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making sustainability in cleveland the new business-as-usual

Medical Center Company's one megawatt solar farm

Medical Center Company's one megawatt solar farm

Cleveland’s Chief of Sustainability, Jenita McGowan

Cleveland Culinary Launch

Cleveland Culinary Launch

Rust Belt Riders

Tunnel Vision Hoops

Grind2Energy system at First Energy Stadium

Jenita McGowan at the SC 2019


In recent years, Cleveland has gone from gritty to green in major ways. This is evident in the new green roof on the convention center, the now-annual Potluck in the Park that brings together hundreds of Clevelanders for a locally grown smorgasbord offering everything from fried greens to bok choy, and trail and green space projects.
 
But how green are we? Thanks to a community report and set of dashboard indicators released by Sustainable Cleveland 2019, a five-year-old initiative that aims to transform Cleveland into “a green city on a blue lake,” we now have a better idea. Some of the statistics are impressive, showing how far we’ve come in half a decade.   
 
The tally of LEED-certified, green buildings in Cleveland has gone from one to 62 in 10 years. In 2009, there were zero renewable energy installations, yet there are now 104 throughout the city, among them solar farms and an anaerobic digester that turns waste into fuel. The city is now flush with farmers’ markets that have quenched food deserts, and despite frustratingly slow progress, urban streets are now more walkable and bike-friendly.   
 
These all are good signs. Yet there are also many indicators to worry about, signs that we may be winning on some fronts but losing elsewhere. The number of days per year when the region’s air quality is considered unhealthy for sensitive populations has risen, now ranging from 10 to 40 days a year. Cleveland’s obesity rate is about 35 percent; the rate of diabetes is 14 percent. The Cuyahoga River is getting cleaner, yet owing to the rise of phosphorus, the health of Lake Erie may be declining.
 
What this report shows is that while sustainability leaders envision a city of net zero energy buildings, food businesses revved up into economic engines, and vibrant neighborhoods filled with bike lanes, that future is still some distance away.  
 
We turned to Jenita McGowan, the City of Cleveland’s Chief of Sustainability, to help us understand the progress we’ve made and identify the latest, greenest projects out there.
 
Proof of concept
 
SC 2019 hosts an annual summit each September that draws a diverse group of local leaders, and each year is themed with a different “celebration topic.” Thus far, Cleveland has celebrated energy efficiency, local food, advanced and renewable energy and zero waste. In all these areas, McGowan says, Cleveland has made considerable progress.
 
“We have proof of concept,” she says. “Now the conversation is about scale, making these things more systematic and embedding them into business-as-usual for our community. Not just programs for early adopters or one-off pilot projects, but bigger efforts.”
 
Huge challenges lie ahead, especially as the effects of climate change become more dramatic. Some problems are regional, making them difficult issues that will take a long time to address. Integrating sustainability into neighborhoods and resident behavior can be a hurdle, as evidenced by our 12.5 percent recycling rate (a number she says will rise as curbside recycling expands and additional education efforts are mounted).
 
Yet McGowan cites examples of progress the city has made as reasons for optimism.
 
Energy efficiency. The Cleveland Energy Saver program achieved its pilot goal of retrofitting 100 homes. The Cleveland 2030 District is working towards a goal of making downtown buildings more energy-efficient. The green building tax abatement program helps ensure that new homes built in the City of Cleveland are green and healthy.
 
Local food. Tunnel Vision Hoops launched out of SC 2019 and has created five new jobs and a sustainable business in Cleveland. Bridgeport Marketplace and Cornucopia Café and Community Kitchen opened in the Central neighborhood, bringing healthy options to a food desert. Double-value produce perks have encouraged thousands of low-income families to shop at farmers’ markets and increased access to healthy foods.
 
Advanced and renewable energy. Cleveland Public Power now purchases renewable energy from the Collinwood BioEnergy facility, which transforms discarded food waste into energy. CMHA installed a huge, one megawatt solar array at its headquarters. The Medical Center Company recently installed a one megawatt solar farm on Euclid Avenue.
 
Zero waste. Recycling is being expanded throughout the city. The Upcycle Parts Shop has opened in the St. Clair Superior neighborhood, thanks to a grant to the Upcycle St. Clair Project from ArtPlace America. Rust Belt Riders has brought residential and commercial composting to Cleveland using a private entrepreneurial model.
 
McGowan says the city also has made progress in future celebration topics – next year the focus shifts to clean water, and subsequent years will celebrate sustainable mobility, vibrant green space, vital neighborhoods and people – with more good news to come. 
 
What’s next for sustainability?
 
McGowan says this year’s sustainability summit will identify opportunities for “scaling up” the city’s progress. This event takes place September 17 and 18 at Cleveland Public Auditorium. Keynote addresses will be given by John Cleveland of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission and Annie Leonard, who is the creator of “The Story of Stuff.”
 
Leveraging sustainability assets, progress and strengths to advance business. “How do we leverage the sustainable business opportunities that are happening in the city in a way that helps advance community-wide goals?” McGowan asks. She cites the Green Venues Working Group, which brings together corporations like the Cleveland Browns with nonprofits like the Cleveland Museum of Art, as one positive example.
 
Advancing people-centered development. “We need to make these ideas accessible to neighborhood residents as part of a community culture change,” she says, citing Potluck in the Park and a block club energy efficiency challenge as successes.
 
Building renewable energy. McGowan identifies renewable energy projects like solar farms as growth opportunities. The city conducted a renewable energy site screening project that prioritizes sites and reduces the soft costs involved in these projects. McGowan suggests the possibility of a future “Solarize Cleveland” initiative.
 
Walkable cities/sustainable transportation. While neighborhoods like Ohio City have become more walkable and bikeable, Hough has actually become harder to get around without a car due to lack of density, the flight of local businesses and a dearth of green streets projects. “There are cities known for walkability, bikeability, transit,” says McGowan. “Cleveland has the potential, but what will it take to get us there?”
 
The economics and ecology of clean water. Look to the newly formed Cleveland Water Alliance as a leader that will help move this community conversation forward.
 
Climate change. The city released its climate action plan last year. The goal is to help the city become more resilient and self-reliant, mitigating the effects of climate change.
 
Waste to wealth. There’s a huge business opportunity here, says McGowan. She cites the Collinwood Bioenergy facility, composting efforts at First Energy Stadium and Progressive Field, and the emergence of Rust Belt Riders as examples. 
 
Local foods B2B matchmaking. Local food businesses have a problem: distribution. Restaurants and other venues lack the requisite staff to source local foods. Meanwhile, distributors also don’t have the infrastructure to educate customers about local foods. McGowan envisions a matchmaking program to connect businesses to customers.
 
CLE’s newest, greenest businesses
 
If scaling up is the next challenge for Cleveland’s sustainability scene, look no further than the Medical Center Company, a nonprofit energy provider that just built a one megawatt solar farm a stone’s throw from University Circle on Euclid Avenue.
 
MCCO has nine member institutions, Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals among them, and delivers steam heat and chilled water through underground pipes to University Circle facilities. Building a solar farm is part of its commitment to providing sustainable energy and reducing its costs and carbon footprint.
 
“We were looking at how we could interject greener energy into our energy portfolio for our members,” says Mike Heise, President of MCCO. “The larger solar farm was more cost-effective than doing a smaller one. This was a way to support sustainability goals.”
 
MCCO has made a commitment to eliminating the use of coal. On peak days, about 2-3 percent of the energy that it supplies could be generated by the solar farm. Additionally, solar displays are being installed on the Seidman Cancer Center and other buildings.
 
Paying for solar projects is a huge hurdle -- most entities use third-party financing, but MCCO was lucky enough to have cash on hand. Nonetheless, the decreasing cost of solar arrays as well as higher electricity costs have made solar increasingly feasible.
 
Waste to energy is another business area that’s now scaling up. Grind2Energy is a food waste recovery program operating under InSinkErator, a division of Emerson. Recently, Grind2Energy systems have been installed at First Energy Stadium, Progressive Field and Tower City Center. Previously, food waste just ended up in a landfill somewhere. Now, it’s ground into a slurry and turned into energy by the local company Quasar.
 
Finally, the success of Cleveland Culinary Launch and Kitchen, which has propelled local food businesses like Cleveland Kraut, Chill Pop Shop, Mason’s Creamery and Saucisson, has shown the potential for local foods as an economic driver. Recently, CCLK launched an eight-week food business incubator to help these startups grow. 
 
“Multiple businesses have said, ‘We wouldn’t have been able to start our businesses without this kitchen,” says Carolyn Priemer, who helped found CCLK. “Whatever the product, they couldn’t have made it out of their house without access to this kitchen.”
 

Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is a journalist, essayist and poet whose work has appeared in many regional and national publications. He is Managing Editor of Fresh Water Cleveland and Editorial Director of Issue Media Group. He has earned Master's degrees in English/Creative Writing and Public Administration from Cleveland State University. Originally from Cleveland Heights, he lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood with his family.
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