Sunday, October 9, 2016

Community Solutions – Lifting people up while bringing fossil fuels down

A community solar array being installed on the roof of Shiloh Temple at the center of the African-American community in Minneapolis.  This will supply power to 40 families, helping them control their power bills.  This is an example of community climate solutions which rebuild the commons and empower communities while reducing fossil fuel use. 
Following is my talk given at the Faith and Climate Action Conference in Seattle Saturday, Oct. 8.

Your coming to this conference is an act of faith, hope and love, and this is exactly what we need facing climate disruption that has spiked to a new level.  As we gather, Hurricane Matthew has been ravaging the Caribbean and Southeast Coast.  The hotter seas and wetter atmosphere of global warming pumped Matthew up to be the longest running category 4 or 5 on record in the Caribbean, and the longest for October in the entire Atlantic basin.  Haiti is devastated, and hundreds or maybe more are dead, driving home the reality of climate injustice.  The people who have done the least to cause the problem are hit the hardest.  

The climate crisis is careening forward as never before.  This year has seen global temperature spiking one-third over the previous record, the second lowest Arctic sea ice ever observed, and extreme weather events around the world including  a plethora of 500- and 1,000-year floods, as well as killer heat waves and droughts affecting an estimated half-billion people. Most of those were in India, again, underscoring the reality of climate injustice. 

Never has it been more imperative to keep hope alive, especially in the face of a political environment that manifests two forms of denial.  One, the hard denial that there is a problem at all.  The other, a soft denial that acknowledges climate change but pushes it into the background, barely mentioning it at all.  It is clear that only an uprising of concerned and committed people will make a difference. 

The challenge for the climate movement over coming years is to present solutions that scale to this monumental crisis.  It will not be enough to be taking “steps in the right direction,” as climate solutions are often portrayed.  It will be imperative to draw a connection between those steps and outcomes that can credibly recover climate stability.  The crux of the issue, and this can hardly be emphasized enough, is that unless this pathway is clearly drawn and understood, people will turn their attentions away from climate to matters they believe lend themselves to solutions. 

In short, the greatest enemy the climate movement has to face is not the fossil fuel industry, but despair.  The movement needs to keep hope alive by developing a solutions path that illustrates the course from what can be practically achieved in the moment to what must be ultimately accomplished.  In making those connections, success in immediate steps should be a springboard to the larger accomplishments.  Immediate successes should be designed to change the story in people’s minds, which is the foundation of all real change.


This is the goal of the 350 Seattle’s Community Solutions Project. The effort is to identify immediate climate change solutions around which people can mobilize and build power, which at the same time also help create a hopeful story about larger, achievable solutions.  Community solutions are about fundamentally transforming how we generate and use energy, how we transport people and goods.  The effort is also about how we shape our communities in ways that promote social justice and climate recovery at the same time.  For example, one of the absolutely most crucial community climate solutions is affordable housing in areas well served by transit, and close to destinations such as work and schools.  In the spirit of climate justice, this is about more than technology change, though that is a vital element – This is about structural changes that deepen democracy and recover the commons, without which real climate recovery is unlikely. 

Community solutions for climate justice aim to build community power and resilience while reducing carbon pollution.  To lift people up while bringing fossil fuels down.  In doing so, community solutions address two of the greatest challenges confronting us today, climate disruption and the increasing wealth-and-power divide in society. 

The two are related.  The world has arrived in this place of climate turbulence, after decades of warnings and solid scientific research, because the political system has not responded in any way remotely proportional to the crisis.  This is because power in society is increasingly tipped toward concentrated corporate control and the interests of large shareholders.  Oxfam calculates that as of 2015 the world’s richest 1% own more than the other 99%, and the 62 richest people are worth more than the bottom 50%.  The share held by the top 1% has increased each year since 2010, after declining from 2001-2009, indicating that the response to the global financial crisis that began in 2008 has benefitted the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

A political system hobbled by the power of special interests, especially fossil fuel companies, has not adequately responded to accelerating climate disruption.  To address the climate crisis, we need to build people power.  And we can begin to do that here where we live.

This gets to what I call the climate action paradox. It is clear that the spike in climate disruption impacts that a massive national and global response on a World War II-scale is needed.  Groups such as The Climate Mobilization are working for this.  And a call for such a mobilization made it into the Democratic Party platform.  Yet action at the federal level is stalemated. The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to remain in Republican hands, perhaps until major demographic shifts in the 2020s.  The U.S. Senate may tip to the Democrats in 2016, but they face a very tough 2018 election map and are expected to lose seats.  A President Clinton will presumably create opportunities for executive action, though not to the scale required by the science and emerging impacts.  The other option, well, let’s not go there for the moment.  Arguably, until there is a sharp tipping in national politics, implementation of climate solutions at the federal level will not go much further.   

Meanwhile, the levers of power available to people are more at the local and state levels.  Even at the state level, a combination of recalcitrant Republicans and climate squishy Democrats offers only limited hopes.  The major opportunities for mobilization around climate solutions that truly scale to the crisis are, paradoxically, at the local level.  For those of us who face the stark reality of accelerating climate disruption, and understand the science calling for rapid carbon reductions, the situation can easily stir despair, and at least requires some leaps of faith. 

We know that purely local action cannot be sufficient to address the climate crisis.  But we also know significant carbon-reducing actions are possible at the local scale. From the standpoint of creating and validating replicable models to reduce carbon pollution, local action is hugely important.  In that sense, local work connects to larger possibilities in crucial ways.  The changes we must make to address climate require transformation of multiple systems and infrastructures – energy, transportation, housing, food, water – to name some of the more prominent.  Each of those takes expression at a local level.  This is where we as people connect with them in a real way, where the bicycle rubber meets the road.

When envisioning transformatory changes in the way we live, it is easiest to do this in terms of the places we live. In other words, when we try to wrap our heads around what kind of changes we would make in a national and global mobilization, we can start by imagining what it would look like here in our home places.  We need to build a local movement for transformatory change that works with similar movements across the country. We can push the needed national tipping point from the ground up with a local mobilization for community solutions.  This is where we can begin to create popular demand and political will.  The need is to develop and communicate a credible vision of transformation, beginning where we live. 

Let’s get down to some specifics. I am going to concentrate on two broad areas that mesh technology change with systems change.  The first is community energy resilience. The second is the transit-affordable housing connection.


A world run 100% on renewable energy is coming into sight.  Scenarios have been developed by a team led by Mark Jacobsen of Stanford University that propel the world to 100% renewables in all sectors by 2050, with 80-85% of the task completed by 2030.  The accelerating pace of climate disruption evidenced in the recent surge in temperatures and extreme weather events indicate such a rapid transition is required.  The opens the way for a dual win.  Not only can the move to renewables recover the climate – It can also lead to broad democratization of the energy system and widespread sharing of benefits to lower-income and people of color communities.    

“Wind and sun are available everywhere, so renewable energy can be economically harnessed at small scales across the country, state and community,” writes John Farrell of Institute for Local Self Reliance. “This nature of renewable energy, coupled with an exponential increase of renewable energy generation here and abroad promises to transform the structure and scale of the nation’s grid system.

“But the greater transformation is the democratization of the electric grid, abandoning a 20th century grid dominated by large, centralized utilities for a 21st century grid, a democratized network of independently-owned and widely dispersed renewable energy generators, with the economic benefits of electricity generation as widely dispersed as the ownership.”

In Seattle we won’t develop wind farms.  Solar is our best option.  The form of solar that promises greatest climate justice benefits is community solar.   The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) defines community solar “as a solar-electric system that provides power and/or financial benefit to multiple community members.” Community solar can be developed by utilities or private institutions, often in a nonprofit model. Community solar installations are larger than typical rooftop installations, and can range to megawatt scales capable of serving many homes.

Rooftop solar faces many limitations that count out low-income people and large segments of people of color communities, as well as many others.  NREL estimates that 49% or residences and 48% of businesses do not lend themselves to solar arrays.  Many buildings lack appropriate roof space.  Renters facing a multi-year payback period cannot invest in a system on a roof they do not own. Many homeowners also do not have the financial capacity to afford a system.  In addition, the long-term sites needed to justify solar installations may not be available in areas undergoing wholesale redevelopment of the building stock. 

Community solar overcomes these challenges in several ways.  It provides a common and secure site for mass solar installations.  It allows purchase of modest shares, often in the $100-$150 range, allowing people with limited financial wherewithal to own a piece, including renters.  Community solar owners typically receive credits on their power bills for the portion they own, an arrangement known as virtual net metering.

The first community-owned solar energy coop in Washington, and one of the first in the US, is the Edmonds Community Solar Cooperative.  This nonprofit model started in 2010 and in operation since 2011. The cooperative has 90 members who supported installation of a 23-kilowatt (kW) of solar array on the roof of the Frances Anderson Center in two phases in 2011 and 2012. Members bought in with a $1,000 “SunSlice” purchase that provides ownership of a 100-watt share of the array, and is expected to fully pay back fully by 2020.  The coop has built partnerships with the City of Edmonds, Sustainable Edmonds and solar companies

A number of models are emerging to create energy resilience for low-income people through community solar.

The Northeast Denver (CO) Housing Center provides a model that reduces power bills for low-income people while creating green jobs. The nonprofit housing provider has installed 48 kW of solar panels serving 30 affordable housing units in the Whittier Affordable Housing Project  “in order to reduce the electric bills of Denver’s most economically distressed families and provide electricity cost stability for 30 low-income residents,” NREL reports.  The units are scaled to 85% of average tenant annual electricity use, and in some cases cover 100%.  The effort included a solar installer job-training program for 15 residents.  The installing company was required to use five on the project.

Another model that helps families control power costs is Shiloh Temple in Minneapolis.  This year a 202-kilowatt community solar array was installed on this African-American community church.  Around 40 congregation families will earn credits from solar production that will reduce home power bills.  They had the option to buy in with a single up front payment for 25 years of credits, or monthly payments lower than their credits.   Around 70% chose the latter option.

Community solar is being used to help keep housing affordable. Gateway Elton is a project to develop 659 affordable housing units in New York City.  Common areas will be partially powered by over one million watts of solar.  The 214-kW array on the first phase is the largest on any residence in New York state.  With an estimated payback period of 5-6 years, and a lifetime of 25, the array will help preserve housing affordability. Developer Hudson Companies previously installed an 80.5-kW array at Dumont Green, another New York City affordable housing project.

Seattle City Light already operates five community solar installations.  One is on an affordable housing complex run by Capitol Hill Housing.  We need more community solar arrays here to build community energy resilience for families and the community as a whole.  Community solar plants on community anchor buildings such as community centers, schools, libraries, health facilities and churches, backed by storage, could create community resilience centers. People could charge devices during blackouts caused by weather and seismic events, including crucial medical devices.  These facilities could also act as cooling centers that will be more needed as the climate heats.   

We also need community solar in the city grid to make it more resilient. Seattle already has a substantially clean hydropower supply. But climate impacts will make hydropower less reliable. Seattle City Light projects this happening by 2030, and even in 2015, wildfires cut off transmission of power from the North Cascades dams.  SCL points to solar as the solution.  And the more solar we develop, the more clean hydropower we have to sell to the grid and reduce carbon emissions elsewhere.

We can’t talk about solar without also talking about efficiency, the cleanest energy source. Since the Northwest began focusing on electrical energy efficiency in buildings and equipment in 1978 it has saved five Seattle’s worth of electricity, or over four times the generating capacity of the Transalta Centralia coal-fired power plant, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council reports. That makes efficiency the region’s second largest power source after hydropower.  The Council projects that energy efficiency investments will keep power demand from growing at all through 2030. But even then the council still projects Northwest coal and gas power generation will pour 53 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air annually. This is unacceptable.  We need to actively reduce power demand with efficiency while we ramp up renewables.  We also need electrified buildings that replace oil and gas heat with use high performance electric heat pumps.

Seattle has strong building codes, but they need to be upgraded to make all new buildings zero-energy by 2030 or earlier, requiring highly efficient buildings that produce as much energy as they use.  Seattle’s Bullitt Center is a world-leading example of a zero-energy building, actually producing more energy than it uses.  

Seattle is a leader in efficiency, but there are gaps.  We fall short of where we need to be in terms of home and multifamily efficiency retrofits.  We lack a concerted effort at building fuel switching, though a proposed building code change would make us the nation’s first city to require high performance electric heating in new and renovated commercial buildings.

An important backdrop is the failure of the solar production incentives bill in the 2016 Legislature.  We have had the best incentives in the nation.  But they sunset in 2020, so their effectiveness is starting to fade.  A local climate mobilization needs to push demands for community energy resilience funding by the city.  The city needs to step up to do more, not only through electric ratepayer revenues, but also through city general revenues.   We need to prioritize efficiency retrofits on housing occupied by low-to-moderate income homeowners and renters, and community solar installations that provide climate justice benefits. Our community solutions effort will seek ways to build political will around community energy resilience funding.


Now let’s move on to the transit-affordable housing connection. Because our hydropower-centered electrical system is relatively clean, our region’s largest carbon pollution problem is transportation.  Around 44% of Washington state carbon emissions come from burning oil in cars and other vehicles.  The Seattle City Climate Plan aims to reduce passenger vehicle emissions 82% by 2030 and 97% by 2050.  We need a transportation revolution to achieve those goals. 

To the extent we still use cars, we want them to be electric vehicles, and we want them charged on renewable energy.  But even if all personal vehicles were electrified, traffic would still clog our communities and degrade the quality of life, and continue the demand for natural resources needed to make vehicles.  In fact, electric cars have a higher upfront carbon cost because of resources used in making the batteries. That will be as true of self-driving vehicles expected in coming years as it is of today’s cars. The best transportation option is to make a car-free life possible, and high-quality public transit is key to that.  For lower- and middle-income people increasingly stressed by the cost of maintaining a personal car, improved transit is crucial.

We need to continue to build up transit.  The best transit systems have several key characteristics. Transit stops are within a quarter-mile from homes and destinations.  Service is frequent, every 10 minutes or so on well-travelled routes.  And coverage is widespread. Railed options including light-rail and street trolleys are increasing.  Light rail is seeing record ridership, and passing the Sound Transit 3 bond initiative in this November’s election will be an important step forward. And sometimes just improving bus service is the quickest and most economical way to build up transit.  Express bus service and Bus Rapid Transit lanes are coming to cities including Seattle. 

Light-rail runs on electricity.  We also want to move buses to electric power. Electric trolleybuses that draw energy from overhead wires are a familiar sight in Seattle, where a clean power supply makes them a genuinely low-carbon transportation mode.  Now rapidly dropping battery prices spurred by the growing market for EVs are spilling over into city buses.  Heavy-duty electric buses propelled by batteries are reaching service.  Washington state in 2015 signed a contract with Proterra through which Northwest transit agencies could buy up to 800 electric buses over the next five years. King County plans to use the buses and recently completed a rigorous test that demonstrated they are fully capable of replacing diesel equivalents.

The social justice angle is also hugely important.  Transit service should be affordable, particularly for low-income people.  In Seattle the Transit Riders Union has successfully gained the ORCA Lift pass offering low-income fares.  The group provides a climate justice framework for building up transit: “every human being has a right to safe, reliable, affordable, and accessible public transit . . . for the future of humanity and of the planet, we must move beyond the car- and fossil fuel-based economy . . . the public transit system must be expanded and improved, not merely preserved.”

Transit Riders Union adds, “We want high-capacity rapid transit, including buses and rail – but not at the cost of cutting off those who need public transit the most,” and maintains “that public transit must be paid for by corporations and the wealthiest section of the population, not by further squeezing poor and working people.”

350 Seattle and Transit Riders Union will join in putting on an early 2017 public forum focused on how we can bring free public transit to the Seattle area.  Free transit exists at many levels around the world.  Washington, DC lets youth ride for free. Tallinn, Estonia has completely removed the farebox.  It is the largest example of comprehensive free public transit in the world.  Our forum will look at examples, and how to pay for it with progressive revenue options such as an employer’s tax and a local income tax on high earners.

We need to build up transit, electrify it, and make it more affordable.  But none of this will be sufficient if our exploding housing costs continue to drive people out of the city.  The suburbanization of poverty is a huge climate justice issue. Rents are rising in Seattle faster than anywhere else in the US, nearly 10% over the last year.  Average rentals are over $2,000.  This is pushing low-to-moderate income people out of the city. We are going exactly the wrong direction here by forcing people who use transit the most out to suburban areas where service is the poorest.   One of the most crying needs for climate justice in our city is affordable housing in areas well served by transit.

Transit works best at a certain level of density.  A line with 20 buses per day should have 4 dwelling units per acre near stops, and one with 40, 7 units. Light rail should have 5-9 units per acre within walking distance of stops.  Thus it is important when expanding service to focus first on denser areas, and to plan transit-oriented development to build up compact communities around rail stations. But unless it is done with social justice at the forefront, transit oriented development will increase trends toward urban gentrification.  It already is. Puget Sound Sage has lined out a series of steps to incorporate justice concerns. 

A recent report from Puget Sound Sage and Got Green identifies one of the most important steps – community control of land and housing.  These two Seattle climate justice groups call on the city to establish strong goals for community control through land trusts, non-profit housing development and local ownership of cultural anchors and businesses.  Sound Transit, already obligated to devote 80% of surplus land around stations to affordable housing, should do so through community-based organizations, the groups say.  The ST3 initiative will require that nonprofit housing developers gain first option on surplus land.  

350 Seattle is looking to the leadership of climate justice groups including SAGE and Got Green as we support efforts to build up affordable, community-owned housing in our city and region.


We have looked at two areas where a community climate mobilization movement can demand transformatory change.  A community energy resilience initiative that builds up community solar and energy efficiency, with concerted efforts to target benefits to lower and moderate-income families.  And efforts to make public transit more accessible and clean, and linked to affordable, community-controlled housing.  There are others, including local food, bicycle access and distributed, green infrastructure, to name some.  By focusing on community solutions, we can move toward climate recovery while rebuilding the commons in our society. 

In our fractured society, we urgently need to begin rebuilding our common life.  We can do this by pushing for community energy,  community housing, community transportation, and community climate solutions in general.  We can empower communities and lift people up while taking fossil fuels down.  We can mobilize around a transformatory vision for the kind of world and nation we want to make starting here at home, where we live.  This is what community solutions for climate justice is all about.  Let’s join together, make a movement, and make it happen.