Relative to Oberlin’s energy future, the city and College must solve four problems. The first is to create a practical vision of post-carbon prosperity. The second is to find ways to pay the costs of transitioning to solar power and radically improved energy efficiency. The third is to actually build an alternative energy infrastructure in Oberlin. The fourth is to structure choices so that people have clear incentives to choose efficiency and renewable sources over inefficiency and fossil fuels.
In 2007, with financial support from Adam Joseph Lewis, Oberlin College launched two studies to help clarify our energy options. In one, a Massachusetts energy firm examined smart ways by which the city of Oberlin could improve efficiency and switch to renewable energy—and thereby avoid joining in a risky, long-term commitment to a 1,000 megawatt coal plant.
The second study, specifically about Oberlin College’s energy use, examined options for eliminating our coal-fired plant and radically improving energy efficiency to levels that are now technologically possible and economically profitable. Oberlin now has a factual basis on which to build a farsighted energy policy for both the city and the College.
The College then commissioned a third study, one to explore the feasibility of developing a new "Green Arts Block" on the east side of Tappan Square. This could include a substantial upgrade of Hall Auditorium, new art and residential spaces, and possibly a new hotel—collectively setting a new benchmark for environmentally responsible development.
What might Oberlin’s future look like a decade from now? Imagine picking up an Oberlin phone book or going online to find new, local companies offering energy services, efficiency upgrades, and solar installations.
Imagine a local economy that includes 100 or more well-paying, green-energy jobs filled by highly trained young people from Oberlin’s schools, the College, and the nearby vocational school. Imagine local businesses using a third of the energy they use now, with better lighting and better indoor comfort at a fraction of the cost, and with the savings forming the basis for expanded services and higher profits.
Imagine a city whose homes and businesses sprout photovoltaic (solar electric) systems on rooftops, installed and maintained by local entrepreneurs. Imagine Oberlin Municipal Power and Light emerging as a national leader in improving local efficiency, while actually lowering energy bills for residents.
Imagine an uncongested but busy downtown served by a solar-electric trolley system. Imagine a new four-star, LEED platinum hotel, conference center, restaurant, and perhaps culinary school as the keystone of a new carbon neutral, zero-discharge downtown arts district that offers performances in a black box theater and a jazz club featuring Conservatory students.
Imagine a revitalized downtown bustling with residents, shoppers, students, artists, and visitors who come to experience the buzz of the best small town in the United States—the first working model of post-fossil fuel prosperity.
Imagine stepping just outside Oberlin, where a dozen local farms, employing Oberlin teenagers in the summer, are flourishing by supplying Oberlin’s dining halls and local restaurants. Imagine a resilient town economy buffered from larger economic problems because it is supplied with local biofuels, electricity, and food.
Imagine Oberlin leading the deployment of technologies just coming into the market, such as plug-in hybrid cars, solar electric systems, and advanced wastewater treatment systems.
Imagine a town and College coming together to create the first model of post-carbon prosperity in the U.S. at a scale large enough to be nationally important, but small enough to be manageable and experimental.
And imagine hundreds of Oberlin students—equipped with the skills, aptitudes, and imagination fostered in the remaking of a town and college—spreading that revolution across the U.S. and the world.
David Orr is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics and President Krislov’s special assistant for sustainability.