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Wednesday, 11 October 2006 00:00

Change of a good kind is in the air

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I’m not sure when the characteristics of being frugal and not wasting became derisive traits, why it became wimpy to drive a small car, how it became popular to make fun of those who wanted the best of the technological advances but not its excesses.

 

There is now, though, an inkling of change in this popular American worldview. There will always be people who love the big, the shiny and the wasteful, but perhaps more people are now seeing the link between the self-gratifying traits many of us celebrate as national heritage and the current world geo-political tensions.

All this may sound like a lot of philosophical mumbo jumbo, and on one level it is. But when I drove away from the new Jackson County Green Energy Park last week after its grand opening, I couldn’t help but ponder the possibilities if we all can just re-adjust, ever so slightly, our thinking and our politics.

 

The world according to Muth

For those who know him, what Timm has helped pull off in Jackson County may be not surprising. His former boss at the N.C. State Energy Office, a speaker at the grand opening, said last week Timm grew tired of the slow pace of change in the energy industry. He left his engineering job to come to the mountains and lead bike trips up and down big mountains. He even wrote one of the best books ever written about North Carolina’s mountain biking rails.

But when the opportunity came to help with Jackson County’s methane conversion project at its old landfill, Muth jumped at the chance. He was well into plans to use the methane to create energy for a craft village — blacksmith forge, glass blowers, greenhouse plants, etc. — when an even better idea came along. Doing the craft village alone would have been a wonderful use of the old landfill and its tons of decomposing solid waste.

But Al Bagley and Sam Gray suggested a different approach. Why not use the methane gas to help produce biodiesel, a fuel made from vegetable oil that can be used in any diesel engine. The pair had dreams of producing biodiesel on a relatively large-scale, and so they pitched the idea to Muth.

Here, though, is where this story takes its best twist. Jackson County’s government leaders, like other county leaders, don’t like to take chances. They are stewards of others’ money, not their own. They could have scrapped this new plan as too risky. But they didn’t.

“Ken Westmoreland and the county commissioners deserve a lot of credit,” said Muth. “I pitched this plan to them, and within two days we were moving forward. It was incredible.”

County Manager Ken Westmoreland said the money so far invested in the Jackson County Green Energy Park amounts to about $1.2 million. That’s probably slightly less than what it would have cost the county to adhere to EPA regulations for monitoring and venting the methane over the life of the landfill. Now, the county will be collecting some rent and fees from those who use the energy produced from the methane.

But using methane to produce biodiesel — a process some suggest may be a first on the entire planet — is just one aspect of Muth’s vision. He plans to capture the heat from the blacksmith’s kiln and other craft processes. That heat will also be used to heat the water that is used to make the biodiesel. Solar panels and boilers in the greenhouses will also contribute to the overall energy continuum at the park.

Muth says the park’s goal is threefold: environmental protection, economic development, and education. County Commission Chairman Brian McMahan said he hopes the park will “stimulate creative thinking among the public.”

“The possibilities are endless,” he said.

 

Possibilities must be explored

There is a world of possibilities for alternative energies, but they don’t do us any good if they go unused. That’s been one of the problems in this country as we have ignored the fact that we are the world’s energy hog. Yes, our economy is also huge, but not in relation to how much of the world’s resources we use. Here’s a blunt assessment from an article a few years ago in the Seattle Times:

“If the United States is leading the way, it’s in the wrong direction. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, we produce almost a quarter of its greenhouse-gas emissions. We consume nearly a third of the world’s electricity (mostly from coal) and 43 percent of its gasoline.”

But now our large automakers are struggling. They counted on SUVs and big trucks and let the Japanese take advantage of the technological advances in hybrids. Suddenly there is a hue and cry in Detroit as the automakers are cutting jobs and trying to figure out how to sell more cars. When I read about the waiting lists for Honda and Toyota hybrids and the ever-growing popularity of biodiesel autos, it leaves one to wonder if the bigwigs in Detroit have been living and working in a vacuum.

In California, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger and a Democratic legislature recently passed the California Global Warming Solutions Act, which some experts are calling the most far-sighted U.S. legislation ever passed. The act requires the state to reduce its greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, a 29-percent cut. What’s different about California’s approach is that it allows a governmental agency to take whatever steps necessary to enforce the limits. This is in stark contrast to the EPA’s preferred method of allowing industries to trade pollution credits, which encourages individual reductions but not for the whole country.

“The incentives really (have not been there) for the creation of new technologies and investments to reduce carbon dioxide unless mandatory caps are put in place,” said Peter Barbee, the head of California’s largest utility and a supporter of the new measure.

Here’s what the experts are saying about California’s move to become a world leader in energy savings. The Climate Action Team estimates that the recently enacted bill and other significant steps will increase state income by more than $4 billion while providing 83,000 new jobs. In other words, it is good for the economy.

As Congress debates drilling for oil in the far reaches of Alaska and opening new areas offshore for natural gas exploration, it also need to look at this government’s record. Once Washington politicians come up with a wise energy policy — instead of fighting carbon dioxide reduction measures, bills to force higher gas mileage standards in automobiles, and public transit investments — Americans won’t support drilling in these environmentally sensitive areas. It would be like telling a drug addict its OK to steal his grandmother’s savings.

 

The future is now

Call me an optimist. I’ve been accused of worse. But from Jackson County all the way to California, change is coming. Some would argue it’s too little too late. Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” paints a gloomy picture of what’s in store if we don’t change our ways.

Just as worrisome is our international reputation. As we try to impose democracy around the world and talk of spreading prosperity, many look at America as something they would not want to emulate. We are viewed as wasteful and showy, the rich guy with the mansion on the hill who takes from the Third World and talks about giving back but doesn’t prove it by our lifestyle.

Using resources wisely should not be a politically divisive issue. Jackson County’s political leadership has embraced this notion. It’s a small step, but it’s highly symbolic of a changing world view. If it catches on, this country will find itself in a lot better place within a decade or two.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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