BENT CREEK — It used to be fuel in Western North Carolina came in two basic flavors — regular and premium petroleum.
Now more drivers are pumping biodiesel, ethanol, propane or compressed natural gas into their tanks. Other motorists bypass the pumps altogether, plugging in their vehicles to recharge on electricity.
On Monday, the Asheville area was officially named the nation’s 85th Clean Cities Coalition by the U.S. Department of Energy, capping more than eight years of work promoting alternative fuels, cleaner cars and better air quality for the region.
In a signing ceremony at the N.C. Arboretum, elected officials, business and civic leaders marked the long road that led to the award.
Bill Eaker of Land-of-Sky Regional Council recalled that when the initiative started in 2004, the region had only about 100 alternative-fuel vehicles and a handful of motorists driving the Toyota Prius and other hybrid cars.
“Now fleets have 1,300 alternative-fuel vehicles, and there are over 1,700 gas electric vehicles registered by N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles,” Eaker said.
In 2011 alone, the program saved 500,000 gallons of petroleum locally and prevented an estimated 4,000 tons of greenhouses gases from escaping into the atmosphere over Western North Carolina.
As a Clean Cities Coalition, the Asheville area becomes eligible for more federal grants that, in turn, could encourage ever more cleaner vehicles on area roads and cleaner air for the five-county region of Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania.
The coalition will help the city of Asheville stake its claim as the greenest city in the Southeast, said Maggie Ullman, the city’s sustainability coordinator.
“Fuel and fleet are a huge part of the solution to reducing our carbon footprint, and the coalition offers a workable road map to get there. This means so much to Asheville,” she said.
Alternative fuel is a good fit for Asheville with its history of manufacturing as well offering protections for the natural environment with cleaner air and fewer greenhouse emissions linked to climate change. “Those high-elevation balds we have are really special. As we pursue alternative fuels, we are better able to protect those places,” Ullman said.
The program has already paid off in funding for the region. The coalition won $1 million in DOE funds to help Asheville and Hendersonville, Henderson County and Mission Health System buy 37 compressed natural gas vehicles. The money helped in expanding compressed natural gas fueling stations for Asheville and Henderson County, Eaker said.
Stan Cross saw the coalition designation as the next step to weaning WNC off dirty energy toward cleaner, more renewable power for cars.
“I love petroleum, but it’s day is done. We need to move past oil-based and even coal-based power all the way to more renewable energy,” said Cross of Brightfield Transportation Systems. Brightfield is promoting Electric Vehicle Tourism, offering electric rental cars for tourists to travel the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The coalition designation isn’t the end of the road, Cross said. “This is just the beginning. This is the starting line. Now we need to move forward.”