Healing the Heat I: The Power of Local

I drove right into it. Heading west from Chicago on I-80 for my annual visit to my sister on the Iowa border, I entered the searing heat dome which ultimately smothered so much of the continent the week of June 13, 2022. Another wrecking ball hit the record store with all-time highs in more than a dozen U.S. cities, record-high daily lows (get it?) in places like Burlington, Vermont, and over 100 million people under heat advisories. Depending on the location, the Heat-demon invited his accomplices Drought and Humidity to a deadly dance which killed thousands of cattle, set wildfires killing untold animals, and ended the lives of people, especially the vulnerable, the elderly. This wasn’t just in places like Arizona — over 30 people died in Québec due to the June heat. The phenomenon was global, and I’ll deal with that in my July blog. But today we’re staying in Illinois.

The heat slams me when I step out of the car to put gasoline in the tank. In the air-conditioned denial of my rented Chevy Spark, news on Sirius XM reminds me of the disappointing performance of the federal government on climate action, pushed by the Ukraine conflict, gas prices, Republicans (especially Honorary Republican Joe Manchin), and the fossil fuel lobby to promote, rather than replace, fossil fuels. There are little bits of good news (see the note following this blog), but mostly I was distraught and pessimistic about the prospects for achieving what we need to keep temperatures to 1.5˚C (2.7˚F) above preindustrial levels: Halve greenhouse gas pollution by 2030; no net emissions by 2050.

Then, rising over the prairie horizon like beacons of salvation, were two gleaming white towers. Mesmerizing rotor blades climbing to 328 feet (100 meters) above the prairie; patiently, persistently gliding in graceful circles. As I came closer to the wind mini-farm, I saw a ground-cover of solar panels hugging the rolling terrain. I’ve been here before, but had to exit I-80 and remind myself of the message told by the installation and the informational display at its base. I needed a dose of hope that day.

The power plant is owned by nearby Geneseo, a lovely town of 6,600 people full of Victorian homes, once a stop on the underground railroad. Geneseo Municipal Utility purchased two 1,500 MW turbines from the German company VenSys for $1.2 million in 2009. It was financed with a 20-year bond, but paid for itself in less than two years, even with a rare mechanical problem that shut down one of the towers for 6 months (repairs cost nothing; the turbines were under warranty). Building on this success, 1.23 MW of photovoltaics were installed in 2015. Together these renewables provide about 12% of the city’s electricity with no pollution, no fuel expenses, little maintenance, and no carbon footprint. The facility outperformed predictions, and plans were made to increase renewable capacity to 8 MW and reduce the need to buy off the grid or burn coal (the city owns production capacity at a coal-fired plant in Iowa).

Geneseo would not be characterized as a center of progressive politics and tree-huggers. Or Democrats, for that matter. It’s true that it sits only 20 miles east of the politically blue urban center known as the Quad Cities, population 380,000, straddling the Mississippi and shared with Iowa. But Henry County, Geneseo’s home, gave Donald Trump 59.7% of the vote in 2020. It was settled by New Englanders descended from Puritans and named for Patrick Henry, and remains over 95% white, home to corn farmers and gun manufacturers. Yet Henry County’s official website homepage features the undulating sea of solar panels under the Geneseo wind turbines, and its cutting-edge energy experiment has become a model for other small communities. Renewable electricity was just practical — local workers were employed, electricity rates were well below market, and the city could produce all its own electricity if necessary. The pride in energy self-determination bespeaks the Yankee, indeed American, character, and begs us to see the climate/energy issue as apolitical. A big, universal problem we urgently need to solve, presenting the perfect opportunity to exhibit a positive, can-do, innovative mobilization. What could be more patriotic? Give me liberty or give me coal debt!

This little side trip did inspire hope, and reminded me of the power of local initiatives when the big players sit on the bench. It also reminded me of the “We Are Still In” movement instituted when Trump pulled us out of the Paris Agreement. All manner of less-than-federal institutions pledged to abide by the accord, including almost 300 cities and counties. It also called to mind an essay from University of Arizona professors Kirsten Engel and Barak Orbach explaining how local solutions have utilitarian motivations and can spur national and global action when the latter is lacking . . . and lacking it was back in 2008, when the essay was written, I’m afraid.

This blog series is about my own efforts at climate action. But I no longer live in Illinois, so I wondered what local initiatives I could support back home in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Was there anything happening akin to the Geneseo project? A little research uncovered the Philadelphia Energy Authority (PEA), created by the city in 2010 and “focused on energy affordability and sustainability.” Included in its charter is the “promotion of a vital clean energy sector.” Indeed, echoing the Geneseo model, PEA is working with a company called Energix Renewables to obtain 22% of the city’s electricity by the end of 2023 from a solar field in Adams County, the home of Gettysburg.

Though PEA will not own the production equipment like Geneseo, it is arguably going above and beyond by fostering individual ownership through another program called Solarize Philly. Created in 2017 to foster photovoltaic installations on residences and commercial buildings in the city, it provides free home consultation from collaborating companies, followed by a proposal for solarization. PEA has negotiated below-market group pricing, and provides a city rebate when you install panels, on top of the federal 26% tax credit. There is a grant program for low- and middle-income households to solarize, and a training program for would-be installers in city schools. A new first-in-the-nation program called Share the Sun provides further funding for low-income residences. Thousands of homeowners have signed up and over 900 contracts have been executed so far, which is notable given the COVID crisis and the supply chain problems that have plagued the solar industry.

Initially, finding a personal action which would support these local efforts seemed elusive. I could invest in the Philadelphia Green Capital Corp, the “green bank” which finances their projects, but that would require me having extra money. No such luck. What I could do was express myself regarding two political actions which would enable and reinforce the PEA’s goals.

First, that supply chain problem I mentioned, which has been devastating for solar installation businesses, stems from threatened retroactive tariffs on solar panels manufactured in Southeast Asia. This fear has all but eliminated 80% of U.S. imports of the panels. President Biden eased that burden by suspending any tariffs for two years, with no potential retro-duties allowed. He simultaneously invoked the Defense Production Act to bolster the domestic solar industry through grants and loans. Given the inability to reach his administration’s fossil-fuel-free goals through legislation, using his executive powers was an excellent strategy, and I told him so in an email to the White House.

Second, I weighed in on a bill moving through my own state assembly that would actually prevent municipalities from moving off fossil fuels. HB 1947 is similar to laws passed in twenty states and promoted by the fossil fuel lobby. Under the misleading moniker of “energy choice,” the laws forbid requirements to electrify new construction, which is necessary to utilize renewables. They also stop mandates to incrementally decrease fossil fuel use. The Arizona legislature, for example, governing a state literally consumed by wildfires, record heat, and drought, blocked localities like Flagstaff from electrifying buildings. Pennsylvania’s version moved out of the House last week, so I let my senator know he should vote “nay.”

For you, my concerned readers, a note of support to POTUS for promoting the solar industry may also feel appropriate. Wherever you are, there will be unique manifestations of local climate projects which you’ll have to unearth on your own. You can start by looking at clearinghouse sites like the State and Local Climate Change Resource Center at Columbia University Law School, or the National League of Cities project with ecoAmerica. You can also search for resources in your particular city, state, or region (as in these sites for the District of Columbia region or Chicago). You may, like me, make some impressive, even uplifting, discoveries.

Driving the remaining few miles to my sister’s house in, appropriately, Coal Valley, Illinois, I remembered the phrase “all politics is local.” It is most associated with that Massachusetts Yankee Tip O’Neill, former speaker of the U.S. House, but it was arguably first coined by an Illinois journalist named Finley Peter Dunne. It is hugely important that local engagement helps elect politicians at every level of government who advocate for immediate and comprehensive climate action (O’Neill used the argument to successfully campaign against an opponent who was funded by outside fossil fuel interests in 1982). But sailing past the sparkling Geneseo wind turbines and the rusted water-pumping windmills in Henry County cornfields, I preferred to think not of Homo politicus but Homo sapiens, the civilized us, all hoping to preserve a quality way of life in some recognizable form. Civilization is threatened severely by climate change, and in Geneseo people are subverting the threat without, apparently, succumbing to polarizing politics. May we broadcast their noble example throughout the land from the highest turbine tower.

Good news note: In addition to using the Defense Production Act to boost solar energy, President Biden recently invoked it to foster heat pump manufacturing, something advocated as a reaction to the Ukraine crisis in a previous blog. Keep positive and keep working!

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Mark Boudreau

Mark Boudreau

I’m a teaching professor of biology and researcher in agroecology at Penn State Brandywine, intent on developing my inner climate activist.