More Than a Pipe Dream

By Jesse Campbell (

Article Published: Jun. 5 | Modified: Jun. 5
More Than a Pipe Dream

A larger solar panel project, like this one in southern Catawba County that electrifies an Apple computer production facility, could ultimately power the town of Boone’s electrical needs and therefore reduce the town’s carbon footprint.

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What would a carbon-free Boone look like, and is it even possible, considering the unique constraints placed on a mountain community?

When you take into consideration the region’s long-time dependency on fossil fuels and the politics surrounding it, reducing the carbon footprint of a Southern community can seem like a pipe dream at best.

Despite the potential pushback from long standing institutions and those who might have a vested interest in the continued consumption of a depleting fuel source, area environmental activist Harvard Ayers has joined forces with the town of Boone in researching sustainable alternatives and determining if a carbon-free town is in Watauga County’s future.

In looking to reduce the town’s carbon residuals, Ayers has looked at what other towns have done in achieving such a lofty, sustainable endeavor.

He soon became enamored with Palo Alto, Calif., which has plans in place to reduce its overall carbon footprint to virtually zero.

With the understanding that it’s best to learn from what has already been accomplished and not necessarily re-invent the wheel, Ayers reached out to Bruce Hodge, who is the father of Palo Alto’s carbon-free movement.

Hodge and his followers, however, had a good head start and the state legislature’s backing.

Under California law, all electric utilities must have a certain percentage — in this case, 33 percent — of their power source come from renewable energies by the year 2020. As a result, Palo Alto was directed by the city council to hit that goal even earlier, Hodge said.

“Basically, we encouraged them to accelerate the process even more with the implementation of carbon-free electricity,” he said.

This type of forward thinking is not unusual in the West Coast community, Ayers said.

In 2006, the mayor of Palo Alto pulled together a green ribbon task force and invited citizens to participate in looking at ways global warming impacts the planet and what could be done to alleviate some of those concerns locally.

Unfortunately, enthusiasm for those efforts quickly faded, but that doesn’t mean the town hasn’t made serious strides in reducing carbon emissions and its impact on the environment.

By hooking up the town’s electrical utility to three separate solar panel projects, the town hopes to eliminate 20 percent of its overall carbon footprint.

The three large projects will comprise 80 megawatts of capacity, Hodge said.

The projects are located in California’s central valley and are expected to go live within the next two years.

In order for a project of this magnitude to be achieved in Boone, North Carolina or any other community across the nation, a certain mindset among traditional powers must first be altered, Hodge said.

Some of those powers that be include CEOs and major stakeholders in the electric utility industry.

“That industry is at a crossroads,” Hodge said. “The industry has been stable and conservative for the last 100 years. They have locked themselves in nice, comfortable monopolies. Now, we are at a point in time to move electricity generation rapidly as possible to renewable energies.”

For the most part, the utilities’ industry is not taking that fight laying down.

Fighting this battle in a conservative state, such as North Carolina, could be an uphill slugfest.
Supporters of a carbon-free movement, which could work to reduce the fossil fuel consumption of electric utilities, could benefit from advocacy and awareness from concerned environmental groups.

This is something Ayers knows about through firsthand experience.

As chairman of Appalachian Voices from 1998 to 2005, Ayers said he helped others form the N.C. Clean Air Coalition, which had the goal in mind to pass a clean smoke stack bill.

“We ultimately did that,” Ayers said. “It’s not at all usual for the North Carolina legislature to have an environmental group to write a bill. All of a sudden, we were a counterbalance to a utility. We were on the left on the more progressive side. This came out to be the strongest coal fire bill in the country.”

Limiting the impact of planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants has also garnered national attention.

On Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the nation’s first ever rule of regulating the impact of these plants.

The rule ultimately came as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled that greenhouse gasses, such as carbon dioxide, endanger public health and welfare.

In order to cut down on carbon pollution, the goal is to reduce the demand for electricity from dirty, coal-fired plants by increasing energy efficiency and use of renewable cleaner energy resources, according to an Appalachian Voices news release.

“Appalachia has traditionally borne the brunt of the damage from the nation’s coal-dependent economy and is suffering the health impacts and environmental and economic devastation of mountaintop removal coalmining and related industrial practices,” Appalachian Voices executive director Tom Cormons said. “Our region, in particular, stands to benefit tremendously from a shift to cleaner energy sources.”

According to the environmental advocacy group, the Southeast has the largest untapped energy efficiency of any region in the country. Families in the Southeast typically pay a higher percentage of their income for electricity.

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