Catch your breath
After looking toward the horizon, where a blanket of haze obscured the view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Xpress decided to check in with the Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency for an update on Asheville's air quality. Ozone season runs from April 30 to Sept. 30. So, nearly halfway through, how has our air fared this year?
The Air Quality Index is a color-coded tool used to depict ground-level ozone concentrations. Green days are fine, while yellow days may cause problems for people with asthma or other extra-sensitive folks if they're outside for prolonged periods of time. Orange days indicate violations of federal guidelines, and on red and purple days, even people without special health concerns are more at risk.
"So far this year, we haven't had any orange days in Asheville," Ambient Monitoring Supervisor Kevin Lance reported on June 27. "And so far from this ozone season, we've had 14 yellow, or moderate, days."
Taking a broad view, Lance says this is good news. "Given the weather conditions, if this had been five years ago, we would have had some orange days," he notes. Sunny summer days with high temperatures provide the most favorable conditions for ground-level ozone. In 2002, there were seven orange days and 31 yellow days over the course of the whole season.
Better emission-control technology at Progress Energy's Skyland plant has made a difference in ozone levels, notes Lance, as have tighter controls at Tennessee Valley Authority plants.
But at the same time, other factors -- such as wildfires in Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp and the Linville Gorge in Pisgah National Forest -- put more particulates in the air. The accumulation of airborne particulates is what produces the haze, Lance explains.
A more efficient energy-efficiency plan?
Leaving it up to private utilities to promote energy conservation is a bad idea, according to a new report commissioned by several environmental groups. Like any business, a utility grows by selling more of its product -- in this case, electricity. So when a utility oversees a program designed to reduce electricity use, there's an inherent conflict of interest, the report argues, because energy conservation can translate into lost revenue.
Independent Administration of Energy Efficiency Programs: A Model for North Carolina, prepared by Synapse Energy Economics, describes an alternative model that's said to have produced impressive results. To date, however, only six states around the country have adopted this approach.
Since the early '90s, New York, New Jersey, Maine, Oregon, Vermont and Wisconsin have all taken statewide energy-efficiency programs out of the hands of private utilities, entrusting them instead to independent entities not financially tied to the sale of power. In 2006 alone, the New York program saved some 2.36 million megawatt-hours of electricity and prevented some 1.55 million tons of carbon-dioxide emissions, according to the report by the Cambridge, Mass.-based consulting firm. In these six states, ratepayer-funded programs are administered by nongovernmental organizations, state-level agencies akin to North Carolina's State Energy Office, or public-utility commissions.
Clean Water for North Carolina, a statewide nonprofit with an office in Asheville, joined with five other environmental groups to commission the Synapse report, in hopes of encouraging North Carolina to join the ranks of states using independent energy-efficiency programs. By providing examples of successful independent programs, these groups hope to influence policy-makers who are weighing North Carolina's energy options.
"Why should a 'water group' be concerned about energy efficiency?" asks Hope Taylor-Guevara, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina. Already, she notes, water-cooled power plants account for most of the state's water use that's not related to drinking-water supplies. "Dependence on large, centralized electricity production makes North Carolina vulnerable," argues Taylor-Guevara. "With our waters under increasing stress, these large plants may have to shut down under drought conditions or as the climate warms."
It's frightening, she says, to contemplate adding new facilities that would also require substantial amounts of water each day. In contrast, Taylor-Guevara maintains, energy-efficiency programs are "the cheapest and cleanest way to reduce our energy needs and protect our water resources."