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If the city of Fayetteville was a children’s book, I think it might be “The Little Engine That Could.”

That children’s book has been around since 1930, relating the tale of the tiny railroad engine asked to do a seemingly insurmountable task that bigger, more powerful engines had declined to try.

“I think I can. I think I can,” the little engine chanted as it churned its way up a steep grade with a heavy load. “I … think … I … can,” the engine reminded itself over and over. And suddenly, the task was done.

Fayetteville doesn’t mind setting its sights on lofty goals, achievements other cities in Arkansas aren’t even contemplating. Perhaps the most aggressive of these activities is the draft Energy Action Plan developed by Mayor Lioneld Jordan’s administration.

In January, the city staff approached the City Council requesting support for development of a citywide plan to reduce Fayetteville’s carbon footprint, or its contributions to greenhouse gases at the center of climate change concerns around the planet. A prior survey of community perceptions suggested 78 percent of city residents either agree or strongly agree that the city of Fayetteville should prioritize renewable energy. A smaller portion, but still well above half, said the city should also prioritize climate change preparedness.

The vote was 7-1, with John La Tour dissenting.

Now, it’s entirely plausible that broaching this subject might take us down the “Is climate change real?” rabbit hole. That’s a worthy discussion to have because people need to understand what’s happening, and the action plan fully accepts humans are responsible for recent climate change. But it seems to me even the staunchest critic of man-made climate change can get behind a simple concept of conservation. It’s just plain common sense that spewing pollutants into our planet’s limited capacity to counteract them is not very smart. The Boy Scout in me also suggests we ought to try to “leave no trace” in terms of our damage to our planet.

Without a doubt, we can do better.

And boy, does Fayetteville apparently hope to do better.

The draft plan envisions:

• An annual reduction of 3 percent in overall energy use by buildings in the city through smarter building codes.

• Converting local government to 100 percent clean energy by 2030 and the community as a whole by 2050.

• Reducing per capita vehicle miles traveled to 2010 levels by 2030, increasing biking, walking and transit and reducing local housing and transportation costs to 45 percent of the area’s median income.

• Diverting 40 percent of the waste generated in Fayetteville from the landfill by 2027.

Now, as is typically the case with such long-range strategies, the “how to get there” aspects aren’t fully detailed, but there are ideas like expanding the tree canopy, creating financing opportunities for renewable energy projects, becoming a “solar friendly city,” and working with area utility companies to advance the transition from fossil fuel-based energies to power generated through solar and wind.

Peter Nierengarten, Fayetteville’s sustainability and resilience director, noted that smart-phones were born just a decade ago, but they’ve changed the world in a short time. The trajectory of progress on technologies to put renewable energy systems within reach of cities, businesses and consumers in all likelihood will make the transition easier in the years ahead, he said.

When I see an action plan as aggressive as this draft, I tend to suspect government regulation and mandates, but Nierengarten said private companies and utilities are already recognizing benefits and efficiencies of renewable energy production and in new ways to consume energy, such as more effective electric vehicles or solar power projects. They’re not pursing such options because of mandates, but because they recognize the value, Nierengarten suggested.

Just last week, Paris (as in France, not Arkansas) announced plans to ban gas-powered cars by 2030. Nierengarten recognized people are leery of such ideas and suggested progress with technologies and changing attitudes may render such mandates unnecessary.

Fayetteville’s action plan is aggressive, but other cities in Arkansas are taking giant strides, too. Clarksville, a small town many of us know only as we drive through it on Interstate 40, has partnered with a solar energy firm to develop the state’s third-largest solar power plant. It will, city officials say, generate enough power to fulfill about 25 percent of the city’s demand.

Could something similar be in Fayetteville’s future?

The city’s lofty goals won’t be achieved without better city planning — reducing the need to travel long distances for work, groceries, etc., for example — or more options to get around than just hopping in a gas-burning car. The University of Arkansas plans a pilot project that would replace gas leaf blowers and weed trimmers with electric versions.

A huge part of the city’s plan relies on the region’s utilities shedding coal as a power-generating approach. That won’t happen overnight, but the trend is that direction.

The Fayetteville Energy Action Plan will return to the City Council for consideration of final adoption in late November or early December. When it comes to long-term government strategies, a lot of businesses and residents don’t bother to get involved until there’s a direct effect on them. This plan will influence Fayetteville for the next several decades, so it might just be worth getting involved.

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Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at gharton@nwadg.com or on Twitter @NWAGreg.

Print Headline: City eyes big step

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