Running on empty

Having lived in Western North Carolina for more than 25 years, I’ve found that the people of our region have a good bit of common sense. Maybe it’s the mountain heritage of individual self-reliance. Maybe it’s the broad spectrum of talented folks who’ve moved here over the years. Or maybe we’re just lucky. Probably, it’s a combination of all three.

We understand that fossil fuels are finite resources that will soon be gone — and more and more of us are driving cleaner vehicles and switching to biofuels to protect our air quality. In fact, just since last year’s Southern Energy & Environment Expo, a loose band of daring individuals has transformed a semi-underground, backyard biofuels operation into WNC’s first public biodiesel filling station. The Blue Ridge Biofuels Cooperative is now processing locally refined waste vegetable oils into top-grade diesel fuel that anyone can buy at the Gas Up in West Asheville.

Meanwhile, at this year’s S.E.E. Expo, the Environmental & Conservation Organization of Henderson County is once again presenting its annual Clean Air Car Fair — the nation’s most comprehensive display of low-emissions, super-fuel-efficient cars and trucks. These are not experimental prototypes but practical, currently available vehicles provided by local dealers. Some are all-electric, some are hybrids, and some run on alternative fuels such as propane, ethanol or other biofuels. (There’ll also be a wide range of owner-converted cars to inspire the more mechanically minded — not to mention a portable biofuels production facility.) And to show our appreciation for their common sense, drivers of alternative-fuel vehicles will be admitted free to both the expo and the car fair. One lucky local resident will even take delivery of a new Toyota Prius for winning a national contest sponsored by New American Dreams.

But cars aren’t the only local energy concern. It’s not hard to figure out that shipping dangerous radioactive materials through areas with the steepest grades in the eastern United States over highways prone to landslides amounts to a colossal tragedy just waiting to happen. Yet the government is moving tractor-trailer loads of radioactive material — for both nuclear power plants and the revived nuclear-weapons program — through our region every week.

Happily, some dedicated local groups are now working together to challenge this reckless lunacy. Other local organizations are working on a host of interrelated issues: farmland preservation and food quality, forest protection, air and water quality and habitat destruction. This year’s S.E.E. Expo — the largest event of its kind east of the Mississippi — will offer an unprecedented series of public-information presentations, and representatives from these organizations will be on hand to share their common-sense solutions.

But weekends are also play time, and this year, area residents can demonstrate support for cleaner air by participating in the Canary Coalition’s second annual Relay for Clean Air along the Blue Ridge Parkway — and then provide much-needed financial support while enjoying a great concert at AirAid. [See “Take A Deep Breath,” p. 15, for details.].

Common sense also tells us that we shouldn’t wait until the last drop of oil is gone to get serious about renewable-energy technologies. WNC has abundant natural resources — including wind, water, sun and forests. And with responsible stewardship, they can underwrite legitimate energy sustainability for our region. This essential wisdom lies at the very heart of the S.E.E. Expo’s message.

Sustainability is the key to the region’s financial future as well. Right here and right now, many local institutions are offering education and retraining in the kinds of environmentally friendly and economically sustainable businesses that represent the career opportunities of the future. And WNC residents already benefit from the many creative small businesses that are demonstrating common sense by offering sustainable goods and services — from home-building to publishing to recycling to energy.

All of these diverse perspectives and activities will come together for three days at the WNC Agricultural Center, sharing information on a wide range of issues and spotlighting sustainable economic opportunities and proven alternatives. In fact, the S.E.E. Expo is the single largest regional gathering in the nation that combines environmental and conservation organizations, renewable-energy professionals, sustainable businesses, and assorted agencies working at the community, regional and state levels. That’s a whole lot of common sense brought together under one roof.

It’s up to us to make a better world for future generations. And if we pool our efforts for the common good, we will make a difference for our nation.

It was random chance that I moved here a quarter-century ago. But I’m glad I had the common sense to stay.

[Ned Ryan Doyle produces and hosts News from BackHome and Our Southern Community on WNCW-FM. He serves on the board of the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association and coordinates the annual Southern Energy & Environment Expo.]

S.E.E. for yourself

The fifth annual Southern Energy & Environment Expo happens Friday through Sunday, Aug. 26-28 at the WNC Agricultural Center (across from the Asheville Regional Airport). For more information, check the Web site (www.seeexpo.com).

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