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Sustainability in Ashland, Wis.

November 23, 2011

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Last week, we discussed sustainability efforts in Ashland, Wis., with Mary Rehwald, a graduate of Rockford West High School. She has served as the coordinator for the local Alliance for Sustainability.

Her sustainability interests were stimulated by hearing Torbjorn Lahti speak at a conference. She then organized a trip to Sweden for 14 people from the area in 2004. They visited numerous communities that were implementing their versions of sustainable development.

The trip inspired them to stimulate sustainability efforts in Ashland. They organized a study circle in which each week a chapter from The Natural Step served as the focus of the discussions.

Starting with a few thousand dollars and a small group of interested citizens, the organization’s leadership council grew to 24 members and their budget reached $100,000. From 2004 through 2009, they created 200 jobs in the area. Thirty-three municipalities were involved. Their efforts weakened when supportive political leaders lost their positions, grant opportunities dried up and debts accumulated.

Recently, Mary and seven others initiated actions to rejuvenate area sustainability efforts. They held a fall meeting in which they addressed the issues of what worked in their earlier efforts and what should be next. Following the meeting, they sent out a questionnaire asking people what they thought was important to be talking about and what actions should be undertaken. They received 150 responses.

During our stay near Ashland, we were invited to participate in the second meeting of the group. After an overview of survey responses, three key issues were identified for discussion. One was jobs and the economy; another was renewable energy and energy conservation; and the third was agriculture and local foods. Bob participated in the renewable energy and conservation session, and Sonia attended the agriculture and local foods discussion.

Each group was assigned the task of deciding what they wanted to see happen in the area in the next eight years. They were then asked to focus on what they would like to see in the next three years.

Some unique items were provided by the renewable energy and energy conservation group. One participant indicated he has lived off grid for 28 years and recently purchased additional solar panels because the prices were so low he felt it was worthwhile, even though he did not have a project in mind. A second commented that the local cooperative electric power company uses wood chips to meet 50 percent of fuel needs, with the other half from coal. The cooperative looked into the option of using only wood chips, but determined it was not cost effective at the present time.

Another participant from Chicago, a student at Northland College, was interested in locating wind farms in Lake Superior and suggested the group use TED as a means to present their ideas to the Internet community.

Some notable ideas were presented in the food and agricultural session. They considered it important to begin with education — of students, the public and farmers. School gardens were recommended to provide healthy foods and encourage students to eat them. Experienced farmers mentoring young, new farmers and establishing a community machine shed were also recommended.

Next, study groups will develop goals and determine what they need to learn or know to reach their goals. They are also developing a speaking series for the next year.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Nov. 23-29, 2011, issue

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