The Best Investment: How Do We Leverage Limited Resources to Achieve Full Spectrum Sustainability?


Chris Canning
A child at Prospect Elementary School with an Oberlin college student envisioning a sustainable future.

What is the Oberlin Project on the ground? Today, it is trying to finish this article before grabbing a beer at Oberlin’s local bar to brainstorm the long-term business plan for energy efficiency. Two months ago, it was hanging out at the Produce Auction, in the nearby town of] Homerville, watching wholesale produce buyers war over pallets of peaches and Amish youths race around on manual pallet jacks. In December 2012, it was a tense exchange with City Sustainability Manager Doug McMillan at 8:00 Sunday morning about how we were ever going to finish the Climate Action Plan.

Our charge as Oberlin Project staff is to identify the leverage points (see David Orr’s article, this issue) in the small college town of Oberlin, Ohio that will shift us from business as usual to a future that is environmentally resilient, socially just, and economically self-sustaining.

Where is Oberlin again?

And why start there? Oberlin is in many ways a model community for a trial in full spectrum sustainability. Oberlin’s 8,286 residents are demographically similar to communities across the United States (Figure 1). In 2007, 76 percent of Oberlin’s electricity was supplied by coal-fired power plants,1 just slightly better than Ohio’s 86 percent coal-fired electrical generation.2 In Oberlin, people raise families, argue about politics, and host backyard barbeques just like anywhere else.

In the past two decades, the City of Oberlin and Oberlin College have defined themselves as leaders in sustainability. Both City and College have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions below zero, meaning Oberlin will be a carbon sink and have a net positive impact on the climate. Both have written climate action plans, adopted green building policies, and created sustainability manager positions.

Progress has been palpable. Oberlin Municipal Light and Power System has signed contracts to supply Oberlin with approximately 90 percent carbon neutral electricity by 2015, which will cut community-wide emissions by half (Figure 2). Oberlin College’s internationally acclaimed Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, built in 1999 before LEED ratings, has attracted over 600 visitors per year, only counting those who just came to see the building. Providing Oberlin With Efficiency Responsibly (POWER), a non-profit environmental justice organization formed by Oberlin citizens in 2008, has insulated and air sealed one percent of the housing stock in Oberlin in just over two years.

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Stacy Harrison
Oberlin is racially and socioeconomically similar to many communities across the United States.

So if the City, College, and Oberlin citizens are already making progress, why did the Oberlin Project come about?

Progress toward sustainability can often be traced to specific decisions. In 2008, Oberlin City Council—by a 4–3 margin—opted out of a coal-fired power plant that would have locked Oberlin ratepayers into 50 years of carbon-intensive electricity. Leading up to the final decision, business owners testified to council both in favor and in opposition, Oberlin College students canvassed door to door, Oberlin residents circulated a petition, a Meigs County resident presented a jar of polluted water that looked like sludge, and representatives from environmental groups and the wholesale power joint action agency commuted from Columbus to give differing opinions. Ultimately, it came down to one crucial factor: it was an election year. Four candidates ran on an anti-coal platform, Oberlin citizens elected them, and in February fol lowing the election they voted down the coal plant. The 2007 Oberlin City Council election is an example of a leverage point—a place where voters made a decision that had cascading impacts on Oberlin’s future as a leader in the fight against climate change.

Oberlin will halve its emissions by changing its electricity portfolio, but the remaining 50 percent will be much
more difficult to reduce. Decentralized decision-makers will need to change their driving habits, heat their homes with some other fuel than natural gas, or to find a way to offset these emissions. Community leaders will need to identify as sustainability champions. Sustainability will need to emerge as the default setting for City Council and the College’s Board of Trustees, and they will need to collaborate toward this end.

The Oberlin Project was conceived as the catalytic agent to tackle these more difficult tasks by thinking at the systems level. With a staff of four starting in 2011, we were charged with identifying and triggering leverage points within a five-year period, the anticipated lifespan of our office. We had to determine what investment of time and money would best push us forward, and how Oberlin could become a model for other communities.

Years 1 and 2: Research, Discuss, Plan, and Pilot

The Oberlin Project initially focused on research, primarily conducted by outside experts. With goals spanning multiple sectors, the Project commissioned studies on policy, land and agriculture, and local foods. A Department of Energy grant funded a suite of local and regional energy studies, many of which were later integrated into the City’s Climate Action Plan.

For much of the first two years, it seemed that all we did as staff did was talk. At a meeting, after the meeting, on the phone, at the dinner table, at the coffee shop, at the bar, around a campfire, at all hours of the day and night. The Oberlin Project formed committees and brought together individuals who shared common interests, concerns, or specialties but who did not regularly interact due to lack of formal avenues of communication.

Unsurprisingly, many of these formal meetings spawned informal relationships and strategy sessions, which were equally or more important.

In all cases, we attempted to turn research and discussion into consensus-based plans and measurable pilot projects. For example, Oberlin Project staff played an important role in:

  • Drafting a committee-driven Climate Action Plan that, with City Council’s unanimous approval, adopted milestones for carbon emissions reductions, charted specific policies and strategies to reach these milestones, and institutionalized climate action planning and implementation within the City Government. The City is now formally committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions below zero by 2050.
  • Launching a central hub for residential energy efficiency work through POWER’s Energy Advocate program, a one-stop-shop for accessing programs and financial assistance to improve home heating and electric efficiency.
  • Doubling the size of the Oberlin Farmers Market, improving access for low income and senior residents, and institutionalizing the organization as a non-profit with a paid market manager.
  • Enhancing the Oberlin Environmental Dashboard (see Petersen’s article) by connecting with and collecting stories from community members representative of different demographics and perspectives within Oberlin and highlighting them as “Community Voices.”
  • Augmenting the International Baccalaureate curriculum within the K–12 Oberlin City School District by hiring Creative Change Education Solutions, an expert in integrating place-based sustainability and social justice concepts into lesson plans. With overwhelmingly positive feedback from K–12 teachers in year one, the local joint vocational school and community college have expressed interest in participating in year two.
  • Securing $86,100 from the State of Ohio’s Local Government Innovation Fund to study and coordinate fleet management and alternative fuels among nine major partners, including regional waste hauling company Republic Services.
  • Providing applied and service learning opportunities for over 35 student interns from Oberlin College, Lorain County Community College, and Oberlin High School, both enhancing their educational careers and training the next generation of leaders in sustainability.
  • Supporting the creation of a local carbon offset market, an effort spearheaded and funded by Oberlin College students that aims to reduce carbon emissions, enhance educational opportunities for students in project development and verification, and support pilot projects with significant co-benefits such as partnerships with local farmers to improve soil practices.

These early successes entailed investments of both capital and labor. In some cases, the Oberlin Project provided small amounts of seed funding, such as for Creative Change and POWER’s Energy Advocate Program. In others, the investment of staff time allowed us to leverage capital that will provide ongoing program funding. For example, farmers paid a fee to participate in the Oberlin Farmers Market that covered the cost of the market manager, and Oberlin College students passed a student referendum to guarantee funding for the local carbon offset market.

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Stacy Harrison
Oberlin is on track to have approximately 90% carbon neutral electricity by 2015. Left: Oberlin’s electricity portfolio in 2007. Right: Anticipated fuel resources for 2015 based on environmental attributes retained by the city.

What Did We Learn?

Catalyze, replicate, disappear: these are the core design concepts of the Oberlin Project. We are expected to work ourselves out of a job in five years, to launch projects that will be capable of sustaining themselves institutionally and financially, and to serve as a model for other communities. The following comprise the main lessons learned over the first two years:

Build Relationships and Invest Time in People

As noted in Frantz’s piece, success hinges on working with a broad and diverse group of people driven by the same core social motives. At the Oberlin Project, we initially focused on building and convening committees that crossed organizational, political, demographic, and socioeconomic boundaries. Relationship building was considered part of our essential job duties, and because we invested time in bringing people together, committee and community members felt engaged in the process and vision. As a result, we were asked to co-facilitate and assist in drafting the document that now serves as Oberlin’s climate positive roadmap—the City’s 2013 Climate Action Plan.

Anchor High and Adjust

Politics, planning, and governance involve compromise, but by anchoring high, the compromise will more likely be ambitious and proximate to the ideal case. A document outlining best practices is one example of an anchor. Another is the individual at the meeting who says, “why don’t we just outlaw automobiles in Oberlin?” While this is not feasible, it can allow sustainability planners to steer the conversation toward a more reasonable but still progressive plan. Anchors of both types guided the writing of the City’s Climate Action Plan.

Hold Yourself and Others Accountable: Commitments and Twosies

Commitments. People are naturally driven to be consistent with past choices and actions, and the same holds true of governance bodies that are managed by people. We constantly reminded City and College leaders of their commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and integrating sustainability into decision-making. This framed the conversation so that people were more likely to act, prioritize, and govern in consideration of the impacts on these goals. We also seized every opportunity to publicly praise progress toward these commitments, which increased both accountability and ownership.

Twosies. Community organizer and network-building expert June Holley gives the name “twosie” to a two-person collaboration and advocates for two as the perfect number to share the workload and remain flexible and responsive.3 We all work better when we have another person to give a second opinion, reinforce deadlines, and hold us accountable. A twosie collaboration between Oberlin Project staff and a community member, both of whom volunteered their time Saturday mornings from May through October, ensured the growth and success of the Oberlin Farmers Market.

Work Harder to Have a Greater Impact

In his seminal work on who rules in a small town and why, Aaron Wildavsky writes, “Leaders are activists. More precisely, they are the most active activists.”4 Wildavsky had conducted a series of case histories of major decisions in the 50s and 60s in Oberlin and observed that the individuals who had the greatest impact on the most decisions, Bill Long and Dick Dunn, tended to also be the ones who invested the most amount of time. We invested time out-side of work hours and formal meetings to discuss upcoming important council and college decisions, and we also spent a lot of time on evenings and weekends completing research, writing, and organizing. While hard work did not in and of itself ensure a successful outcome, the hard work of one member within a team often led to that person having a disproportionately higher impact on a collectively owned end result.

Accept Course Correction as an Essential Part of the Process

The most effective change-makers are able to recognize problems that will improve the programs they have championed. This takes humility and critical assessment. POWER realized after three years that its initial strategy for improving home efficiency was neither fast nor comprehensive enough, and that a changing funding atmosphere offered new opportunities. We worked with POWER to determine barriers to energy efficiency and concluded that passive education and financial incentives were not sufficient to stimulate mass uptake of efficiency work. It was neces- sary that someone’s job description include building trust, following up with program participants, and hold- ing contractors accountable for good work. As a result, POWER launched an Energy Advocate program supported by the City and the Oberlin Project as a one-stop-shop for energy efficiency.

POWER’s Energy Advocate acts as a caseworker for energy efficiency and combines a technical background in building performance with strong interpersonal and communication skills. Within the first nine months of launching the program, the Advocate has nearly quadrupled the number of homes engaged with POWER. Many of these homes are currently in the process of having work performed or have had work completed.

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Saad Talha
POWER Energy Advocate Greg Jones gives advice during a home energy walkthrough.

Conclusion—Is Oberlin a Model?

The success of the Oberlin Project hinges on the extent to which it can be replicated. Can the Oberlin Project serve as a model for communities that do not have the same access to funding? Local foundations paid for our staff, consultants, and pilot projects. We have then produced and disseminated research, action plans, and program designs for advancing sustainability in Oberlin, with the intent of reducing the amount of time and money other communities will have to invest in these activities. However, different places will require slightly different strategies. While the Oberlin Project’s outputs can potentially alleviate the financial burden for other communities, some amount of funding will always be important for launching pilot projects and leveraging additional capital.

People are the best investment. It is unrealistic to expect unpaid volunteers to accomplish the tasks necessary to catalyze a full-scale community transformation. Each Oberlin Project success story required one or more individuals whose essential job duties were building relationships, facilitating group decisions, and creating forward momentum.