Powering Up for Powering Down, City by City

Twenty-first century quandary: I think long and hard about driving an hour and a half north, guzzling fossil fuels, to learn about the Powerdown Project. Led by peak oil expert Richard Heinberg and project coordinator Ellen Bicheler from the Post-Carbon Institute, the project consists of an in-depth internship for four New College of California students. Wesley Caddell, Amber Mamakos, Hank Flannery, and Amanda Greene are presenting their findings at Oceansong, an idyllic retreat near the Sonoma County coast. The project has gone far beyond a few-hour-a-week class commitment: it has become a life-study that demands high investments of time, energy, and motivation.

Richard Heinberg, a core faculty member at New College and an expert on peak oil and energy vulnerability, collaborated with Sebastopol Mayor Larry Robinson this fall. As prices for oil and gas shoot up and supply runs low, cash-strapped cities need to save energy now—so they are desperate for a plan for tomorrow. The Heinberg/Robinson partnership made sense: Heinberg wanted to give his students real-world experience in sustainable planning and Robinson wanted ideas. The Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan, compiled by Rob Hopkins and students in Ireland influenced Heinberg, and he outlined a similar project to students at the beginning of the school year.

Sebastopol presented an ideal opportunity to create the first Powerdown template, because far-seeing Robinson had already formed a Citizen’s Advisory Group on Environmental Vulnerability to advise the City Council about how the city could safeguard public safety, maintain public facilities, supply basic services, and regulate land use, even in the event of energy interruptions and huge price increases. An ambitious solar Sebastopol program is also in the works, with a goal of meeting a third of the city’s energy demands within the next year by producing electricity on the city’s rooftops. In addition to being longtime friends with Heinberg, Robinson has done reading and research on his own that has contributed to Sebastopol’s goal of heading in a “sustainable direction.”

Under the shade of a large oak, surrounded by gardens of food crops and flowers, a group of New College alums listen to a quick outline of the project. The students divided city services and then researched their assigned departments in depth to estimate how each service will be affected by higher gas prices or lowered energy availability. The research will provide a framework to develop short- and long-term response. Wesley Caddell, who was involved with biodiesel production and distribution before his Powerdown work, is researching transportation and solid waste. He admits to running around the house at night now, unplugging all the appliances. Transportation dovetails quite nicely with his thesis on biofuels and algae. Caddell is studying the feasibility of biofuel for city vehicles and how costly it might be to create extensive and usable public transportation. Admitting to having a knack for, and love of research, he is busy laying the groundwork to deal with these issues.

Meanwhile Amanda Green has found in her focus on water and wastewater that 80 plants are using algae to treat wastewater. Greene uses the term “systems thinking,” linking her findings with Caddell’s. Her very slight accent hints of a foreign upbringing, and she voices appreciation for the perspective on community that she gained growing up in Brazil.

The quote she reads from the Kinsale proposal silences the audience: “If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood—teach them to long for the immensity of the ocean.” This is a fine way to think about weaning the oil-dependent public.

Hank Flannery returned to school, even while holding down a full-time job with a medical technology company. Fittingly, he is researching fire and emergency services. He discovered that many people who deal with fire and emergency in Sebastopol live in Mendocino and Lake counties and will have trouble with the long commute should the price of gas climb significantly. This is leading Flannery to address Sebastopol’s prohibitive housing costs.

Amber Mamakos is focusing on food security, which fits nicely with her background in nutrition and agriculture. Do enough farmland and resources exist to grow a majority of what’s needed to feed Sebastopol’s population? Where does the city get its food now? Can Sebastopol funnel money to local producers to increase its chances of finding a positive answer to the first question?

We break into two groups, with Heinberg the scribe for ours. We sit on folding chairs in a circle and shout out ideas for a post-carbon world: Complementary currencies&community-supported hitchhiking&rooftop gardens&work from home& methane harvesting&. The ideas come fast and furious, and this last suggestion generates good-natured laughs and the question, “What are we going to do, fasten bags on pigs’ butts?”

Why not hook up those gym exercise machines to storage batteries and inverters and let that energy be put to use? Tax fossil fuels for free public transit& gray water systems&car-free zones&the list grows. This is, after all, a gathering of well-educated people aware of our energy vulnerabilities. How, I wonder, do we get the message out to people who long to leave public transportation for the ease of a personal car? Or the people who drive Hummers as their kids sit in the back seat watching TV?

Getting the message beyond a small sector of society is vital, and that is why Powerdown is so unique and vital. Targeting cities is one way to reach the greater public while changing city programs from the inside out. The infrastructure of society needs to be rearranged with energy vulnerability in mind. Flannery tells me that the people who work for the city are at varying stages of receptiveness. When the Powerdown folks meet with city leaders they are faced with an educational task before they can begin to extract the information they need in order to give back useful advice in return. Educating will remain one of the foremost responsibilities to initiate change. Yet decreasing energy use is not a hard pill to swallow; cities are always interested in cutting costs, and though some energy plans, such as solar, require an initial output, long-term plans are cost- as well as energy-saving.

“There are so many factors that we are not even aware of,” Robinson cautions. “Nobody really knows an easy systematic way to figure out all the effects of rising energy prices.” Consider, for instance, the precise costs and energy required for a specific piece of machinery. Where does it come from, how is it repaired, where do its parts come from, what else does it need to continue working∧ can it and its parts continue to be manufactured and at what cost?

Contemplating a post-carbon world is overwhelming. Of the 15 who began the project, 11 dropped out. I asked the four remaining what kept them motivated. “Sometimes I spread myself too thin to be really part of something,” says Mamakos, “but it feels amazing to be part of a solution with this.”

And luckily there is much activity in Northern California surrounding peak oil preparation. Sonoma has become the first county in the nation to have all of its municipalities pledge to reduce greenhouse gases, which Robinson notes is pretty much one and the same with reducing dependency on fossil fuels. Just this past month, for perhaps the first time in history, Sonoma, Marin, Mendocino, and Napa county officials gathered to learn about energy vulnerability at a summit arranged exclusively for them. The interest in signing on to the next Powerdown template was high. The next summit, in September, will be open to the general public in addition to city officials.

Says Greene, “It is our role and responsibility to help our government out, and that role and responsibility is to be vocal and take action.” The adoption of an energy vulnerability plan by a city will pave the way for other cities and lead to some noise in our federal government about these issues. Heinberg intends to continue offering the project to students, using a different city each time, so that finally every city in the greater Bay Area may have a template for change.

The Powerdown Project (www.powerdownproject.org) will release its first general template, called Citizen’s Toolbox, in mid-August. Residents can use the template to bring energy vulnerability to the top of crowded city council agendas, instigate Peak Oil resolutions, or create ad-hoc advisory committees such as the one in Sebastopol. Through consultations with officials and community leaders, the students are also completing a Municipal Template, available in mid-September, to identify energy vulnerabilities and provide short- and long-term solutions. The project will provide interns to Bay Area communities in January 2007.

As the ideas proposed in the discussion group float around my mind, I stare at the highway unfolding in front of me, surrounded by other single drivers, oblivious or oppressed by our energy future. I vow to return to biking as my city transportation and to water my garden, where I’m trying to coax some food from the earth.

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