The Take

Small-town mayors: the cutting edge of climate action

Posting in Cities

How two mayors of small towns in right-wing America are showing the way to energy and climate progress: through local action.

Rex Parris was on fire at the Pathways to 100% Renewables Conference in San Francisco two weeks ago.

Eschewing the podium on the stage, he paced the floor and worked the crowd with the flair of the practiced personal injury trial lawyer he is, modulating his voice from a near-whisper to a thunder. He would have made an equally good evangelical preacher, I thought.

"Imagine there were an asteroid coming, and every reputable astrophysicist tells us it's coming, and it's aimed right at us," he opened by way of example. "Because that's what they're telling us…isn't it?" He didn't need to explain that the asteroid was a metaphor for global warming.

After studying the issue, Parris became convinced that the threat of climate change was that serious. "It didn't matter what party I was in," he explained. "It's science, not a political issue."

As the mayor of Lancaster, California (population 157,000), Parris knows a thing or two about politics, but insists that climate change should not be a political issue. "Every time somebody puts it in the political domain, we lose half the country," he lamented.

When he became a grandfather a year ago, Parris became much more concerned about the world we're leaving for our grandchildren. "It terrifies me," he admitted. "Something horrible is coming."

He set off on an exploration, paying his own expenses to attend energy conferences around the world on his own time. "I found that the whole world knows that something horrible is coming," he said.

I profiled Parris last June, after he set a goal to become the first city in the nation to be 100 percent powered by renewables, and to be the “solar energy capital of the world." An article about Parris three weeks ago in the New York Times vaulted him into the national spotlight, in which he said of the global warming threat, “I may be a Republican. I’m not an idiot.”

Parris found it puzzling that the author of the Times article was excited that he's a Republican, because in his estimation climate change is a matter of public safety. "We Republicans are good at public safety. This is a public safety issue. Why don't we treat it that way?" he asked rhetorically.

Lancaster is perfectly situated for solar, located in the region with the most solar radiation in the country: 6,500 watt-hours per square inch, according to Parris.

Driven by "a competitive spirit," Parris has helped to turn his city into the solar leader in California. He boasted that Lancaster now has 177 watts per capita of solar production, compared with 61 watts in San Jose and 38 in sunny San Diego. Ultimately, he wants the city to be "net zero before anyone else," consuming no net grid power.

To help achieve that goal, he's leveraging the power of the city building and planning departments. "We can't fix [climate change] top-down, but it's easy to fix bottom-up." he said.

Parris began his campaign by bringing Chinese energy company BYD together with KB Homes, a major homebuilder in the area, and offered to waive all building permits if they would build zero-energy homes. The partnership then built its first three net-zero homes, which also powered electric vehicles.

The demonstration was a success, and created more demand because the new homes cost $67 per month less to power and heat than an equivalent pre-owned home in the area. KB Homes now offers solar as an add-on to all their new homes.

In March, Lancaster issued new rules that require builders of new single-family homes in Lancaster to also build at least 1 kW of new solar capacity for every home constructed, depending on the size of the lot (although not necessarily on each home – equivalent capacity built in a parking lot or a community solar park would also fit the bill).

Parris aimed to make it as easy as possible to go solar by directing city staff to clear away obstacles in the building and planning approval process. "The city staff now looks for a reason to say yes," Parris said. Contractors can now pull a permit for a residential solar array in 15 minutes, over the counter, for just $61.

As a former residential and commercial solar system designer and salesperson, I can tell you what a crucial difference this makes. I never hesitated to pursue a project where the building and planning departments were friendly to solar and permits were cheap, but I refused projects in jurisdictions that required me to submit five copies of unnecessarily complex permit packages, then wait weeks to get them approved by three separate agencies, at a cost of several thousand dollars. As Parris put it, "This isn't rocket science! It should be over the counter."

Importantly, Lancaster didn't have to reach into the city coffers to become a solar success story. "We have no money!" Parris explains. "It was just done because we decided that it was important enough."

Now Parris is working to create a profitable and scalable model that other cities can follow, irrespective of federal and state policies. "If you want to have net-zero buildings, who should you be talking to? The guy who says what goes on the permit: the mayors," he said. His team is developing "a package we can hand off to cities, explaining the ordinances they have to change to enable this," and inviting other municipal leaders to come to Lancaster and learn how to save the planet. "I'll do everything I can for you," Parris offered. "I'm volunteering!"

Rebuilding for sustainability

With his quiet and humble demeanor, Bob Dixson, the mayor of Greensburg, Kansas, comes across as the opposite of Parris, but he shares the latter's belief in bottom-up solutions. Ninety-five percent of his small town (population 775) was leveled by a tornado packing 205 mph winds in 2007. "We lost everything," he told the conference. "In a matter of minutes, we were all homeless."

In the aftermath, the town came together under a big tent because there were no buildings left, and "right off the bat, they started talking about green buildings," Dixson said.

They started by reconsidering their most fundamental beliefs and objectives. "Who are you? What do you care about? Where do you want your town or region to be 50 or 100 years from now? What do you want to leave to your children?" And then, "How could we use this opportunity to address some long-term problems in our community?"

The answer the farming community landed on was to build the most sustainable town they could, expressed in a new mission statement: "Blessed with a unique opportunity to create a strong community devoted to family fostering business, working together for future generations."

"We've had a misconception and made a political football about being sustainable," Dixson observed, but the "opportunity" that rebuilding presented changed all that. "It was a ground-up process. We didn't rely on the government." The community formed a public square steering committee and recovery action team, who brought together the business sector, the planning commission, and the city council staff in community-wide meetings.

Six months after the disaster, the town passed a new resolution that all buildings would be LEED-certified, a ratings system for efficient and sustainable buildings. The new arts center was the first LEED Platinum building in Kansas, and the city's "Sun Chips" business incubator became the state's first LEED Platinum municipal building. The new John Deere dealership was also certified as LEED Platinum. The rehabilitated county courthouse achieved LEED Gold certification, partly through its use of geothermal wells for heat.

The town also put in a 12.5-megawatt community wind farm through a public-private partnership, and the power it generates is shared with other nearby cities..

"We're called to be humble public servants for a brighter tomorrow," Dixson asserted. "There's only one question we need to answer: do we want to leave the world a better place?"

All energy and climate solutions are local

Former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill famously said that "All politics is local," and I firmly believe that the same is true for all energy and climate solutions. It's really the nature of distributed renewable energy generation, and it's really where politics are most receptive to it. At the local level, creating a more sustainable world for your children, and saving money because your home is more energy-efficient, simply make sense.

Dixson offered encouraging words for those who would like to transform their communities similarly. "Do not let sub-optimal people cloud your vision for a brighter tomorrow," he admonished." By changing our problem-solving techniques and decision-making processes, as his town did, we can build a more sustainable future.

In fact, maybe it's time we just forgot about the ideological wars raging in Washington, D.C. "Some of my Republican friends accused me of being disloyal to the free market," Parris mused. "It's beyond me." As far as he's concerned, addressing global warming is a moral and public safety imperative, and we can't afford to lose the urgency of it. "We act like it's a business. It's not. We have a certain amount of time to affect the course of that asteroid and then it will be too late."

Photo: Greensburg, Kansas after it was flattened by a tornado. (Greg Henshall/FEMA)

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Chris Nelder

Columnist (Energy)

Chris Nelder is an energy analyst and consultant who has written about energy and investing for more than a decade. He is the author of two books on energy and investing, Profit from the Peak and Investing in Renewable Energy, and has appeared on BBC TV, Fox Business, CNN national radio, Australian Broadcasting Corp., CBS radio and France 24. He is based in California. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure