Fostering Community Collaboration & Energy Resilience in Bellingham, WA

This little city is tied for fourth in the nation for the Georgetown University Energy Prize, and NPR has called them the “epicenter of a new economic model” – one based on collaboration and the well-being of the whole.

Themes: Accelerate Collaboration, Regenerate Soil & Nature

In 2011, The Economist ran an international magazine cover with the title, “Welcome to the Anthropocene,” recognizing that we had entered an era in which humans are changing the way our world and climate works. John Fullerton of the Capital Institute and former managing director of finance company JP Morgan responded with an opinion piece saying that there was only one logical response: Interdependence. We are all in this together.

The stories of climate change are terrifying: hundred-year fires every year, increasingly destructive hurricanes, submerged islands, droughts, the extinction of sea stars and of birds that used to visit our gardens, and now too, the greatest movement of refugees ever seen on our planet – with many more climate refugees expected.

The path to action for any one of us often feels overwhelming.

In 2006, the people of the Northwestern town of Bellingham, Washington, felt similarly, but they came together and decided to act.

Like most cities, only one tenth of one percent of Bellingham’s electricity was coming from non-polluting, renewable sources like solar or wind. But a group of business owners – all members of a business group called Sustainable Connections (run by BALLE Fellow Derek Long) and committed to “strong community, healthy environment, meaningful employment, and buying local first,” made the decision to take action together.

First, they identified a goal – the United States Environmental Protection Agency was giving EPA certification as a “green power community” to any municipality that had more than 2% of their energy needs met by renewable resources. That goal may sound small, but it was twenty times the city’s use in 2006, so they set it as their goal.

Second, they identified that their energy utility did make renewable energy available for a premium – in other words, it was possible to check a box and pay extra to get renewable energy, though participation was very low. As business people they decided to set an example and to go for it, en masse. Together they created a campaign asking all businesses to join them, and then at point of sale, and in mailers, asked their customers to join them. They hung big banners with empty thermometers at the book store, at the public market, even on City Hall and filled them with green ink as people signed up. A group of business owners made an appeal to the city government asking for their participation, and then the City Council voted to join them at 100% for all municipal energy – a huge purchase. Other big purchasers came in, including, with encouragement from the student body, Western Washington University.

One year after the campaign launched, the community came together in a local auditorium to see how they had done. After an introduction from Bill McKibben, with every seat filled and with much anticipation, the Sustainable Connections team stood on the stage and congratulated the community. They rolled down a huge banner of a thermometer from the ceiling, and it was entirely filled with green ink – they had achieved the 2%, a twenty-fold increase in renewable usage in their city in just one year. The crowd clapped and cheered, with smiles on every face.

Then, from another rafter, a second banner was unfurling to reveal another full thermometer. There was confusion and then another unrolled.

People came to their feet, looking around as yet another unfurled. Then another, then finally one more, unveiling to the business owners of this community that their little city had expanded their renewable use from .01 percent to 12 percent in one year, making them the number one EPA certified green power community in the country in 2007. All over the hall, people embraced and celebrated. The sheer power of the results of collaboration – of taking small individual actions together rather than waiting for anyone “in charge” to do something – was overwhelming for many in the room. A grocery store owner in the front row stood sobbing.

The community got a taste of what they could do and did not stop there. First, because the renewable energy expansion was so large, the utility was able to re-negotiate their contract, bringing the price down to the same level as the polluting energy, so residents and business owners no longer had to pay a premium for clean energy. Next, this grassroots scrappy effort went on to win a $2.7 million federal government grant to tackle energy efficiency. They built a one-stop-shop that combined retrofits for homeowners and businesses with energy efficiency training for businesses and under-employed workers.

Today, nearly 600 businesses and well over 2,000 households have been retrofitted for energy efficiency and there has been over $15 million in energy saving capital projects. This little city is tied for fourth in the nation for the Georgetown University Energy Prize, and NPR has called them the “epicenter of a new economic model” – one based on collaboration and the well-being of the whole.