AMBLER — Inspired by a growing list of environmentally-minded municipalities within Montgomery County, the inaugural Montco 100% Clean Energy Conference took place June 29 in Ambler Borough. The power and influence of local activism brought forth more than 70 voices to collaborate, celebrate, and cultivate plans for a greener future. At present, 10 municipalities within the county have committed to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035, and 100 percent renewable heat and transportation by 2050.

With 19 local municipalities represented at the conference, environmental leaders are optimistic.

“The volume of attendance showed that there’s a range of vested constituents. It’s truly a citizen-led movement,” said Bill Sabey, Montgomery County’s Ready for 100 Coordinator. “Montgomery County has taken the first step in showing that a large number of citizens are interested in renewable energy.”

The county’s renewable commitments stem from the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100, a national campaign that encourages and assists municipalities in transitioning from fossil fuel dependency to renewable energy sources.

“The Sierra Club taught us that policy isn’t always made at the federal or state levels. It’s also made at the local levels,” Lou Ann Merkle, co-chair of the event’s planning committee, said. “We’re building communities who are coming together to do the heavy work of energy transitioning.”

Conference attendees came in the form of elected officials, municipal staff, environmental board members, community volunteers, and interested citizens, and traveled from areas as far-reaching as Harrisburg and Hanover, a trailblazing precinct in New Hampshire. Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin spoke on behalf of her area’s ambitions.

“Why reinvent the wheel when there’s a viable model working in another region? I’m finding that the available research and community-based initiatives are moving very quickly. We’re peddling really fast to keep up with the science and technology, and we’re connecting with laypeople to ask, ‘How would you do something like this?’ None of these outcomes have been sought out before in our area, so it’s nice to meet people with experiences and wherewithal to share.”

Hanover, Griffin pointed out, was the first town in America to commit itself to the Ready for 100 program.

“I was so impressed with the breadth of interest across Montgomery County. The desire on the part of these communities to work together is inspirational. It’s much more collaborative than what I’m seeing in New Hampshire. The potential for regional collaboration down here is huge. I think this is just the beginning of a growing movement, and it was a pleasure to be present.”

According to Jon Lesher, principal environmental planner for Montgomery County, more than 25 percent of Americans currently live in a municipality committed to 100 percent renewable energy, and that ratio continues to expand in scale and scope.

A message gone viral, Sabey was quick to point out that old-fashioned volunteerism has been a key factor in spreading that message.

“You have to have buy-in from municipalities, but a volunteer-friendly citizenry has been the most significant motivating factor. Municipal managers, staff, and elected officials have so much on their plates, so it’s tough for them to prioritize the matter. We as citizens can provide ways forward when they cannot,” he said.

With the conference behind him, Sabey outlined the next steps for Montgomery County.

“Looking ahead, there are three areas to increase participation. We have our RF100 groups to drive the movement toward local municipalities, and that’s been going on for the past 18 months. We also have the adopted municipalities working together to build the transition plan,” Sabey said. “The third component is those leaders collaborating with unadopted municipal leaders to bring about a lower renewable energy price.”

The RF100 resolution prioritizes locally produced and distributed energy and will gradually look to utilize wind, solar, small hydro, tidal and geothermal sources to satisfy energy needs. New sources and new technologies, leaders say, bring new opportunities to make a difference.

“In the past, we didn’t have the plans or the resources or the technology,” Merkle said. “All of those missing pieces are converging. You have people who are trained by Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project who’ve taken their knowledge to environmental boards. Renewable prices have gone down. This is the moment when we can roll up our sleeves and get to work. You feel like you’re a part of something larger than yourself. Americans love to serve, and this is something they’re wanting to do.”

For Merkle, the best way to push back against environmental anxiety—and intermittent frustration at the state and federal levels’ apathetic stances on the matter—is to take action.

“Anybody who wants to get involved, this is the time. We can always use another hand. We can always use your skills. There’s a place for you, whoever you are,” Merkle said.

Among local leaders willing to take action, Abington’s Environmental Advisory Council has prioritized renewable options.

“Abington passed the RF100 resolution on June 13, and now we want to team together with other townships,” Cakky Evans, an Abington EAC member, said. “I look at it as a really good time for us. We’re about to fast-track our comprehensive plan and start a task force. We have 100 percent renewable electricity through a contract with Constellation Energy for our municipal operations: the township building, libraries, 54 pumping stations, our wastewater treatment plant, for example. But the real challenge is to go 100 percent for the entire community. To do that, we need to partner with other municipalities.”

Neal Gale, an active Abington EAC member, agrees.

“It’s been a grassroots movement which has involved hours and hours of volunteered time and effort. After a number of years with the RF100 group and various EACs, it’s really exciting to see this kind of momentum building,” Gale said. “I think the next step is to pull together a beginning coalition who organize regionally, as well as working with individual communities to get their RF100 resolutions passed. We’d like to begin to forge an action plan that’ll include the community at large: residents, businesses, consultants, schools, medical facilities. We’d like to see everyone becoming involved so that everyone has say.”

Others, like Timothy Beckham, interim Executive Committee member of the Southeast Pennsylvania Sierra Club, are looking to leadership from future generations.

“There’s a lot of youth activity in Europe, in part inspired by Greta Thurnberg,” Beckham said. “The push for environmentalism is reminiscent of the 1960s era which I was fortunate to live through. There are a number of parallels between the civil rights movement and the environmentalist movement. It’s becoming more and more a social justice issue, especially among the young.”

Beckham’s point may not be missed by today’s parents, who taught the Baby Boomers to recycle in the 1990s. Occasional setbacks notwithstanding, commonalities shared among generations past and present are optimism and a willingness to act.

“In a few years, I think most of Montgomery County will be on board,” Patrick Eddis, a member of Springfield Township’s EAC, said. “I think our County Commissioners are savvy and deserve a lot of credit. I think they have a vision that MontCo is going to be the greenest county in Pennsylvania. And I think it's going to happen sooner than most people think.”

“If things keep going this way, we may have 140 reps at next year’s conference,” Sabey said.

Collective fingers crossed.

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