BY CATHY HOLT
People of Asheville and beyond: Let’s awaken from our fossil-fuel-induced trance, in which we feel powerless and victimized, and begin creating a world where renewable energy is everywhere and our most important needs are met.
Both Asheville and Buncombe County governments have passed resolutions to achieve 100% renewable energy for municipal and county government operations, respectively, by 2030. And Buncombe County commissioners have set 2042 to achieve that goal for all homes and businesses in the county.
What will be the path to get there? Last October, Buncombe County hired consulting company The Cadmus Group to craft a “reasonable and actionable plan” to reach its renewable energy goals. Since then, city and county staffers, plus a few “stakeholders,” have met with Cadmus, which has a track record with several other cities moving toward renewables. The focus is largely on electricity; Asheville Sustainability Officer Amber Weaver says that public transportation is not being discussed at this time.
Equity and energy
Meanwhile, some community conversations on equity and energy are happening. A diverse group met at the Arthur R. Edington Education & Career Center in January to brainstorm priorities. The meeting was organized by members of the WNC Renewables Coalition to discuss “climate resolutions.” After discussing how race, income and other factors shape our attitudes about the environment and climate change, participants created a list of priorities for the transition to renewables. The group was clear that big changes must happen within the next five years! Equity was a top priority. The group’s priorities have been shared with members of city’s Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment and the city’s and county’s sustainability officers.
What if more conversations in various communities, especially communities of color, were held and results were given to decision-makers? Conversations about how to provide for the basic needs of all of our communities and neighborhoods, including weatherization of homes to save energy and money, and great affordable mass transit. What kind of a movement will it take?
Duke Energy plans to build gas pipelines and gas-fired power plants that lock us into at least 30 more years of climate-destroying gas-fired electricity. What can we do ourselves, with or without help from government, to meet our needs without fossil fuels — rendering those plants obsolete, stranded assets?
I heard a friend say, “All we can do is vote.” I don’t agree. We can begin to listen to what the biggest needs and priorities are of those most marginalized, applying the lens of equity. We can start creating the world we want to live in — with abundant individual and community gardens, cooperation and teamwork to meet needs such as transportation — and prioritizing the care of our low-income, disabled, impoverished and ill members.
People of color have suffered first and worst, here and around the world, from climate change, racism and American colonialist/extractive foreign policy. People on the financial margin suffer from poor living and working conditions, inadequate diet, stress, racist harassment and worse health.
Because of deregulation, industrial jobs have been outsourced overseas, shrinking the good, blue-collar jobs. The absence of economic opportunity and the “school to prison pipeline” result in youths of color disproportionately imprisoned. It’s not the teachers’ fault. Most people in prison are poor; incarceration is a profitable business and a modern form of slavery.
If comfortable white activists fail to unite with our sisters and brothers of color and low wealth to make common cause for a future that values community over fossil fuel, our humanity is lacking and our movements will fail. We must embrace their needs and priorities, come out of our silos and build a common movement.
Equity and transportation
Excellent, frequent, reliable, affordable public transportation provides an alternative to car ownership for low-income people, youths and the disabled, helping people access jobs, services and recreation. It must be so good that everyone uses it.
I grew up in Boston, a city with vast networks of electric trolley lines, where even the mayor took the “T” to work. Residents in the three U.S. cities rated “most socially equitable” — New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston — spend up to 47% of their income on housing, according to an article on the website takepart.com (avl.mx/5wi). But low-cost public transit (abut 18% of average earnings) offsets the high cost of housing. In Pittsburgh, however, although housing costs less than 35% of residents’ earnings, the cost of transportation climbs above 30% of earnings, so it’s not among the top 10 socially equitable cities.
A truly excellent transportation system is reliable, affordable and runs frequently. (It also creates jobs.) Here in Asheville, travel by bus can take 90 minutes, versus 20 minutes by car. People have lost their jobs due to unreliability of bus service. Equity means transportation for those without drivers’ licenses (including undocumented workers, who cannot get them). Asheville’s Transit Master Plan, adopted last July, sets out a schedule for adding routes and improving frequency over the next 10 years, with four major corridors seeing bus service every 15 minutes by 2023. However, the first year’s implementation has been pushed back from this July until next January. To avert climate disaster, we must get out of our cars!
Electrified mass transit
Electric buses, of which Asheville is acquiring several, have great advantages. Purchased from Proterra in Greenville, S.C., with a battery contract, these quiet buses are five times more efficient than diesel and save more than $24,000 per bus per year in fuel cost alone, according to the Environment and Energy Study Institute and the Chicago Transit Authority. With far fewer moving parts, electric vehicles break down much less often and last longer. They produce zero emissions, meaning cleaner air in our neighborhoods.
A study by U.S. PIRG (United States Public Interest Research Group) estimates U.S. school districts could save roughly $2.9 billion annually if the entire national fleet were converted from diesel to electric. Imagine the drop in childhood asthma if our children no longer had to breathe diesel fumes!
Replacing all U.S. school buses with electric buses would avoid 5.3 million tons of emissions annually (even with electricity generated from fossil fuels), U.S. PIRG also reports. Even more emissions will be avoided as the electric grid becomes increasingly powered by renewable energy.
Some speculate that as China goes wholesale into electric buses and other vehicles, we will witness the internal combustion engine going the way of the horse and buggy. As batteries improve and prices drop, the economics alone will create this revolution. Gov. Roy Cooper, in an executive order issued last fall, has called for 80,000 more zero-emission vehicles statewide by 2025. Shouldn’t many of these be mass transit vehicles?
A major investment in electric public transportation will make a huge difference in equity and in achieving our goal of 100% renewable energy! So I invite all who value both social and environmental justice to insist on funding for great, electrified public transportation.
Cathy Holt is a passionate water protector and social-environmental justice activist who also loves coaching people to nurture their health, resilience and connections with self and others.