Collective Impact for Climate Mitigation: Arlington County’s Community Energy Plan

By: Elizabeth Hurley

In May of each year, students in Virginia Tech’s Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) graduate degree program continue their year-long professional development journey by focusing on collective impact for climate mitigation via a case study of Arlington County’s Community Energy Plan. Throughout the XMNR program, students use case studies to develop strategic leadership, management, and administration skills for solving local, regional, and global sustainability problems. The Arlington County case provides students an opportunity to take a close look at how a local government is taking charge of its energy future and planning to meet ambitious climate mitigation goals.

Arlington County has been at the forefront in responding to the challenges and opportunities that energy presents. It is a national leader in innovative local government planning, sustainability, and climate action. To respond to the challenge of current and forecasted energy issues, Arlington launched the Community Energy Plan (CEP) project in January 2010. The CEP builds on Arlington’s successful implementation of land use, transportation planning efforts, and green building programs. The purpose of the CEP is to define the energy goals and describe the energy policies that will help Arlington remain economically competitive, environmentally committed, and have secure energy sources.

Responding to complex adaptive problems like climate change through community energy planning is beyond the capacities of any single institution, or even beyond the capacities of multiple organizations within any sector. These are precisely the types of problems that XMNR students are learning to solve, and Arlington’s development and implementation of their CEP provides a perfect case study.

Rich Dooley, an XMNR fellow, serves as lead instructor for the case. Also, he is Arlington’s Community Energy Coordinator (CEP), charged with leading implementation with a team of talented staff. He is responsible for ensuring that all stakeholders’ voices are heard when it comes to shaping Arlington County’s energy future. His role and experience leading Arlington’s efforts are pivotal in helping students understand the leadership required to make a complex project like the CEP a reality.

To expand on Mr. Dooley’s experience, Mike Babcock, Founder and Managing Partner of Sustainable Building Partners, also worked with students this year. Mr. Babcock has been in the energy efficiency and the green building consulting arena for 15 years. He brings to the classroom a variety of perspectives and experiences in energy auditing, modeling, and sustainability. Mike believes that there is going to be “much demand across the board for sustainability professionals and resiliency officers.” Furthermore, he sees “cities across the country looking more locally to see how they can address their sustainability issues and climate adaptation.”

Working closely with XMNR faculty member Dr. Bruce Hull, Mr. Dooley and Mr. Babcock were instrumental in helping students understand how communities, governments, and developers work together toward sustainable development.

Using Arlington’s CEP as a case study, XMNR students will explore how collective impact can be used as a powerful leadership strategy. Collective impact is the theory and practice of building direction, alignment, and commitment among diverse organizations to develop innovations and solutions to specific regional problems. By implementing the CEP in the context of Collective Impact, Arlington is attempting to meet the challenges of climate change head-on, but in a way that integrates solutions into their particular urban setting while considering their communities values and interests.

Key attributes of collective impact include: development of a common agenda, shared measurement systems, continuous communication, and a “backbone” organization. It is a bundle of best practices that enable multiple stakeholders from a variety of sectors and organizations to work together toward a common goal. Over the next month, students will work in teams to understand the role of urban energy systems in climate mitigation and use collective impact to analyze Arlington’s community energy planning process. Students are tasked with identifying significant changes in the energy sector that may create opportunities and challenges for Arlington and for making recommendations regarding potential updates to the CEP.

Problems concerning sustainability, like climate change, are complex issues that require leadership that supports collaboration and teamwork. Virginia Tech’s XMNR program provides an opportunity for students to develop their leadership skills through peer-to-peer learning using a collaborative, team-based approach to problem-solving. Experienced faculty and field experts work closely with students to support and expand student learning. In the months ahead, students will gain additional leadership strategies and practice their application at the regional and international levels.

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Elizabeth Hurley is an alumnus of Virginia Tech’s Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program and now a faculty member with the program. As an instructor with Fairfax County Public Schools, she teaches IB Environmental Systems and Societies, an interdisciplinary, college-level course that addresses a wide range of environmental issues from a systems perspective. Previously, she worked as an environmental economist at SAIC where she conducted cost-benefit analyses for EPA’s stormwater and drinking water programs.  Elizabeth also holds a B.A. in Economics from Virginia Tech, and an M.S. in Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics from the University of Maryland.

The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability thanks XMNR student Allie Dore for granting permission to use her photographs, and the following photographers for sharing their work through the Creative Commons License: Tony Webster, and the Arlington Department of Energy.