Obama’s Clean Energy Salute to Greensburg, Kansas

Last night, in his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Barack Obama commended Greensburg, Kansas, “a town that was completely destroyed by a tornado, but is being rebuilt by its residents as a global example of how clean energy can power an entire community, how it can bring jobs and businesses to a place where piles of bricks and rubble once lay.”

America loves its small towns, and two presidents now have saluted Greensburg, a farm community of nearly 1,400 residents. In May 2007, a monster tornado flattened Greensburg and everything else in its 85 mile track across southwest Kansas. Eleven people died; 95 percent of the town was destroyed.

When Greensburg regrouped weeks after the disaster, one of the principles that emerged from the rubble was to rebuild with a focus on clean energy, energy efficiency, and smart growth. The idea was to brand Greensburg, which had been losing its bright young people for decades, as a center of innovation and job growth in the industries of the future.

One of the important advocates for the idea was Daniel Wallach, a nonprofit executive who’d earned some Great Plains notice as an innovator at the Colorado Nonprofit Association and had moved to a home in Stafford County, Kansas in 2003 that was 35 miles from Greensburg. Two more leaders of the nascent Greensburg greening campaign was Steve Hewitt, the city administrator, and Kansas Governor Kathleen Sibelius.

Though some residents viewed the green idea as a gimmick, others thought it made sense financially. The initial upfront cost of adding energy efficiency design and equipment would be more than recovered in savings over time. By December 2007, Greensburg had enacted a new rule that required all public buildings over 4,000 square feet to be constructed to LEED platinum standards, the first community in the United States to do so. The town also began work on a Sustainable Comprehensive Master Plan, setting out the town’s new clean, green, land and energy conserving goals, which was completed in May 2008. The goal: to be the “greenest town in America,” according to city leaders.

“Greensburg is charting a course for the future of rural America,” Governor Sebelius told Eco Home Magazine. “It is there, on the plains, where communities have thrived for generations by utilizing their natural resources and being good stewards of the land. Greensburg’s commitment to going green is the next step in this important heritage, and I’m proud of their efforts.” Ecohome magazine.com

Before President Obama took notice, Greensburg had already been embraced by President George W. Bush, who invited city administrator Hewitt to attend his last State of the Union address in January 2008. President Bush also turned the Department of Energy loose to award Greensburg $2 million in planning grants and technical assistance to actually achieve its clean, green goals.

The federal support, along with a wave of financial and technical assistance from private businesses, universities, architects, engineers, and builders, is now steadily rebuilding Greensburg as a kind of small town laboratory for energy efficiency and clean energy development. Engineers and architects also helped Greensburg think through ideas about how to conserve fresh water The town’s achievements in building a LEED-certified city hall, energy efficient homes, new energy-efficient commercial buildings, a LEED-certified art center (see pix above), installing LED street lights, and planning for construction of one or two industrial-scale windmills, among other clean energy innovations, has attracted considerable national media attention.  Planet Green, home building magazines, Treehugger.com, the Weather Channel, and others have reported on the town’s clean energy progress. President Obama’s salute last night will undoubtedly invite more scrutiny.

Wallach helped prime the media pump by founding Greensburg Greentown and developing the content for its Web site, which closely tracks new developments. One of the really useful features is a green building data base that describes the location and progress of Greensburg’s green building projects.

— Keith Schneider

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