Solar-driven future

We’re living in a time when concerns about energy security, climate change and global economic stability occupy our national discourse. We argue about where to drill, how to mine, how to fix the economy, what to do about a warming climate. Meanwhile, we realize the perils and costs of fossil-fuel extraction abroad and at home. We hold our breath as tar sands and hydraulic-fracturing exploration run rampant. We quietly wonder if all this wacky weather is the new normal. Perhaps we are beginning to perceive the complex interconnections that bind humanity’s fate with the health and vitality of earth’s ecological systems.

Electric vehicles have a chance to provide us an alternative we need. The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act poured billions of dollars into battery, vehicle and charging-station research, development and deployment. President Obama has pledged to put one million electric vehicles, or EVs, on America’s roads by 2015. Car manufacturers are coming out with diverse EV models ranging from sports cars to delivery vans. No doubt, widespread EV deployment will dramatically reduce petroleum dependence, create jobs and stimulate economic growth. But if EV charging demand leads to more coal, natural gas and nuclear energy production, then we’ve got ourselves a “two steps forward, one step back” scenario.

Here in WNC, we’ve begun to see EVs hit the road. In 2012, approximately 100 EVs were sold in the five-county Asheville metro area, with 2,000 forecasted to be on the region’s roads by 2015. Currently, there are approximately 20 EV charging locations in the metro area. Most of the stations are publicly accessible; all were funded entirely or partially by either EV-charger manufacturers, Progress Energy, Advanced Energy or the N.C. Green Business Fund.

Public locations of charging stations include Asheville City Public Works, Land of Sky Regional Council of Governments, UNCA Reuter Center, Asheville Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center, Biltmore Park Hilton, towns of Black Mountain, Montreat and Hendersonville, Ingles Market in Skyland, Buncombe County’s College Street Parking Deck, Cherokee Welcome Center and Haywood and Blue Ridge community colleges. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center shows the location of these and other stations nationwide (

Four of our local EV-charging locations are owned and operated by Asheville-owned Brightfield Transportation Solutions. Brightfield stations are solar integrated, producing grid-tied solar fuel on the stations’ solar PV canopies whenever the sun shines while delivering customers grid-connected EV charging 24/7. Brightfield monitors and ensures that more solar capacity is placed on the grid than charging demand consumes. In addition, all Brightfield stations were designed and manufactured in Asheville with American-made components.

Brightfield TS began through a grant from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act through the N.C. Commerce Department’s N.C. Green Business Fund. Through public/private partnerships with the city of Asheville, Buncombe County and UNCA, three of the Brightfield stations are installed on public property. The project as a whole was supported by many community stakeholders including Land of Sky Regional Council of Governments, AdvantageWest, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, Asheville City Council, federal and state legislators and Green Opportunities.

EV-infrastructure companies like Brightfield TS see the opportunity to leverage EV deployment as a new market opportunity for solar energy production. It takes approximately 2 kilowatt-hours of solar capacity to drive an EV such as the Nissan Leaf 12,000 miles annually (depending on how you drive). To put it another way, WNC needs 4 megawatts of new solar capacity by 2015 to fuel the 2000 EVs forecasted.

As of 2011, North Carolina ranked eighth in the nation for cumulative installed solar photovoltaic capacity, with 1,142 solar PV systems totaling more than 128 megawatts of capacity registered with the North Carolina Utilities Commission. What if North Carolina legislators committed to supporting increased solar-power generation to fuel the state’s emerging EV fleet instead of building new coal, natural gas or nuclear facilities? How many new jobs would be created if we became the nation’s first solar-driven state? How many exported fuel dollars could be retained to reinvest in local and renewable energy generation?

Western North Carolina is the perfect place to test this vision: There is abundant sunshine; the region is energy insecure, having to import all the fossil fuels we burn at a cost of more than $3 billion annually; and we suffer from poor air quality and diminished human health when we burn fossil fuels under our persistent mountain-inversion weather pattern.

On a consumer level, EVs currently command a high sticker price, but long-term ownership costs are a fraction of what we’re all used to. For example, at $4 a gallon with fuel economy of 30 miles per gallon, an internal combustion engine costs the driver about 13 cents a mile to drive. At 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, an EV will cost 3 cents per mile to drive. Add to that the fact that EVs have next to no maintenance costs, thanks to the simplicity of the high-efficiency electric engine — it has one moving part, the motor, whereas the gasoline-powered vehicle has hundreds of moving parts — and you wind up with EVs more than paying back their upfront investment premium over the 10-year/100,000-mile warrantee period.

Regional economic development efforts such as Gro-WNC and EvolveEnergy Partnership, and the work of the flurry of renewable-energy and alternative-transportation entrepreneurs and businesses in the region, are setting the stage for WNC to be one of the nation’s green-economy leaders. EV infrastructure deployment and vehicle ownership, as well as renewable-energy production, are key parts of the region’s economic future.

By investing in a solar-driven future, we’ll build a more resilient and desirable WNC by strengthening the region’s energy security, increasing manufacturing and job growth, and significantly improving environmental and human health.

Stan Cross is co-founder of Brightfield Transportation Solutions. He also serves as Education Director of Warren Wilson College’s Environmental Leadership Center. He’s been recognized as the 2007 North Carolina Environmental Educator of the Year and received the 2010 North Carolina Coastal Federation’s Pelican Award for Outstanding Partnership.