Solar is future for activists in Athens

photo by Lucas reilly

photo by Lucas reilly

story by Grace Hill

Village Bakery’s walls are covered with art urging support of local agriculture. Its shelves are filled with ethically sourced products. A donation jar for Flint, Michigan, sits on a glass display case.

But an even more prominent display of the values Village Bakery upholds sits on top of its roof solar panels.

According to Bob O’Neil, a co-owner of the bakery, the choice to go solar was an effort to further the goal of sustainability. In 2010, Village Bakery, 268 E State St., made use of available government grants to construct its panels.

“We use a lot of electricity. If we are just getting the cheapest electricity because we want the most profits, that is not ethical,” O’Neil said. “It is stealing from future generations.”

Because Athens is a hub of environmental activism, many residents look to solar for a sustainable future.

In its nearly 15 years of business, Village Bakery’s issues have changed and evolved, O’Neil said. Though the main issue is agriculture the Bakery supports “real food from local farms” sustainability in general is a goal, O’Neil said.

O’Neil said the choices made at the bakery can have a tremendous impact on the environment. If a business or household can afford to switch to solar, he said it has a responsibility to do so.

“It is now becoming more clear that it is a moral issue,” he said.

Zak Blumer, a co-creater of OUCAN: Ohio University Climate Action Now, is looking to push the university forward in its pursuit of renewable energy. The goal is to see implementation as quickly as possible.

Though Blumer sees the emergence of renewable energy as an inevitability, he said waiting to act will only lead to continued destruction of the environment.

“Maybe we can or maybe we can’t do anything about what we did in the past. Regardless, we can’t let it continue if we know that that will cause mass extinction, famine, war, you name it,” Blumer said. “This is the crux of our generation as I see it, and the biggest problem that the human species has probably ever faced.”

Blumer said in order to encourage the university, OUCAN aims to show the consensus within the community that renewable energy is necessary. Faculty, students, administrators and community  members are all essential to the movement Blumer hopes to ignite.

OUCAN has hosted events, petitioned, started letter writing campaigns and sent newsletters to shine a light on environmental topics. It also works to promote similar organizations.

“We in very many ways want to be that connection between these sparse environmental groups,” Blumer said.

Blumer hopes to connect anything from the Vegan Cooking Workshop, a group that meets at United Campus Ministries, 18 N College St., to share vegan meals during the school year, to OU for Clean Energy and Fossil Fuel Divestment, a group advocating for the university’s divestment from fossil fuels.

“We’re trying to be that group that can bring in others around a common front one that we feel the administration needs to be reminded of,” Blumer said.

With the discussion of renewable energy, solar becomes one of the most prominent considerations on campus. That is partly due to the university’s location in Appalachian Ohio.

Made clear through a settlement between American Electric Power and the Sierra Club in December 2015, Appalachia has potential for future solar investment.

The Sierra Club, the largest grassroots environmental organization in the nation, initially opposed a proposal made by American Electric Power to the Public Utilities Commision of Ohio. The proposal looked to secure an eight-year profit guarantee for selected coal-fired power plants. However, a settlement was reached when American Electric Power promised to begin a transition to renewable energy.

According to the Sierra Club, the settlement “requires AEP to phase out all coal burning at the wholly-owned coal plants included in its original proposal, reinvigorate clean energy investments in Ohio and ensure workers are treated fairly during the transition.”

Among the stipulations is the agreement that American Electric Power will commit to the development of 500 megawatts of wind energy and 400 megawatts of solar energy.

The American Wind Energy Association has reported one megawatt of wind energy can power 240 to 300 households per year. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, one megawatt of solar energy can power an average 164 households.

This promised construction of solar energy will potentially find its home in Appalachian Ohio.

However, the settlement is not without its critics. O’Neil is just one of many who considers the settlement to be a bailout of the coal industry.

Because Ohio University is located around large expanses of rural area, Blumer said it makes sense for solar to be the focus of renewable energy efforts.

This location is also key in shaping the people’s understanding of environmental issues, Blumer said.

Athens’ history as an energy producer is also a factor. With a past in coal mining and a present in fracking, residents know the consequences of nonrenewable energy, Blumer said.

While students at the university are in a constant cycle of coming and going, Athens remains. Residents do not have the ability to leave and forget about the effects of the natural gas industry, Blumer said.

“(Residents) know what hurts and helps the community,” Blumer said. “They are kind of all fed up with the overall treatment of this area, especially in regards to energy and injection wells to do with fracking.”

O’Neil said the area’s prominence in the fracking industry has spurred Village Bakery to get off of natural gas as quickly as possible.

According to a Columbus Dispatch article, Athens County received more than 4 million barrels of fracking wastewater in 2015, an increase of nearly 40 percent from the previous year.

O’Neil wants to take as much of the business’ money out of the natural gas industry and into the hands of locals. To do this, Village Bakery supported local solar contractors.

The next move for Village Bakery is to get Bella Zona, the bake house and special events venue, off the grid.

As for Blumer, he sees solar as the future of Ohio University as well.

“Let’s get something right on top of Baker that not only provides energy, but is a visual signal to the students on campus that the university cares about its effect on the environment,” Blumer said.