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Transition Towns show benefits of planning for energy ‘descent’

CC/Flickr/C.M. Keiner
Can we as a country — and as a world — transition away from our use of fossil fuels?

Our high standard of living no longer equates to as high a quality of life as we would like. Student debt, fewer long-term career paths, foreclosures, unaffordable health care, environmental degradation, climate disruption – all contribute to a precarious feeling about the future. A transition toward a better future would be welcome.

The Transition Town movement offers one approach for a community to become stronger and happier. The British-based organization supports and trains individuals wanting to self-organize their local communities around a model that transitions away from CO2 emissions and other climate-disrupting activities.

These communities realize the limits of coal, oil and natural gas resources will eventually mandate moving away from our energy intensive life. Even though we have easy access to oil and natural gas now, their costs are rising by all measures — dollars, environmental damage, and the amount of energy it takes to extract these energy sources. The time will come when one of these measures will make fossil fuels too expensive for the huge quantities we use today.

These premises are leading Transition Town communities to plan for energy “descent.” We’ve had a wonderful ride while ascending the energy mountain. We can have a good ride descending if we think carefully about where we’re going. If we ignore energy descent, it’ll take us for a wild and cruel ride. One neighbor wrote, “We clearly have access to enough fossil fuels to fry us all. The question is whether or not we have the self control not to burn it.”

What does the other side of the energy mountain look like? More connectedness with the people we live near. Food more locally produced, less processed, and healthier. More local businesses serving local needs. Shorter commuting times.

Can we as a country — and as a world — transition away from our use of fossil fuels?

Reducing energy use, one by one

A thousand cities, towns, and neighborhoods worldwide have signed on to the Transition Town movement. Each is finding its own way toward a more local, more fulfilling future that will eventually include a plan for reducing its total energy use.

Three years ago a half dozen neighbors formed the Energy Resilience Group to invite St. Paul’s St. Anthony Park neighborhood to consider becoming a Transition Town. After trying to raise awareness and now connected to the Community Council, they are hosting a series of community meetings.

Sharing the vision in St. Anthony Park

In St. Anthony Park, the need for transition is the down-side. The up-side is that attendees of the January community meeting, as individuals and as members of organizations, enthusiastically shared what they are already doing and their visions of a post-carbon, sustainable future for St. Anthony Park in 2020 – just seven years away. The energy was palpable.

A local school is working on composting and a student-run garden. A few homes are drop sites for Community Supported Agriculture. A church upgraded fluorescent lighting, changed downlights to LEDs, and expects its electric bill to be cut almost in half. Local contractors are installing solar and specializing in building performance.

Visions encompassed transportation, energy, housing, gardens and food, garbage and composting, and a sense of being responsible citizens.

One person envisioned that “bike, mass transit, and feet are dominant forms of transportation.” Others talked of cooperation within a block for composting, pickup or trailer sharing, sharing garden/fruit production. Many suggested re-purposing housing for granny flats or carriage houses as options, for example, when the children are grown and gone.

Several people said they want more shared information and cross-fertilization of ideas. Homeowners who have researched energy improvements, contractors, and architects have practical steps that would benefit others. Could there be a forum for sharing best practices? Could models and posters of retrofits be on display in a public space?

Many would like solar installations

In St. Anthony Park, where so many homes are shaded and many light-industrial buildings are in the clear, many would like community-owned solar installations on flat roofs with a larger scale than an individual home.

The next community meeting enlarged the conversation. Groupings of people emerged working on particular projects — more food production in the neighborhood, transportation options, energy reduction in buildings. What can we do together that would be too big for us individually?

The third community meeting in April will invite everyone to envision the future, roll up their sleeves to make their ideas happen, and continue the deliberation about officially becoming a Transition Town. Indeed, with excitement welling up, it’ll be not just a meeting but a Transition Festival!

Tim Wulling is a retired electrical engineer. He has studied and implemented home energy reductions since the oil crises of the 1970s. He is an active member of St. Anthony Park’s Energy Resilience Group which he co-founded in 2009. The group is now a subcommittee of the District 12 Community Council. This article originally appeared on the Minnesota 2020 website.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by rolf westgard on 03/26/2013 - 02:24 pm.

    Some good ideas

    here which will help as we face a long term future of scarce fossil fuels. To really make a difference, I suggest that we need to raise the price of fossil fuels, especially gasoline and coal burning. That means very unpopular choices like taxes on energy use.
    We avoid those hard choices with faith in things like roof top solar panels which really don’t do much at high cost. Then IMO there are the $2 billion+ boondoggles like Cape Wind off Cape Cod, and the Ivanpah solar project in Nevada.
    In the US we use about twice as much energy per unit of GDP as other developed countries, so we have room for improvement.

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