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The Energy Challenge: WCU summit calls attention to problems, possibilities

By Michael Beadle

North Carolina’s population is expected to rise by nearly 3 million people in the next two decades. As we use up more and more natural resources like oil and coal, how will we handle the energy needs of the future?


It’s a serious question full of challenges and opportunities, according to local, state and national leaders who met Nov. 15 at Western Carolina University’s Ramsey Center in a day-long summit organized by the university’s Public Policy Institute. Billed as “A Commitment to Energy Independence and Economic Development: A Summit on Resolving the Energy Crisis,” the conference featured guest speakers, dozens of informational booths, hybrid and biofuel-burning cars, leaders from environmental groups and green-friendly businesses, representatives from utilities such as Duke Power and Progress Energy, and officials from around the region and state.

“I don’t think there’s a more important time for us to discuss this,” Larry Shirley, director of the State Energy Office, told the conference audience of several hundred. Shirley said he was hopeful that bipartisan political support could reshape the nation’s energy policy so leaders re-examine how this country uses and produces energy.

Americans may only be 5 percent of the world’s population, but the nation produces one quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases. And there is a mounting scientific data that shows greenhouse gases are affecting the world’s climate, causing global warming.

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With talk of “peak oil” — the idea that the oil supply has reached its peak — and developing nations like China demanding 10-percent increases in oil each year, the days of oil dependency are numbered, Shirley explained.

“We’re not going to be able to drill ourselves out of this issue domestically,” he said. “It’s time now to accelerate our game. We’ve got to take bold steps.”

Shirley outlined a series of ideas that can help ease the impending energy crisis — investing in solar, wind, biomass, and hydro power; making ethanol and biofuels more available, working harder to save and conserve energy; building “green” homes that are more energy efficient; and lobbying state and local governments to support such measures.

“Get involved individually,” Shirley said. “Do what you can do at your home.”

Indeed, a good deal of the discussion at the conference focused on energy conservation, rethinking energy policies, and increasing the use of alternative, renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydro, and biomass.

North Carolina Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, one of the keynote speakers at the conference, urged attendees to take a closer look at how the environment, economic development and energy policies are interconnected. The debate over energy should no longer pit environmental protection against economic growth, according to Perdue.

“The environment and the economy are not — I repeat, are not — mutually exclusive in the 21st century,” Perdue said.

With a strong agricultural economy, a bevy of research universities, and the number three ranked biotechnology industry in the United States, North Carolina has plenty of potential to build a green industry that will spur on new economic development for the next century, according to Perdue.

“We have all the resources to make it happen,” she said, citing places like the new Jackson County Green Energy Park in Dillsboro as examples where renewable energy is becoming a reality and an economic boon.

“It’s cutting edge, right here,” she said. “It’s really the way to do it.”

The Jackson County park will channel methane out of the ground like natural gas to run a biodiesel refinery and power blacksmithing forges, glass-blowing and pottery studios, and greenhouses.

Meanwhile, Perdue reported, Chatham County will be the site of a major commercial biodiesel plant, and three multi-million-dollar ethanol plants are planned for construction near Wilmington.

“We can become a national, major player,” Perdue said. “It’s the right thing to do, but it’s the right economic thing to do.”

Pressing for energy independence from foreign oil, Perdue called for changes in energy policy and to think outside the box when it comes to addressing energy needs of the future.

“We’ve got to throw away those old boxes,” Perdue said.


Thinking big

While the grassroots movement for green energy might be gaining momentum, major utility companies continue to rely heavily on coal and nuclear energy to provide the baseload of energy for their customers. Progress Energy, for example, generates about 80 percent of its energy production from nuclear and coal to keep the lights on for its 3 million customers in the Carolinas and Florida. Although the Fortune 250 company claims $10 billion in yearly profits in its 2006 shareholder report, only a small fraction of that money goes into renewable energy programs like solar power. A mere 1 percent of Progress Energy’s power generation comes from hydroelectric plants. And while the company maintains a “balanced approach” to solving the energy crisis and has begun to endorse measures to limit greenhouse gases that cause global warming, the company line still falls back on coal and nuclear energy. Progress Energy is studying tentative plans to build a new nuclear power plant about 20 miles southwest of Raleigh.

“The most abundant, reliable, and cost-effective baseload fuel sources available to Progress Energy at this time are for coal and nuclear power generation,” the company states in its 2006 report.

Also in the report are dozens of innovative programs such as investing $1 million in fuel-cell research for a Raleigh-based company, setting up discount rewards and financial incentives for customers who conserve energy, funding conservation education programs in schools, and contributing donations to the NC GreenPower program.

The NC GreenPower program allows utility customers to make a tax-deductible donation on their monthly bill to help pay for renewable energy generators — solar, hydro, biomass and wind — around the state. About 10,000 people have signed on so far to purchase “energy blocks” that add to the energy supply and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by producing cleaner energy.

So how bad is the problem of gas emissions in North Carolina?

If you treated North Carolina as a country, it would rank as the 24th worst polluter in the world, and 34 of the top 50 polluters in the world are U.S. states, according to Ivan Urlaub, director of the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association and one of the guest speakers at the WCU energy conference.

Urlaub said as the U.S. population continues to explode and the availability of coal and oil shrinks, Americans will have to debunk the myth of “cheap energy” and change the way we think about energy. But it’s not all bad news.

“There’s an enormous opportunity for innovation,” Urlaub said. “We’re going to have some great economic success.”

From January 2005 to January 2006, the renewable energy capacity in the United States grew 25 percent and some $60 billion in investments are expected by 2020 to fuel a growing green industry that features solar, wind, hydro and biomass power that are cleaner and more efficiently used than coal, oil and nuclear power.


Starting at the top

But with a former oil company executive as president of the United States, is it possible to change the nation’s energy policy — especially with global trade competition?

“We have to continue to fight to stay ahead,” said Katharine Fredriksen, an official with the U.S. Department of Energy who was another keynote speaker at the conference.

Fredriksen set forth some of the Bush Administration’s policies to diversify and increase the energy supply.

“This is a challenge that concerns all of us,” she said.

And while the federal government has begun initiatives to get more ethanol fuel stations up and running, funding more fuel cell and solar cell research, and offering tax credits for businesses and homeowners to install renewable energy systems like solar panels, there’s also an effort by the Bush Administration to beef up the more traditional oil, coal and nuclear industries.

Fredriksen’s endorsement for more nuclear power plants got a few boos from the audience and brought up several questions and comments from attendees who had doubts that nuclear power could be “clean.”

One of those comments came from Avram Friedman, executive director of the grassroots clean air organization Canary Coalition, who welcomed the honest discussion about energy issues but discouraged the use of terms like “clean coal” and “greenhouse gas free nuclear energy.” These terms aren’t really accurate, Friedman said. One particular method of coal mining, for example, involves mountain top removal, which strips away tons of mountain sediment, choking nearby riverways and destroying habitats — hardly a “clean” industry.

“Let’s have an honest discussion,” Friedman said.

Among the attendees were local county and town officials and state representatives including Sen. John Snow (D-Murphy), who spent the whole day at the conference.

Snow said he plans to take some of ideas he heard at the conference back to the state legislature. Ideas like tax credits for improving energy efficiency and investing in new energy resources that will go beyond oil, coal and uranium. Snow said he’d also like to change the bureaucracy in Raleigh so that ethanol companies are regulated under the Department of Agriculture instead of the state ABC board. But even with advancements in biodiesel and alternative energies, Snow believes coal and nuclear power will have to be part of the equation for now.

“I think we’ve got to leave everything on the table,” Snow said.

Back in the 70s when the nation suffered through its last energy crisis, Snow bought a compact car that could get 50-plus miles to the gallon, but then oil got cheap again and Americans went back to buying the big gas-guzzlers. That was a false sense of security, Snow said, and now the federal government doesn’t seem to have a real energy policy.

“It’s something that we definitely have to take action on,” said Erika Schneider, a representative with Sundance Power Systems, a Mars Hill company that installs solar, wind and hydro power systems for businesses and residences.

“I think our whole government structure is responding,” said Schneider. “We’re seeing more and more installations.”

And while solar power installations may run into the thousands of dollars, North Carolina has one of the best tax credit programs in the country to offset that cost. For example, a four-collector solar hot water and heating system plus installation can cost $10,000, but after North Carolina tax credits ($3,500) and federal tax credits ($2,000), the out-of-pocket expense drops to $4,500.

Schneider compares the alternative energy boom to the home computer craze of the 1980s and 90s. As demand increases, the market will adjust to keep up and prices will eventually fall.

Many local town governments and entities such as the City of Asheville, the Town Waynesville, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are taking advantage of more eco-friendly vehicles such hybrid cars with higher gas mileage or biofuel stations that give diesel vehicles cleaner-burning gas. Asheville City Manager Gary Jackson gave a brief talk at the conference explaining how the city is converting more of its fleet of vehicles to fuel-efficient cars and trucks.

“There’s a lot being done, but we can take it to the next level,” he said.

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