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Green industry booming in Asheville and WNC



6/27/2011 - Green industry booming in Asheville and WNC
by Karen Chávez - Asheville Citizen-Times



               ASHEVILLE -- Green businesses in Western North Carolina no longer need think they are tops in the state. Now they know it.

In the nonprofit N.C. Sustainable Energy Association's just-released 2011 North Carolina Clean Energy Data Book, the first comprehensive guide to the state's clean energy economy, the western region was found to be No. 1 in the state in renewable energy capacity.

The findings were based on WNC's strength in capacity for hydroelectric power, solar and wind power. The report also found the 31-county AdvantageWest region to have high rankings among the seven economic development regions in the number of energy-efficient homebuilders and for the number of renewable energy systems.

The NCSEA and the WNC Clean Energy Economy Project will release the 92-page report and discuss the findings with the public Wednesday at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College's Enka campus.

"Our region is leading the way in North Carolina with more renewable energy capacity than anywhere else in the state," said Matt Raker, vice president of entrepreneurship at AdvantageGreen, the green jobs division of AdvantageWest Economic Development Group.

"We have more companies per capita operating solar, wind and hydroelectric power, more than the No. 2 region, which is the Research Triangle of Raleigh."

The findings are significant, Raker said, because they bolster the region's commitment to providing renewable energy -- one of the few growth industries in a down economy -- and show it is cost-competitive with nonrenewable energy sources such as coal and oil.

They also help support the work of the WNC Clean Energy Economy Project, which was launched earlier this year by Land-of-Sky Regional Council, AdvantageWest and the five westernmost regional councils of government, to develop ways to grow and market the region's potential in energy efficiency, sustainable building technologies, renewable energy and low-emission vehicles.

A consulting group has been working on a report to identify trends, strengths and opportunities for the local green economy, which it plans to release in September, Raker said. The N.C. Clean Energy Data Book, he said, serves as a positive precursor to that report.

 "It's good to recognize WNC as a leader in clean energy," Raker said. "We've always thought it was, but now we have real data."

 What's in the data book?

Rich Crowley, market research manager with the NCSEA, based in Raleigh, said the idea for the data book, was to pull together a snapshot of the state's clean energy economy into one document to be more easily accessible for everyone from the casual observer to those who wo rk in the renewable energy industry, economic development or government.

"We thought if we could get this information into a data book, it would be helpful for people, so they could talk about it with a higher level of understanding," Crowley said.

The report, funded by the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center, provides an overview of North Carolina's clean energy landscape, shows where the 1,800 registered renewable energy systems are located and assesses clean energy opportunities by analyzing relative strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in each of the seven regions, with more than 100 maps, charts and tables.

Scorecards at the front of each regional section provide a quick look at the number of existing firms, existing commercial LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and Energy Star buildings, potential for residential energy efficiency and state rankings.

For example, "The AdvantageWest region has a huge number of energy-efficient homebuilders. It's second in the state," Crowley said, with 400 renewable energy and energy-efficiency firms. Buncombe County has more than half of these firms, with 213 industry participants.

It also shows the region could do better by pursuing Energy Star certification for more K-12 schools. All 12 of the AdvantageWest region's Energy Star certified schools are in Burke County, which Crowley said was surprising.

"You want to save money and keep budgets down," he said. "Schools are one of best places to do this -- you know when classes will be in session and when peak energy consumption will be. Some regions bought in, and some didn't."

Boost for clean energy

The report is a good stimulus for the state's clean energy industry, but it's just a start, said Dave Hollister, owner of Sundance Power Systems, a Weaverville company that provides solar, wind and hydroelectric power systems.

"It's nice to create a touchstone event to look at where have we gotten to, where are we at and what do we need to do to move things forward," said Hollister, who started Sundance with his wife in 1995. He said the report should underscore the need for state legislation and tax incentives for developing solar and other renewable energy sources.

"This is a risk-free, high-return industry that brings jobs and a lot of opportunities," Hollister said. "We have incredible resources here, coastal wind, great solar resources, a whole host of renewable resources that can work together to create a sustainable future for North Carolina."

"There is a clean energy company in every one of our counties," said Raker of AdvantageWest. "That shows the breadth of this industry. The market is growing by leaps and bounds. This report shows that it really is cost-competitive. It's got to be or people wouldn't be doing it."

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