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Oberlin, Ohio Joins the Ground Game of Carbon Neutrality

Posted in Alternative Fuels, Green Building, Renewable Energy, Sustainable Business

I was asked last week to refer someone to a consultant who could help them evaluate a business selling carbon credits and renewable energy credits. While I could suggest a consultant to do that, I had to note that selling carbon credits just isn’t the same business as it would have been if the United States or the Western Climate Initiative states and Canadian provinces had ended up with a cap-and-trade program. But they didn’t – and they most likely aren’t going to in this decade.

But I also was talking last week with a friend of my daughter’s from her days at the EPA in San Francisco. The friend had just moved to Oberlin, Ohio, where she is hoping to work for the Oberlin Project, sponsored by Oberlin College and the City of Oberlin, with funding from the Clinton Foundation. The Oberlin Project seeks to transform 3,060 acres in and around the small city of Oberlin, Ohio (population 8,600) so that it puts more energy back onto the grid than it takes off the grid. Lots of individual development projects now set out to be, and some are, carbon neutral. But this is one of the first times than an entire community has set the goal of becoming carbon neutral.

What it drove home to me is that in a political climate where decision-makers can barely come to consensus on whether the United States should pay its bills, we will not be seeing grand measures to address climate change. But that does not mean that nothing will happen. The states have long been incubators of democracy – trying things that only later spread to national policy. Failing at some of the things they tried, but moving on and learning from the experience. Who knows what success Oberlin will have? But that is not the point. It will be experimenting in what is, and is not, possible. And as experiments of that nature pop up here and there, we will be learning how to develop and use the tools that will be essential when the political will returns to address climate change on a broader scale.

The strategies of the Oberlin project include minimizing energy use through building design, form and orientation (the basic LEED formulas, applied across the city), combined with energy production strategies including photovoltaic panels, geothermal, biogas from site-based waste, and the use of landfill gas or biomass for central heating and energy production. To reduce the carbon footprint of the city’s food chain they hope to create a green belt around the city to provide local foods. Of course this is in the heart of the rust belt, with brutal winters and summers. So getting to carbon neutral won’t be easy, may not happen, and won’t happen in a hurry.

But in a world where there will be no long-ball passes for a while, you have to wish them well. The local newspaper’s articles about the Oberlin Project included all of the expected critics and cynics. The critics and cynics may even turn out to be right. But the ground game of climate neutrality continues.