Yet the message at the kickoff of the Southern Energy & Environment Expo in Fletcher on Aug. 21 was distinctly optimistic. Some prominent figures in the region's environmental community assembled at the start of the three-day event to sound off about solutions to widespread energy issues that they say can be embraced immediately.
"We have all the technology we need -- right now, off the shelves -- to do the right thing," declared Richard Fireman, western regional coordinator for the N.C. Council of Churches' Interfaith Power & Light initiative. "And we're going to do this here in Asheville and Western North Carolina, because there's great public understanding and support for energy efficiency, renewables and a sustainable ... energy economy."
Standing alongside Fireman were representatives of local nonprofits, a solar-energy company, a small-scale biofuels producer, a green plumbing business and others.
"We are in a climate crisis," proclaimed Mary Olson of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. "However, I see it as the bigger hammer that is going to bring us all to make the effort that we've known for years we've needed to make. I actually think it's good news that nuclear power is on the table again. Nuclear is not the answer. But it is so damned expensive that we can now credibly say that solar and wind and energy efficiency are a much cheaper alternative to the mainstream-promoted answer of nuclear. We can show ... how much cheaper solar is, how much cheaper wind is and how fabulously profitable energy efficiency is compared to nuclear."
For the past eight years, the Southern Energy & Environment Expo has drawn thousands from throughout the region to learn about renewable energy, green building, energy efficiency and other tools for sustainable living.
The North Carolina Utilities Commission is considering a proposed statewide energy-efficiency program that would operate independently from those offered by utility companies. Opponents of Duke Energy's Save-a-Watt program, which is also under consideration by the Utilities Commission, say an independent push for energy conservation would be more effective than a program led by a utility that has a financial incentive to sell more power.
Dubbed NC SAVE$, the alternative energy-efficiency course was charted by a statewide coalition of environmental and social-justice organizations. Clean Water for North Carolina, a statewide nonprofit, helmed the project.
"There's no excuse for putting up with the inherent conflicts of interest in utility administration of energy-efficiency programs, the lack of transparency or cost-effectiveness for ratepayers," says Executive Director Hope Taylor. "If we have to pay the kind of profits to investors that Save-a-Watt was asking for, we'll never achieve the energy and greenhouse-gas reductions we need so urgently." Duke Power, meanwhile, has publicly defended its program, which company CEO Jim Rogers has characterized as "the most ambitious energy-efficiency program in the world," according to a recent article in Raleigh's News & Observer.
The commission will be accepting public comment on the NC SAVE$ proposal through Friday, Sept. 5. To view the proposal, go to www.ncuc.commerce.state.nc.us and search for Docket E-100 Sub 120.
A coalition of environmental groups has blasted a draft environmental-impact assessment completed by the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The 561-page study determined that a 10-mile segment of the proposed Corridor K highway would inflict little environmental damage. The four-lane highway would stretch from Stecoah to Robbinsville in Graham County, cutting through a portion of the Nantahala National Forest.
The draft assessment predicts that the highway construction would result in the relocation of 38 residences, impacting 86 acres of farmland, 65 acres of National Forest lands and 5,400 feet of mountain streams. The total cost estimate averages out to about $38 million per mile, with roughly half going toward construction of a tunnel through Stecoah Gap, underneath the Appalachian Trail.
The plan is part of a road network planned by the Appalachian Regional Commission in the 1960s to bolster impoverished communities. "Part of this is addressing the economic woes of 40 years ago," says Senior Attorney D.J. Gerken of the Southern Environmental Law Center in Asheville.
"The Stecoah and Cheoah Bald areas are environmental treasures, and we are deeply concerned about the impact road construction will have on the exceptional mountain streams, wildlife and pristine forest habitat here," says Hugh Irwin, programs director for the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition. Comments on the study will be accepted until Oct. 10. To view an excerpt of the document, visit www.mountainx.com/xpressfiles.