In Corvallis, a Community Takes Steps to Move Beyond Fossil Fuels

Nick Engelfried

"We need to develop community innovation to the point where it pushes the need for centralized power and carbon intensive resources out of the picture." - Nathan Jones

When talking about phasing out polluting fossil fuels from Oregon’s electricity grid, I’m asked one question more than any other: if we get rid of PGE’s Boardman Coal Plant, if we say no to imported liquefied natural gas, what’s going to power the grid instead? Will wind turbines and solar panels really be enough?

Certainly large-scale wind and solar farms should be part of Oregon’s clean energy future. But it’s true that the various renewable energy resources out there may never be able to do everything for us that fossil fuels do today. Does this mean we’re doomed to hardship as Oregon makes the switch to clean energy? Not at all. One neighborhood in Corvallis is already showing what the future may look like: it involves getting together with your neighbors to collaboratively address a community’s shared concerns about energy.

During an eight-week Summer of Solutions program this year in Corvallis, over 200 residents of the Job’s Addition neighborhood committed to take more than 600 actions that reduce fossil fuel dependence. Participants in a “Community Carbon Challenge” chose three specific actions, which could range from installing home solar panels to leaving the lid on the hot water kettle so as to conserve energy. Each action was designed to reduce the use of fossil fuels like coal and oil, and decrease the community’s dependence on large, centralized power plants.

The carbon challenge was developed by the Corvallis Community Energy Project, which is engaged in ongoing sustainability efforts in Corvallis. For Summer of Solutions, the project partnered with the Northwest Institute for Community Energy (NICE) to bring in a team of college student volunteers who spent time knocking on doors and organizing community get-togethers that engaged Job’s Addition residents in the challenge.

According to NICE founder Nathan Jones, whom I spoke with recently about the summer, the first step for volunteers was to knock on doors in the neighborhood and invite each household to participate. Those who agreed (about 40%) were asked three questions: What’s your interest in energy and carbon? What have you done to reduce your carbon footprint? And what prevents you from taking further action? They were then invited to take additional steps to reduce fossil fuel use. By summer’s end volunteers had organized five neighborhood teams to continue similar work in the community.

I fully expect some Internet genius to write in and observe that covering the hot water kettle won’t single-handedly stop global warming. This is true, and completely misses the point of the carbon challenge. Talking to Jones, who sees Summer of Solutions in Corvallis as a first step to establishing similar initiatives across the Northwest, I realized this is about more than shaving kilowatts. It’s about giving communities tools and information to reduce their carbon footprint in a concerted manner. By harnessing the power of community—a concept that transcends political divides—Summer of Solutions inspired people to take steps they might not have considered otherwise.

The eventual goal, Jones says, is for communities to begin generating their own electricity, and one day break away from dependence on large power plants. “We need to develop community innovation to the point where it pushes the need for centralized power and carbon intensive resources out of the picture,” said Jones when I talked to him. “It’s time to start imagining cities as energy producers, not just consumers.”

Sure it’s starting small, with a community carbon challenge in one Corvallis neighborhood. But over the next three summers Jones hopes to run Summer of Solutions projects in three Corvallis neighborhoods per year. Meanwhile Portland, Seattle, and other Northwest cities are ripe for projects of their own.

The science of climate change makes it clear global warming will wreak economic havoc on our region, and meanwhile clean energy and efficiency projects promise to bring hundreds more green jobs to our region. So if you’re really worried about how the Northwest will get along without dirty coal or liquefied natural gas, I have a proposition: knock on some doors on your street, and invite your neighbors to a community-building carbon challenge. Who knows, it might be fun.

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    This is great journalism Nick. You provide the critical other half of initiatives like Solutions in Corvallis- disciplined and thoughtful reporting on how they're approaching it, who is getting involved and why it's worthwhile. Awesome.

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