clean energy future with a sustainable, affordable economic framework that protects our environment is a challenge facing all of us, and as a regional community, our first step must be to work together. As new technology ramps up and new services and opportunities emerge, we all need to do our part to help create the necessary infrastructure.

The 40 shades of green represented by the products and services on display at the Home, Garden & Green Living Show, and by the options and approaches explored in the SEE Educational Series workshops, constitute an important start. As Robert Sipes, general manager of Duke Energy’s western zone, said: “The vision that will be required to ensure the successful transformation of the electric utility industry begins, for both Duke Energy and our customers, with a strong foundation of knowledge and understanding. We’re looking forward to engaging in what promises to be an excellent forum for us to listen and learn, as well as share many of the exciting things we’re working on that are rapidly changing our business.”

 

Longtime sustainable energy and environmental activist Ned Ryan Doyle coordinated the Southern Energy & Environment Expo from 2001 to 2010, was the producer/host of the “Our Southern Community” radio program, and currently works as an independent energy policy consultant. He’s the educational coordinator for the Home, Garden & Green Living Show.

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