In 2004 I was an idealistic young college graduate who hoped to change the world. I was convinced that the prospect of declining worldwide oil production loomed, and that people must heed my calls for energy conservation and radically-relocalized living.
To tell the world, I joined forces after graduation with a tiny non-profit in Yellow Springs and set my sights on tackling the coming global energy crisis through PowerPoint presentations, websites, filmmaking and conferences. The world didn’t seem to change, but to my surprise, something else did—my hometown.
Today, Yellow Springs is well on its way to becoming one of the most energy-conscious small towns in the country, and I’m now content to help it become such a model low-energy village, and to document its transition for the larger world. I also learned a lesson along the way—that to change the world we have to first change our communities.
Yellow Springs’ greening was partly intentional and partly a matter of circumstance. The southwestern Ohio town of 3,400 eschewed the path of continued fossil fuel burning in 2007 when it considered, concurrently, an offer to build a coal plant and a recommendation to upgrade its electric infrastructure to handle an electricity consumption increase.
The village first decided to commit to energy conservation and efficiency gains rather than invest in a $2- to $3-million upgrade because of residents’ concern over climate change and the high future cost of energy. The village council then voted 3–2 to reject an offer from American Municipal Power, a wholesale power supplier for municipal electric systems, to buy into a 960-megawatt, conventional coal-fired power plant to be built in Southeast Ohio. Yellow Springs was the first town, followed by Oberlin and Westerville, to say no to the plant, which was cancelled in 2009. The environmental organization Ohio Citizen Action now credits Yellow Springs with beginning a successful statewide movement among communities to stop the proposed plant from being built.
In the meantime, the environmentally- and socially-conscious population began making personal commitments to energy reduction by buying hybrid cars, building green homes and retrofitting buildings. An energy reduction support group, called the 10 Percent Club, meets monthly to help residents curtail their personal energy use by 10 percent per year.
Yellow Springs now has one of the highest rates of hybrid vehicle-ownership in the country, at more than two percent. There are six passive houses and passive retrofits—which don’t require furnaces—complete or under construction, perhaps the highest per capita in the country. And soon the village will have seven straw bale buildings.
At the village level, council has committed to green energy. At least two-thirds of Yellow Springs’ electricity consumption will come from renewable energy sources—mostly hydroelectric, landfill gas and solar— by 2015. A new village commission, the Energy Board, invests $50,000 per year in municipal energy efficiency and advises on household conservation measures, last year promoting clotheslines and compact fluorescents. This year the group is offering $60 energy audits to all residents with hopes of reducing the town’s electricity consumption by three percent per year over five years.
And villagers are becoming localvores. This season yet another community-supported agriculture farm has sprung up just outside of town to feed the community with weekly shares of vegetables—the third subscription farm in five years. These farms find fertility in the waste scraps of Yellow Springs’ local restaurants and coffee shops, which, in turn, source their produce from the local farms.
A new proposal to build a 2-megawatt solar farm in Yellow Springs would add more than just another source of clean electricity to the village’s already-green portfolio. Filling a 12-acre field in, or just outside, the village with 30,000 solar panels would be a shining reminder to the world of the community’s sustainable aspirations.
Communities in Ohio and elsewhere will face the same challenges arising from global fossil fuel depletion. In being more prepared to take them on, Yellow Springs may lead the way among municipalities to a lower-energy future.
It seems I may help to change the world after all.