June 28, 2017 -
By Liz Walker
There is a pleasant din as dozens of people converse across the long folding tables at the Southside Community Center gym. A woman walks by with a baby on her hip, her plate filled with Cajun shrimp, grits and salad. I ask the people sitting at my table, “Why did you decide to come?” The Asian woman and Latino man both laugh. The answer seems obvious. “It’s great not to have to cook. And I want to get to know my neighbors. We just moved here.” It’s an auspicious start to a three month experiment.
The idea for the experiment started last year, when Adriane Wolfe, a University of Michigan graduate student, conducted research on electricity usage in the FROG neighborhood at EcoVillage. She found that when residents attended community dinners, they saved an average of 20% (0.686kW) electric demand per participating household during the 4-10pm period. This is a significant finding: saving energy during peak demand hours means that the utilities don’t need to rely as much on older, polluting, coal-fired “peaker plants.”
What would it take to scale this up?, Adriane mused. Could this work in larger neighborhoods than EcoVillage? After graduating, Adriane started her own woman-owned company, Quinn Energy. She invited both Southside Community Center (SSCC), in a historically black neighborhood, and Learn@EcoVillage to partner with her to see if we could provide community meals for Southside residents on short-notice. This mimics the 48 hour notice that utilities use for demand response programs, to save energy.
Together we put on three meals, February- April, funded through a $500 mini-grant from Sustainable Tompkins. There were some challenges. Tragically, Leon Lawrence, the dynamic Director of SSCC, died suddenly just a couple weeks before the first planned meal. Then the Associate Director resigned shortly afterwards, leaving SSCC without a leader. However others from SSCC, including Nydia Blas and Charles Rhody stepped forward to lead the way. Together with about eight EcoVillage volunteers, and Adriane and her husband, we pulled off a successful experiment this Spring.
The events averaged over 38 community members per meal, with at least 100 community members total. It showed that people outside of the EcoVillage context showed strong interest in community meals, even when they were given short notice. Originally we had hoped to collect energy data for the participating households, but it proved to be too much for our volunteer staff to manage, on top of the publicity, shopping, meal preparation and clean-up.
In the future, we will continue to seek more funding to carry out a longer experiment. In the meantime, Adriane submitted an abstract for a presentation to the ACEEE Behavior, Energy and Climate Change conference. There was also interest expressed by the NYS Energy Research, and Development Association (NYSERDA) Behavior Program Manager and the NYC Mayor’s Office for Sustainability staff.
It’s wonderful to see how community meals at EcoVillage have inspired this project which could potentially be scaled up to make a dent in peak power usage in urban neighborhoods. Rather than build a new power plant, utilities may decide to provide a free neighborhood BBQ on a hot summer day. What could be more fun?