The avowedly pro-business administration in Washington, D.C. regards oil dependence and consumerism as necessary pieces of what is currently labeled "the economic recovery." George W. Bush is on record urging people to go out and spend more cash as a response to last year's terrorist attacks, and he has cut funding for both conservation and renewable energy. But there are business owners in WNC who see things a little differently.
Dave Hollister, founder of Sundance Power Systems in Mars Hill, is unequivocal. "The positioning of this administration has been totally geared toward acquisition of energy resources," he says. "But our addiction to oil is going to control our policies and ultimately bring us down. As we speak, the solution is available, here and now. All we need is a real leader."
Sundance Power Systems, Inc. currently comprises three companies, according to Hollister. Blue Ray Technologies manufactures and distributes high efficiency products including plug-and-play radiant floor heating systems. Prism Designs creates systems for solar and hydronic heating, as well as both conventional and solar hot water designs. Eight year old Sundance, the parent business in the group, performs installation of solar, wind and hydro systems.
"Photovoltaic and hydro power are sexy," says Hollister, "but the most accessible technology for most people, the one with the quickest payback, is solar thermal power. It's easy to harness a tremendous amount of energy for use in radiant floor heating systems." Such heaters represent the foundation of his trade.
Today, Sundance employs eight full-time employees. Hollister says that the recession has had no apparent effect on business. "We didn't have our normal slow-down in the spring," he reports, "and we are working on more off-the-grid homes now than ever."
Part of the Sundance plan was a conscious choice to remain regional in scope. "The most sustainable business model we could imagine involved less transportation and more local self-reliance," Hollister explains. "The only way a national distribution system can work is through dependence on oil. We decided our business should be directed toward true sustainability."
Rock Castle Solar, recently relocated from Boone to Asheville, deals in similar products and services. "We install all sorts of renewable energy systems -- photovoltaic, micro-hydro, wind, solar hot water and hydronic heating," says business owner Rod Baird.
Combining alternative-energy installation with general construction, Rock Castle works with a licensed electrician who can install just the solar or hydro system, or wire a whole house. "We also work in partnership with Ralph Cook of Surry Solar in Mt. Airy," Baird adds. "His HERO heat exchanger is a superb add-on solar hot water system that can be installed in almost any home."
Baird says it's hard to judge the impact of the current recession on his business, in light of the company's recent move. He notes, however, that he's managed to stay busy. Baird has high hopes that the federal government will approve a new 15-percent tax credit for alternative energy. "Combined with North Carolina's 35 percent credit, it would give people a huge incentive to invest in solar and hydro systems," he explains.
Tackling energy conservation with a far more ancient and decidedly low-tech approach, Shannon Frazier, of Frazier's Masonry, relies on stone and mortar to build a more efficient world. Frazier has studied construction of masonry wood stoves with Albie Barden, the widely acclaimed guru of the North American Finnish wood stove movement, in Norridgewock, Maine.
"My main message for everyone I talk to is that stone is a wonderful thermal sink," says Frazier. He goes on to explain that, for passive solar or wood fired applications, there is nothing better than a large mass of stone to absorb heat quickly when the sun is shining (or the fire hot) and re-release it slowly, as air temperatures cool. "I tell folks who want to build a passive solar home that they really ought to build a big stone wall inside, in a place where the winter sun will be shining," Frazier relates.
Danny Richards, owner of Stone Mountain Builders, has been building energy efficient homes in WNC for ten years. "We use both straw bale and Hebel block construction to build super-insulated homes," Richards reports.
Hebel blocks, a European invention only recently introduced in the U.S., benefit from a high insulation factor (10 times that of conventional concrete) that combines with thermal mass to deliver exceptional energy saving performance: A Hebel wall insulates better than 8 inches of R-30 fiberglass.
Falling just short of Hebel blocks in insulating value (at R-28), but at considerably lower cost, straw-bale construction is an energy-saving technique with ancient roots. Modeled on the wattle-and-daub construction used by many pre-industrial cultures, straw-bale structures are on the cutting edge of the green building movement.
Building and remodeling projects keep Stone Mountain's 10 employees busy year round, though Richards notes that this year has found him doing more remodeling projects and less new home construction. "That may be a function of the economy," he observed, "although high-end construction is going gangbusters."
While the current administration has opted for oil over solar, and places consumerism above conservation, Sundance's Hollister is eager to point out: "George Bush has a full photovoltaic system on his ranch house in Texas."
Is the former oil man hedging his bet?
These four local businesses are among the many that will be participating in the Southern Energy and Environment Expo, running Aug. 23-25.