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The Higher ED Blog: Even the smallest communities can get on the green bandwagon

Michelle Madden / August 29, 2016

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The Higher ED Blog: Even the smallest communities can get on the green bandwagon

For a long time, economic development and the environment were at odds: the rise of one meant the decline of the other. In more recent years, we’ve come to realize that they are not mutually exclusive and can even bolster the other. The ‘green economy’ is a term that economic developers are hearing more and more of these days.

In Canada, Vancouver is the go-to example for best practices in the green economy. At a seminar we hosted on the topic last year, we had two representatives from Vancouver Economic Commission talk about their Greenest City Action Plan and exciting initiatives like the Green and Digital Demonstration Program. Vancouver is doing a great job greening its economy, but those of you from smaller centres might feel like you don’t have the resources to follow suit.

Kieran Hanley, the Interim Executive Director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Environmental Industry Association (NEIA), wants to debunk that myth. As a participant in the University of Waterloo’s Economic Development Program, he recently submitted a paper examining the possibility of leveraging the green economy as a tool for economic growth in rural environments. The paper included short overviews of small communities (all under 10,000 residents, many under 1,000) that generated economic benefits from going green.

Keep reading to learn more about these communities, and the lessons that can be learned from them.

Case studies

Reynolds, Indiana – population 550

In Reynolds, Indiana, there were 270 pigs for every human resident in 2006. Those pigs created a significant amount of manure, which cost the town’s pig farmers a lot of money to dispose of. That changed in 2006 when the town decided to turn a liability into an asset. Under the banner ‘BioTown USA’, Reynolds worked with the state government to increase local use of ethanol and biodiesel in automobiles and spur research and development on transforming agricultural and municipal waste into energy. Thanks to some state incentives and well-matched partnerships with the private sector, the town now has a facility with three digesters, which produce enough electricity to power the entire town.

Kapuskasing, Ontario – population 8,100

The Town of Kapuskasing joined the green energy business in 2011. It started its own energy utility, Énergie Kapuskasing Energy, to take advantage of the revenue opportunities in solar energy. Kap Energy has built and acquired renewable energy projects worth more than $35 million in municipalities across Ontario. Recent numbers aren’t available, but in the first two years (2012-2014), ÉKE generated $780,000 in revenue. The town continues to invest in green energy and is currently installing a new co-gen system in its conference and recreation complex that will produce 90% of the building’s electricity, and allow it to continue running during power outages.

Columbus, Wisconsin – population 5,000

Facing stagnant economic growth, Columbus, Wisconsin decided to differentiate itself from other communities by aggressively going green. It all started with a $40,000 grant from a regional energy wholesaler that funded a new staff position with the dual responsibilities of boosting economic development and sustainability. Over the next few years, the municipality considered green options in all of its purchasing and operations decisions and upgraded many of its buildings and infrastructure to be more efficient. The largest project was to convert all street lights to high efficiency LED lights. It also offered education and incentives to get residents on board. By 2012, the upgrades led to significant energy savings for the city, as well as positive attention from the media and investors that brought millions of dollars in capital investment.

Revelstoke, British Columbia – population 7,100

In the early 2000s, a sawmill in Revelstoke was at risk of closing because of the air pollution it was causing. Instead of shutting down the mill, Revelstoke worked with the mill to implement a low temperature district heating system that ran on wood waste. The system diverted the waste from a dirty silo burner and instead produced hot water and steam energy that could run the mill’s operations and provide heat and hot water for many buildings in the city’s core.

Dillsboro, North Carolina – population 230

Similar to Revelstoke, Dillsboro had an environmental problem that it turned into an opportunity. The town discovered in 1998 that a closed landfill was leaking methane gas. It decided to install a new but proven methane capture technology, which creates heat and power from the gas while preventing it from entering the atmosphere. With half a million dollars from a variety of funding sources, Dillsboro built the gas system and created the adjacent Jackson County Green Energy Park. The gas system heats and powers the park’s artist studios, gallery, and greenhouses (that provide plants for municipal landscaping projects. The park supports 15-20 jobs (plus a rotating slate of artisans), and has increased eco-tourism and heritage craft tourism.

Greensburg, Kansas – population 785

The last case is an extreme one. A tornado destroyed or damaged 95% of the community in 2007. Instead of rebuilding in the older, inefficient style, the community saw a prime opportunity to reduce their impact on their environment. The Greensburg Sustainable Comprehensive Master Plan provided a roadmap to achieving their goal of shrinking the town’s carbon footprint by 50%. The most dramatic step was when the city passed an ordinance that required all city-owned buildings to be built to LEED Platinum standards. Greensburg now has the most LEED certified buildings per capita in the world (6 LEED platinum buildings, including the new city hall and hospital), and the town is powered entirely by renewable energy

Lessons in greening

After researching these cases, Kieran noticed a number of similarities that could helpful for other small communities considering a foray into greener pastures. He offers these lessons:

  • Size doesn’t matter: The cases show that municipalities of any size can pursue a green economic development strategy and find success (or at least reduce their costs).
  • Green initiatives bring good exposure: Green initiatives are often presented as good news stories that elicit positive reactions and show that a community is thinking progressively.
  • Single projects can energize a municipality: A single project, such as an eco-industrial park or district heating system, can have a remarkable impact on operation costs, job creation, and brand building.
  • Even incremental changes can yield results: If a major project is not feasible, smaller changes can also make a difference. Success of any magnitude can inspire further action.
  • Partnerships are crucial: It’s clear from the case studies that pursuing the green economy is easier with partners. They can bring funding, expertise, and other forms of support.

What is your municipality doing? What could it be doing? Whether the intentions are environmental, economic, or social, there are a lot of good reasons to jump on this bandwagon.

 

About the authors

Michelle Madden is the editor of Higher ED. She is also the Outreach Manager for the Economic Development Program and a graduate of the University of Waterloo’s Local Economic Development master’s program.  She has authored many Higher ED articles sharing information relevant to economic development practitioners. She has published several of her own blogs on economicdevelopment.org as well. Follow her on Twitter at @michelle_mad.

Kieran Hanley joined NEIA in January of 2012 in a Marketing and Communications role, which expanded in 2013 to include Policy Development. Kieran acquired a Certificate in Economic Development from the University of Waterloo in 2016, and is currently pursuing an MBA in Community Economic Development at Cape Breton University. In 2007 Kieran acquired a Bachelor of Commerce from Dalhousie University with a Major in International Business. As part of this program, Kieran studied at the Jönköping International Business School in Sweden. Kieran gained extensive policy and communications experience as the Legislative Assistant to a Member of Parliament in Ottawa, and mastered practical marketing skills while owning and operating a small marketing and online publishing business.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

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