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The Future's So Bright... 

Energy & Environment Expo draws a big, diverse crowd

The sky was so blue Saturday, it made you forget about all those days when you can't see the mountains because of the smog. In other words, it was a perfect day for the crowd of environmentally friendly people who came to the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center near Hendersonville for the Southern Energy & Environment Expo (SEE).

Sponsored by the Western North Carolina Alliance, an organization whose umbrella groups work to protect air and water quality, forests, and ecosystems in the North Carolina mountains, the three-day Expo was modeled after the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair, with one exception. Rather than focus solely on renewable energy, SEE's organizers also included environmental advocacy groups. According to Ned Doyle, a member of the Alliance and one of the Expo's main organizers, a marriage of alternative energy and environmental concerns is a natural.

"Environmental action includes sustainable energy and economic development," says Doyle, a tall man with long gray hair, a long beard to match, and a very deep voice. Imagine one part Barry White and one part hippie and you've got Doyle. "It's not just energy, and it's not just the environment," he said.

Forty-six businesses and organizations set up shop at SEE, ranging from the expected to those that stretched the imagination.

Jim Tonseth's business, We Recycle Tires, probably falls into the latter category. Tonseth invents, manufactures and sells products made from recycled racing tires. The Salsbury resident has been doing this for 15 years, and operates out of a warehouse full of 60,000 tires, all waiting to be transformed.

"Fifteen years or so ago I was at a Festival watching a guy make doormats from old tires, and I thought, 'Wow! He's making something useful out of garbage.'" Tonseth says. "And now I'm doing it."

Tonseth, a small, intense man wearing a heavy apron, stood beside a wooden rack impaled with several vertical metal rods where he made doormats for appreciative onlookers. In addition to the doormats, Tonseth also makes compost cookers, sleds, swings, dart boards, key chains -- anything he thinks people might want -- from retired racing tires. Business was booming at Tonseth's booth, and he said he was surprised by what people wanted.

"We expected that the rubber fencing would be the big item -- it often is at festivals," he explained, adding that the fencing lasts 20-25 years and requires no maintenance. "Surprisingly, (people were most interested) in this," he said, pointing to a compost container made from three tires piled on top of each other and a cover fashioned from the sawed-off side of a tire. "And the racing tire toboggans (sleds)!" he stopped, laughing. "I brought 19 or 20 with me, and I've sold almost all of them," he said.

Another exhibitor devoted to recycling is the Carolina Recycling Association, a Raleigh-based group "made up of individuals, municipalities, and industry," said Noel Lyons, a CRA board member and president of McGill Environmental Systems in Wilmington. "We're out to promote recycling through all legal means -- education, legislation," said Lyons. CRA's goal for the Expo, said Lyons, was "to make people aware of us and use us as a resource."

The lure of recycling drew at least one couple to the Expo. Tim and Jody, who didn't want to give their last name, came from Ware Shoals, SC, in part because Jody "love[s] the idea of recycling anything and everything," she said. "I also said if there's ever an expo on Alternate Energy nearby, I want to go, and here it is," she continued.

It's not a huge leap from composting to recycling to alternate energy sources. Sources such as solar, wind, water, and landfill gasses (produced by the decomposition of organic materials in landfills) basically either recycle a substance (such as garbage) or make use of naturally occurring substances, such as sunlight, wind, and H2O. Despite some naysayers' arguments, alternate energy sources do work, and they're available from a number of manufacturers right now. The problem is that these alternate energy sources are often expensive on the front end. Many of those who choose to invest in alternate energy do it because they live in remote areas, they care about the environment -- and sometimes to spite Big Brother.

"When I built my house, the utility company wanted to cut a 40-foot swath of woods to put in an electric line, and I didn't want that," said June Engman, a short-haired, middle-aged woman from Yancey County. "I'd always been interested in conservation, but I hadn't considered solar until then," she said, smiling. To save the trees, Engman installed solar panels and says she would do it again. "Every time people turn on a light, some power plant is burning coal," she said. Meanwhile, Engman, whose appearance suggests someone who works in a corporate office, "is totally off the (energy) grid, and [hasn't] paid an electric bill in 20 years."

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