Through the steady hum of voices that filled a Peppermill ballroom in Reno Thursday afternoon, clean energy experts tossed around terms out of the sustainability vernacular — phrases like “tree canopy” and “landscape architecture” and “single-use plastics” and “STAR” and “LEED.”
During the five-hour session, more than 120 business leaders and activists split into working groups to winnow goals that will serve as the basis for Reno’s Sustainability and Clean Energy Action Plan. In the coming months, city staff plans to write a draft of the plan that will then be reviewed by the council. Though the city published its first sustainability report last year, Reno lacks a comprehensive plan, said Lynne Barker, Reno’s sustainability manager.
“Reno is a little late to the game,” Barker told the working groups before they broke out to discuss specific goals. “But we have a lot of opportunity, and I think we have the will.”
The goals the groups identified were varied. One group suggested diverting 50 percent of the city’s waste from landfills by 2050. Other groups advocated for streamlined solar permitting and the better use of data in land management decisions. There was a proposal to create a larger “tree canopy” over the city. Another group focused its suggestion educating the public on how water cycles through the city. One group went as far as suggesting a local food sovereignty law to encourage urban farms and give the city of Reno more control over the local food supply.
For now, these are only ideas. But they could soon end up in the city’s action plan.
Barker said the groups are likely to meet again before her staff writes a draft action plan. She expects the process to wrap up in the next three to four months, but Barker stressed this is not going to be a plan that’s shoved into a drawer. She plans to create a path to enact the plan.
“My job is to implement the plan,” she said.
The workshop last Thursday came after months of discussions about how to draft the plan, and it brought together leaders and researchers from several industries, from waste management and food supply to clean energy and transportation. From there, the roughly 120 participants who showed up to the workshop were split into 11 working groups according to their industry.
Barker’s team gave each working group markers, sticky notes and highlighters. The groups, about 10 to 15 people each, then appointed a facilitator — often jotting down notes on an easel — and a scribe who diligently marked the key discussion points in a workbook Barker collected.
Each working group was tasked with identifying the most practical and significant goals in their topic area for making the city more sustainable. On one side of the ballroom, a working group looked at how to minimize the issues that come with urbanization. As more concrete is poured onto sidewalks and more asphalt is laid to build out roadways, the more air temperatures increase as a result of an effect known as the “urban heat island.”
On another side, a group was huddled over a table, discussing issues with building efficiency. Did you know there is such a thing as insulation for windows? It’s called a thermal break.
“This is the real rubber hits the road work that needs to be done by any city or company,” said Brian Beffort, who directs the Sierra Club’s Toiyabe Chapter and helped with the event planning.
Throughout the five-hour workshop, the groups narrowed down their goals into quantifiable sustainability measures. Along the way, they would weigh some of the barriers to their ideas like cultural attitudes, economics and politics. Could a plastic bag ban pass in the Legislature? What about the City Council? One person pointed out that the European Union is banning single-use plastics. Another participant pointed out that Nevada’s politics are not like the E.U.’s politics.
The groups, through this working process, were forced to choose from a long list of goals.
“So many of these decisions really come down to prioritizing,” said Stephen Ascuaga, the Peppermill’s corporate director of business development, in his opening remarks, touting the resort’s use of geothermal heating, water treatment and program to cut down paper use.
But the task was not only about economy. It was often about economics too.
If you want to reuse glass or increase composting, some participants pointed out, there has to be an incentive for the end user — the company that is involved in reclaiming and reselling the product. “The program doesn’t work when nobody buys it,” said a member of one group.
The same is true in other areas. Ambitious clean energy and sustainability projects, such as rooftop solar, can often be profitable on their own. But it usually takes a hefty upfront investment before the payoff comes years later, and it’s difficult to convince leaders to make that investment when their focus is on a one-year budget. As one participant quipped: “The dollar is the winner.”
How to surmount that challenge — with loans or incentives — was a big question.
And it’s a question the city is going to have to face as they move forward with the process. Some of the goals could come together through partnerships. Barker also said she would be open to doing fundraising to achieve the goals. Beffort, with the Sierra Club, stressed the importance of continued involvement among the participants that showed up on Thursday.
“If the community comes together, we’re going to get somewhere,” he said.
Barker said the city could have created the action plan on its own, but she argued that in the long-term, sustainability plans have tended to work best when they came from the bottom up.
“You get much greater buy-in,” she said. “They become champions of the plan.”