Five years ago, the residents of Oberlin, Ohio, had a raw deal on the table. The town, located about thirty-five miles west of Cleveland, had to decide whether to commit to forty years of coal-fired electricity. If it said yes, it would pour millions of dollars into decades of coal with no viable exit strategy. If it said no, there would be serious concerns about electric rates on the open market. Predictably, environmentalists disliked dirty coal, while low-income families liked affordable power, but the debate was further complicated by Oberlin’s racially and economically diverse landscape. Leaders of the low-income community often represented minority groups; environmental advocates were mostly middle-class white people.
This dilemma is all too familiar across America. Can we afford clean energy in rough economic times? Does anyone have a real alternative to coal? What, if anything, can we do to put people to work and keep families in their homes? As I learned how the town of Oberlin approached these tough questions, I was inspired not only by its commitment to post-carbon prosperity, but also by its genuine concern for neighbors.
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Environmentalists pointed out serious flaws with the coal deal. They said it was bad policy to commit to a plant for forty years, during which lower rates might become available elsewhere. And by requiring the town to buy a set quantity of electricity, the plan killed any incentive to save electricity. Furthermore, the plant had not set restrictions on mining practices for the coal it would burn. Mountaintop removal coal from the Appalachian wilderness could crumble into the plant’s furnaces in Meigs County, a low-income zone in southern Ohio that has over twenty coal plants and zero hospitals.
But some Oberlin residents saw the deal as the only option. Low-income families had real problems paying utility bills, and it would be difficult to ask them to pay more for electricity on the premise that someone, somewhere, at some future time, would benefit from reduced carbon emissions. There was a perception that environmentalists didn’t know or didn’t care about the plight of the poor.
To help find common ground, Pastor David Hill called in key players for a meeting at Oberlin Community Services. If you’d stood at the door that day, you would have seen college faculty, local pastors from a variety of income groups, utility representatives and town residents trudging into yet another town meeting. You would have seen the tension in their shoulder blades as they braced themselves for yet another unpleasant exchange.
But this meeting was different. Guided by Pastor Hill’s calm presence and the relationships already formed among Oberlin’s faith communities, the meeting featured honest dialogue and deep listening. Environmentalists wanted clean air and water. Low-income families wanted affordable electricity. Business owners wanted predictable bills, and the locally owned utility company, Oberlin Municipal Light and Power (OMLPS), wanted a steady income stream and public support. Nevertheless, they were all committed to crossing the lines drawn in the sand to work towards a common solution.That first meeting did not end with an exciting initiative to announce on the local news channel. It ended instead with a commitment to keep talking and to keep listening. According to Oberlin College professor Cindy Frantz, “These problems require unbelievable amounts of time spent in dialogue, driven by leadership. Over-night victories are rare, and if they happen, they usually don’t last.”
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After several more meetings, persistent leadership from Cindy Frantz and broad support from Oberlin residents and OMLPS, POWER was born. The acronym stands for Providing Oberlin with Efficiency Responsibly, and its motto says it all: “For our community . . . for our world.” The group says it has found a “triple win” model. First, it employs local construction workers and reduces Oberlin’s energy use. Second, it lowers utility bills, so families have more money to spend at local businesses. Third, it reduces emissions, improving local air quality and reducing climate pollution. It benefits people, planet and pocketbook.
In just 2.5 years, POWER has renovated twenty-five homes, and it plans to expand. The group found that attic insulation, efficient lighting, furnace maintenance, low-flow shower heads and plugged air leaks can reduce carbon emissions at the price of $20 per ton. For those seeking to offset carbon emissions, POWER provides a local benefit with monitored, reported and verifiable climate results.
Though these numbers are auspicious, the group has also had to learn tough lessons. Organizers expected carbon offsets to be the primary source of income, but at this point, the model relies on donations to stay solvent.
Organizers also learned that environmental solutions are about people. It’s easy to get excited about low-flow shower heads, but some of the biggest barriers to environmental action are actually psychological. “Many foundations want results they can see and touch,” Frantz told me, “but we really need to invest money in people talking to people in constructive ways. It’s all about the people. We need to inspire, motivate and empower. And the best way to do that is in conversation with other people.”A thicket of obstacles stands between the average home and energy efficiency. Already busy homeowners need to schedule appointments, buy materials, fill out forms, decide which recommendations to follow and which contractors to trust. And when families lack the money to cover these upfront costs, they’re less likely to take action, even though low-income homes usually have the most to gain from basic improvements.
To help homeowners like these, POWER is poised to hire an energy advocate to ease the process. This person will provide basic gear like faucet aerators, efficient lights and low-flow shower heads. The advocate will also help homeowners develop an overall strategy and complete the rebate forms. “Even though it might seem like a waste of time and money to hire a person to grease the gears,” Frantz says, “it’s totally worth it. We have families that would have lost their homes without this program.”
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For Frantz and other community leaders, this work has become a spiritual practice. They’ve found a concrete way to “love thy neighbor (and thy planet) as thyself,” and thanks to their leadership and the hard work of other citizens, Oberlin has found a common-ground energy intervention. “I thought financially I could not keep my home because the gas bills were so high,” says the owner of a recently insulated home in Oberlin. “My latest gas bill was . . . less than half of what I was paying before, and I have been able to keep my home.”
The town rejected the coal plant’s offer for economic reasons (the deck was stacked in favor of corporations that mine and burn coal), but the dialogue that the offer had sparked continued. The conversation endured the weight of economic and cultural disparity to address an older, wider set of concerns regarding human dignity and well-being. That conversation has been successful to the extent that the people have helped to identify and pursue common interests.