Appalachian Offsets Looks Forward: Supporting Nonprofits with Solar, Reducing Community Carbon
By Leigha Dickens
Last fall, I attended the switch-flipping ceremony for the new solar array at Isaac Dickson Elementary School funded by Green Built Alliance’s Appalachian Offsets program.
Consisting of 300 kilowatts of solar photovoltaic panels, the project was six years in the making, and is estimated to save the school more than $30,000 a year in energy bills–money that can be put back into school programming.
Attending the official switch-flipping ceremony brought many things full circle for me. As a former board member and now brand new staff member of the Green Built Alliance, I was happy to see our Appalachian Offsets program make this possible. Yet the event had personal significance, as my husband had attended Issac Dickson as a child, and I was able to bring our toddler to see the switch flipping at the same school his father attended.
Back when I was in elementary school, I was once given an assignment to design ways to improve our school. Budding environmentalist that I was, I drew a school covered with skylights and solar panels. I remember feeling a little chagrined when the teacher said that was neat, but probably impractically expensive — yet here, I got to see that idea realized on a real elementary school.
What is Appalachian Offsets?
Appalachian Offsets is a community-based carbon-offsetting program: individuals or businesses can use the tools on our website at cutmycarbon.org to calculate the environmental impact, in terms of tons of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, of various activities.
They can then purchase offsets to counteract those emissions, and those offsets provide funding to local energy efficiency or solar projects that can deliver these emissions reductions. The Appalachian Offsets program has been part of our community since 2005, and it has funded numerous other solar energy or energy efficiency improvements for nonprofits, schools, churches, or low-income housing communities in Western North Carolina.
Nationally, as well as internationally, offset markets are growing as a way for individual and corporate citizens to make contributions to fighting climate change.
In 2022, the Appalachian Offsets program has been busy. In June, we completed the install of an 8.6KW solar array at St. Paul’s Missionary Baptist Church in the historic Burton Street community.
As we look forward to our next project, designs and fundraising for a solar array on the United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County building downtown are now underway.
A Growing Niche for Business Sustainability
Seeing these projects complete comes full circle for me in another way as well, as the former sustainability manager for local company Deltec Homes.
In that role, I was tasked with reducing the environmental impact of our company. We chose to diversify how we went about reducing our carbon footprint through various measures; energy upgrades to our building, producing renewable energy ourselves, but also through offsetting the yearly shipping miles associated with selling our product to customers through Appalachian Offsets.
The local reach of the Appalachian Offsets program was appealing to us, and being able to focus on one chunk of our impact at a time (mileage from shipping) was also an appealing way to tell a story and make a real difference.
The lesson: you don’t have to offset 100 percent of your carbon to do something meaningful.
Offsetting mileage in particular may be a growing trend among local businesses.
Those driving around Asheville these days may start to notice some iconic vehicles, such as the LaZoom Tours purple buses and Wicked Weed delivery vehicles, with the Appalachian Offsets logo proudly declaring that those vehicles emissions had been offset.
In 2022, Wicked Weed chose to offset the mileage for three of their around-town vehicles, while LaZoom Tours has offset the mileage of their bus tours for 2021 and 2022, earning each the right to display our new vehicle emissions offset sticker.
What’s in an Offset
Some people might ask, wait a minute, isn’t an offset just a way to pay to keep polluting as usual? Surely, we can’t all just offset our way out of the climate challenges we face?
I would argue that the answer is not “either, or” but “yes, and.”
Offsetting is one tool, a free-market mechanism to deliver energy savings and renewable energy to our community at large as quickly as possible. While no, it isn’t sustainable in the long run for a company or individual to eliminate their entire carbon footprint forever through offsets alone, nor is it technologically or economically feasible for most of us to live in this society and totally eliminate our carbon footprint instantly, either.
We still use energy for business, personal matters, food, and transportation. We should take every step to reduce the impact of that energy through all means: investment in energy efficiency or renewable energy where feasible, policies (whether personal or organizational) to facilitate more conscious consumption, advocating for greener sources of fuel for the electric and transportation systems we depend upon, and also giving back to the community where and when we can.
Think of an Appalachian Offset as less like an “indulgence” and more like a charitable contribution to your community to fund the change you want to see in the world. Plus, using the web tool to calculate your carbon footprint can help you discover the most impactful places where you can make a difference in reducing your energy use on the front end.
Appalachian Offsets is not just for businesses. Individuals can contribute as well.
Last year, I decided to use it to calculate and offset my family’s carbon footprint as well, and I know several fellow Green Built Alliance board members and other community members did as well.
Even calculating your carbon footprint can help you see a useful way to get a picture of the impact of what you do, and the impact of any potential reductions you may be motivated to make.
Leigha Dickens is the green building program manager for Green Built Alliance. She was formerly the sustainability manager at Deltec Homes, where she worked for more than 11 years to help clients build greener homes and increase Deltec’s corporate sustainability. Connect with Leigha at Leigha@greenbuilt.org.
You can also view this article as it was originally published on page 46 of the 2022-23 edition of the directory.