Local Knowledge Sustainable Solutions from Communities Around the Country

Upstater - Jeff Golden - It's vital that we as individuals do all we can in our lives and homes to make sustainable choices.  Yet there are tremendous opportunities to leverage greater shifts by also working at the community level.  And that's just what's happening around the country.

This month, join me on an inspiring journey around the U.S. (and in Ireland) to learn about some of the coolest sustainable innovations happening at the community level.

Go Solar In Berkeley and the City Will Pick Up the Tab

Voters in the city of Berkeley, California, passed a measure in 2006 requiring the city to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. A city official, charged with figuring out how the city was going to get there, got creative and came up with an idea that's now piquing interest nationwide.

For any resident who wishes to have solar panels installed on his or her home (and who has good exposure to the sun), the city will pay the up-front cost and the resident will pay the city back over 20 years through a fee assessed in property taxes. With the money saved on their electric bills, residents will come out ahead, or at least even, each year. At the end of 20 years it's free electricity for the resident. The city believes the plan will help it shave 10 percent off emissions.

The city will receive any rebates or incentives offered by the state, and the EPA is granting Berkeley $160,000 to help with the legal, accounting, and staffing costs of launching the plan.

Solar-Powered McMansions in the Rocky Mountains

Since 2000, Pitkin County, Colorado, requires that all new construction or remodels of homes of more than 5,000 square feet install solar panels to meet a portion of their energy needs.

The average size of homes in the U.S. has soared in the last 30 years, even as the average number of occupants has fallen. Yet in Pitkin County, home of the ritzy ski-town Aspen, the average new house is double the national average, and more than 10 percent of houses are more than 10,000 square feet. (The County Commissioner has mused, "It has a late empire of Rome feel to it that's kind of disturbing. Excess, everywhere you look.")

All new homes and remodels exceeding the 5,000 square feet standard must install a small solar power system (two kilowatts) or an equivalent on-site renewable source of energy. Or they can pay a flat fee of $5,000, or $10,000 if they're over 10,000 square feet. The fees are used to fund energy efficiency and renewable energy installations in Pitkin County.

Forget the Benjamins—in the Berkshires It's All About the Rockwells

Since September of 2006 some colorful money has been circulating in the region around Great Barrington, Massachusetts. A nonprofit there has spearheaded an alternative currency to the U.S. dollar, and it's now accepted at about 300 businesses in the southern Berkshire area.

Known as BerkShares, the bills come in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20, and 50. They have the equivalent value in dollars when used to pay for something and can be exchanged at any of five banks in the area. But when they are bought or exchanged at one of the banks, they value 90 cents. That is, you can buy one BerkShare for 90 cents but use it to buy something valued at a dollar. So you can earn a one-time 10 percent discount. Businesses that accept BerkShares can either keep them in circulation (using them to buy something that is the equivalent of a dollar) or exchange them for 90 cents on the dollar at a bank (effectively absorbing that 10 percent discount).

Why would anyone go to the effort of creating such a currency, or actually use it or accept it? It's all part of nurturing a vibrant local economy.

When a business or individual accepts BerkShares, they are committing to either use those BerkShares themselves, which means supporting one of the local businesses that accepts them, or exchanging them at the bank for dollars, which means essentially giving locals who use them a 10-percent discount.

Susan Witt, executive director of the E.F. Schumacher Society, the nonprofit behind the currency, has said, "Goods produced in a region and consumed in a region...require a low level of fossil fuels, provide jobs, and allow people to know the story of a product, everything from where it comes from to how the workers who produce it are treated."

The bills also help to forge a regional identity and pride. They are beautifully designed by local artists and feature images that celebrate local heroes such as W.E.B. DuBois, who was born in Great Barrington; Herman Melville, who lived in Pittsfield; and Norman Rockwell, who lived in Stockbridge. The one-BerkShare bill features a portrait of one of the Berkshires' first settlers, the Mohicans, and the 10-BerkShare bill features Robyn Van En, founder of the country's first community-supported agriculture (CSA) project in South Egremont.

Buying a New Home? Every home in the City By the Bay is Energy- and Water-Efficient

In both San Francisco and Berkeley, if you want to sell your house you have to prove, by inspection, that it's up to code for energy and water efficiency.

In the energy department, meeting code means insulating the attic to at least R30, wrapping the water heater with a blanket of at least R-12, insulating the first two feet of piping from the water heater to R-3, making sure any chimneys have dampers, doors, or closures, and weatherstripping exterior doors.

In the water department it means toilets that use no more than 1.6 gallons per flush, showerheads with a flow of no more than 3 gallons a minute, and faucets with aerators reducing flow to 2.75 gallons per minute.

The inspection cost is a reasonable $100—$50 for a re-inspection if you don't pass the first time—and a record is kept of homes that have passed the inspection so they don't have to repeat it in the future. Both cities have relationships with nonprofits in the area to provide free or low-cost support to meet these standards. In San Francisco homeowners need spend no more than 1 percent of the purchase price on these upgrades, .75 percent in Berkeley. If you spend that much and you still don't pass, you're exempt.

One last way the city minimizes the burden on the seller is by allowing the burden of the upgrade to transfer to the buyer. The buyer can put the 1 or .75 percent of the purchase price in escrow and draw from that money to pay for improvements.

It's estimated that in Berkeley this system has reduced residential energy consumption by over 13 percent, reduced annual CO2 emissions by over 5,000 tons, and allowed households to save up to $450 dollars per year on energy bills.

It's "Plastic Bags Be Gone!" in Ireland (Most U.S. Cities Not Quite So Sure)

In 2002, Ireland passed a tax of 33 cents on plastic shopping bags. And they required the customer to pick up the tab—store owners can't pay it off for them. Within weeks, plastic bag use dropped 94 percent, with cloth bags jumping into the breach. (The environment minister warned that if stores switched from plastic to paper he would tax them too.)

The money raised from the tax in Ireland goes to support environmental programs. This year the government plans to ban traditional incandescent light bulbs, notorious for making more heat than light. Only compact fluorescents will be available.

The New York Times reports that Britain and Los Angeles have tried to pass similar measures but to no avail, and that "in the face of stiff resistance from business interests, the New York City Council passed a measure requiring only that stores that hand out plastic bags take them back for recycling."

Last year, San Francisco simply banned regular plastic grocery bags. Stores have the option of switching to compostable plastic, recyclable plastic, or reusable cloth. The move is expected to reduce San Francisco's greenhouse gas emissions by 4,600 tons annually.