Asheville Area Drives Clean Air Movement

By Frances Figart

One reason Asheville is often found in lists of great places to live is the quality of the air we breathe. It’s good— for now. But the struggle to attain clean air was not easy, and we still face challenges.

“Ten years ago, we were in crisis mode,” says Bill Eaker, coordinator for Land-of-Sky Clean Vehicles Coalition, part of Land-of-Sky Regional Council, a multi-county, local government planning and development organization.

Back in the mid-1990s, Land-of-Sky Regional Council (LOS) began to hear from National Park and Forest Service officials that air quality was a significant problem. Partnering with the NC Division of Air Quality and other groups, LOS helped address this issue, creating a Clean Air Campaign to raise awareness.

“Our message was, and still is, very simple: Don’t waste energy,” Bill says. “When we conserve energy every way we can, we reduce the demand on our power plants to generate electricity, a process that creates emissions.”

Emissions causing bad air quality include deposits from burning fossil fuels that create acidic compounds in our precipitation. Sometimes our beloved mountains are enshrouded in the whitish haze of air pollution, reducing visibility. Of greatest concern is ground-level ozone, a pollutant that combines with volatile organic compounds and pollution from vehicles and industry to form the respiratory irritant that is urban smog.

Since the air quality alarm was sounded in the 1990s, North Carolina has stepped up and set an example for adjacent states. One of the biggest improvements came in 2007 when new air pollution control equipment was added at the Duke Energy Progress plant in Skyland to comply with the NC Clean Smokestacks Act, reducing overall emissions by some 80%. In another major reduction effort, the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency used grant monies to retrofit older diesel engines in area school buses and fire engines with air pollution control devices.

“We have seen significant improvements in our air quality over the last several years,” says Ashley Featherstone, permitting program manager for WNC Regional Air Quality Agency. “Ground level ozone and fine particle pollution levels have dropped in WNC and across the state.”
Individuals can reduce emissions by driving more fuel-efficient vehicles, or ones that use alternative fuel like biodiesel, natural gas, or propane.

The latest option: a new Plug-in Electric Vehicle (PEV).

“Through our Clean Air Campaign, we started promoting fuel-efficient low-emission vehicles when the hybrids first came out in the early 2000s,” recalls Bill. “When researchers want to know where the new PEVs are going to sell best, they look for where there has been a high adoption rate for hybrids. Asheville is a hotbed for hybrids, so we get targeted for deployment of PEVs.”

As a result, nearly 2,000 electric vehicles may be zipping around the Asheville metro area within two years. That’s why you’re seeing public PEV charging stations sprouting up in Asheville, Hendersonville, Montreat, Black Mountain, Skyland, Clyde, and beyond. They’re part of the PEV Readiness Initiative that LOS Clean Vehicles Coalition manages in connection with the Department of Energy’s Clean Cities program.

“The Clean Cities program was created by Congress to recognize regions where public and private groups join forces to promote the use of fuel-efficient and alternative fuel vehicles,” Bill explains. “In summer of 2012, after working toward the designation for eight years, our five-county area became the 85th Clean Cities Coalition in the country.”

Because so many agencies and businesses are working on energy efficiency, our air quality has improved considerably over the last ten years.

“But our population and economy will continue to grow and we’ll have more vehicles, more homes, and more industry,” Bill cautions. “If we can be more energy efficient, our power plants won’t need to continue to expand as we grow.”

Want to learn more? Join Land-of-Sky Regional Council March 27 as local and state officials and air-quality experts address the media at the annual Ozone Season Kickoff Event and Press Conference at the Council’s offices, 339 New Leicester Highway in Asheville. Contact Bill Eaker at bill@landofsky.org if you are interested in attending. Frances Figart (francesfigart.com) works at The Compleat Naturalist and writes articles focused on ecology and sustainability.

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