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Conversations at Cleveland Sustainability Summit

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/04/13 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Clean energy, Local food system

At Cleveland’s 5th annual sustainability summit—the halfway point to the 50th anniversary of the last fire on the Cuyahoga River—the theme of the year is advanced and renewable energy. How did that translate into action in 2013?

EcoVillage Produce<br />Growing food on vacant land in the near west side of Cleveland and selling it at Gordon Square Farmer's Market.

The Community Choice Aggregation was a notable accomplishment. Earlier this year, Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (CEI) agreed to offer 65,000 customers in Cleveland a supply of 100% green energy. At the same time parent company, FirstEnergy, continues to fight the state’s requirement that electric utilities obtain at least 25% of their power from advanced and energy efficiency by 2025, CEI offers a small olive branch: 600,000 megawatt hour portfolio of 30% Ohio wind, 20% out-of-state wind and 50% hydro power.

Where the 30% of Ohio wind is generated will probably be on land unless CEI can be swayed to support, through a power purchase agreement (similar to the city’s utility, Cleveland Public Power), in the Lake Erie wind farm. Much hinges on winning a federal grant for $40 million for moving ahead with a $70-80 million venture to build three, 6 megawatt turbines seven miles off Cleveland's shore. LEEDCo, the regional effort that includes 3 counties on the lake, announced that 9,000 people have taken its Power Pledge to pay a little more for wind from the lake.

"As a region, to reap the substantial economic benefits from wind, we not only need to scale up the number of onshore installations, it's imperative to develop an offshore wind industry," the Office of Sustainability states.

Other advances in renewables: AEP Energy—the utility serving central Ohio—is offering a 100% wind electricity plan. This week, Green Energy Ohio is hosting its 11th annual tour of Northeast Ohio renewable energy sites, including residential solar installations.

The other milestone was completing the city’s carbon footprint analysis and presenting it as an opportunity to improve on energy use across the board. The Cleveland Climate Action Plan (CAP) found that half of the greenhouse gas emissions in Northeast Ohio come from the production and use of electricity. The CAP carves out 33 recommendations including the reduction of electricity consumption in buildings trough high-performance, green design, and the rapid phase in of wind, solar and other clean power sources. In 2007, Mayor Jackson did tie city loans and grants for capital projects to green building standards.

Interesting conversations are the real coin of the sustainability summit. I spoke to local food advocates about what it will take to scale up urban farming as a for-profit enterprise. Their concerns include longer terms for land leases (the Cleveland land bank allows urban farming for only 5-year leases), water access (tapping in to hydrants), the high cost to erect security fences and finding markets. The decision by the city’s community gardening program, Summer Sprouts, to restrict sales of food was also a concern.

Matt Pietro, sustainability specialist at University Hospital, shared that his side project as a small tenant farmer at the Ohio City Farm, has managed to support one, full-time employee mostly due to its 30-member community supported agriculture (CSA). The guaranteed cash flow from selling shares in their CSA has made it more sustainable than early efforts to sell food at a farmer’s market, he said.

Chris Alvarado’s work as a fellow at Cleveland Department of Community Development focuses on streamlining tax delinquent properties on their path to vacant land and back to productive reuse. He said it makes sense to sell land that has low development potential in exchange for care and upkeep from residents. He says the city is open to exploring urban farming on vacant land.

I spoke to Joanne Neugebauer who works at Whole Foods, about what it takes to get local food on the shelves of the grocery chain; with Ann Jurs about EcoVillage Produce, LLC a successful urban farm in the Cleveland EcoVillage, and with Jen McGraw at Center for Neighborhood Technologies about a recently introduced concept to Cleveland: EcoDistricts. The idea is to share resources and build capacity for ecological areas of growth, including the Cleveland EcoVillage. For example, Jurs in her role at Detroit-Shoreway is working on the start-up of a neighborhood compost center.

I spoke to Brad Masi, a local food advocate, about a carbon farming project he would like to start in Cleveland. Masi was a founder of the New Agrarian Center (NAC) in Oberlin which operates CityFresh and the George Jones Farm.

I also caught up with Nick Sweteye who stepped in to the role of director of the NAC in addition to running CityFresh. The organization was almost sunk in debt when he took over but he has righted the ship, securing some recent philanthropic support from the Green Edge Fund and Gund Foundation. He hopes to bring a permaculture focus to the farm soon, offering demonstrations of pre-industrial farming techniques.

"The average age of our farmer is 61 years," he says, "we need to get the next generation of farmers trained."

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