Louisville mayor candidates talk about dealing with climate change

Paul Wesslund
Paul Wesslund
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While this year’s mayor’s race in Kentucky’s largest city is dominated by issues of crime and public safety, global warming and the climate change it causes hits close enough to home that the candidates are paying attention.

At a virtual mayor’s forum last spring devoted exclusively to the environment, the two leading candidates not only showed up, they spoke in favor of steps to achieve the Louisville Metro Council’s 2020 resolution calling for all of Louisville to be using 100% clean, renewable energy by 2040.

The spring forum was hosted by a group calling itself “REAL Good News,” which organized two years ago to keep a focus on the Metro Council’s renewable energy resolution to make sure it gets implemented. The event took place before the primary election, so seven candidates participated and more than 100 people signed in to watch.

Two of those candidates were selected in the May primary. Republican Bill Dieruf, currently mayor of Jeffersontown, cited that city’s work to install electric car chargers starting five years ago. Democrat Craig Greenberg says he is hearing especially strong concerns about the environment from younger voters.

Here’s a transcript of their responses to the questions they were asked. It’s lightly edited for length and clarity. You can watch a recording of the full event on the YouTube page of Kentucky Interfaith Power & Light.

What is your stance toward the 100% renewable resolution?

Dieruf: I am a mayor that’s been doing this for 12 years, so when we start talking about Louisville doing an energy audit two years ago, they’re too many years behind. In 2012, Jtown did an energy audit of our city and we started doing what needed to be done as soon as the audit was done. We paid to have things done to save money but it also saved a lot of energy, like replacing light bulbs. Back then the bulbs were fluorescent and now we’re replacing them with LEDs.

We have to have action, not studies, whether it’s window replacement or other energy savings. As far as electric cars five years ago we started putting in charging stations.

So again, in my role as mayor we are moving toward 100% renewable energy. Can we do more? Yes. Should we do more? Absolutely. But we’re already moving the needle now rather than just studying what we need to do and as next mayor of Louisville that’s what we will do. Baby steps are great but as fast as we can move things is even better.

Louisville has put in charging stations in garages where you have to pay to park. Ours are in open parking places where you can pull in, it’s free. We are trying to get people used to coming to the town whether it’s a library or one of our parking areas where they can charge, where they realize having the car charged is very simple to do while you’re shopping or eating.

We also realize that the tree canopy is a big issue to address the heat islands in our community. That’s part of not just looking for renewable electric energy but also how can we not need the energy in the first place. Studying where the trees should be can be part of that. In the West End we should look to put in more trees as well as downtown because those places are the heat islands that need to be covered with our trees. In the West End replacing the trees is not only heat island coverage it’s also an economic engine that helps houses gain in value.

Greenberg: I’m tired of complacency. I’m all about action and collaboration. I fully support the goals that the Metro Council put forward in their resolution. Not only do I support them, but as mayor I would push to accelerate and beat the goals, not just for us on the call tonight but for our kids and for our grandkids.

Just like our public safety crisis that is plaguing our city right now, incremental improvement is not enough. We don’t have any time to waste as we address these giant crises that our community is facing. We need real change now because climate change is real and it’s rapidly changing our city, our country, and our world.

As I’ve been going about the city campaigning, most adults say that by far the number one issue facing the city is our violent crime crisis. We need to make the city safer. When I talk to kids, high school students or middle school students or kids in college, they say the number one issue facing our city is climate change. We need to listen to them. We can do both of these things along with the many other issues facing our city and I believe that we can change quickly. Just look at what happened over the last couple of years with the pandemic. So many of us changed so many habits virtually overnight. Look at the past month or so when Russia invaded Ukraine. The country changed the way we bought energy. Other countries changed almost overnight. Like others have said, we don’t need more studies. It’s time for the action plan. We can and must do more to make Louisville a cleaner city, a healthier city.

As mayor I’m committed to a whole new way of doing things. A whole new set of goals and expectations, a whole new set of accountability. Everyone in our city owes it to not just our own families but to everyone’s families in Louisville, to our city, to our country, to do everything possible to make Louisville a cleaner city, to use more renewable energy.

Who do you view as the essential partners both in and out of city government in order to be successful in moving towards the 100% resolution?

Greenberg: I’ve identified four key partners outside government. I view the entire city government as working together, so outside of the city government, first is the business community. In a month or two the Days Inn on Fern Valley Road is going to open up with solar panels on their roof using full solar energy for their hotel. We need more businesses that are going to do that type of long-term investment in their own business and in the entire community. Working with big box retailers, manufacturers, even quasi-public-private agencies like the airport or like (Jefferson County Pubic Schools.) Anyone with a large roof should be a key partner to use more solar energy.

Next are landlords. It’s a pretty simple proposition for homeowners to install solar on their roofs. We need to also work with landlords who are not paying the electricity bill to give them encouragement and incentives, motivation, push them a little bit so that they too use it even if it’s going to save money for their tenants and not themselves.

We need to work with the entire land planning and development communities to encourage the building of more walkable and bikeable neighborhoods. Because it’s not just changing the type of energy that we use but it’s also reducing the consumption, reducing the amount of energy and fuels that we use regardless of the source, and walkable and bikeable neighborhoods are great for that.

My approach to LG&E would be, one, is that even though the city government doesn’t control LG&E, we need to encourage them to use more solar electricity to make it easier and cheaper for the company. Also, we need to encourage them to get more out of the Ohio River generating station and their hydro electricity so that can also be another alternate fuel.

Dieruf: The number one item any time you want to get something moving forward is to bring the residents in and make them understand what is needed in order to make us a safe, healthy place to live. If we explain to the residents the same way we’ve been doing it in the past, we have those that are believing and those that aren’t believing. But we need somebody that’s in the middle that understands how to bring the two together.

The other thing is that everybody keeps thinking that big companies and big institutions are bad, but they’re looking for ideas of how to improve and it’s up to us to sell those ideas to them and show them what the return on investment is both in human capital and in dollars. The airport right now is putting in geothermal energy, not by being required to do it, but by doing the right thing. So if we talk to LG&E or to GE or to Ford I think it’s all in the presentation. The next mayor has to believe the return on investment is manyfold when it comes to the environment.

The next thing to look at is what I have worked on many times in Frankfort, to have Frankfort on our side as we talk about privatizing or not privatizing the utility. As the past president of the Kentucky League of Cities, I know a lot of the cities in this state own their own utilities. So when we start talking about solar energy there was a big debate on that. We need to go to Frankfort and work the system to do what needs to be done to save our city.


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What are the biggest obstacles that you see community-wide in implementing the 100% resolution and what would your strategies be to address and overcome those obstacles?

Greenberg: The biggest obstacles are first, willpower. We need to encourage people to reduce their consumption and explain to them why that’s important. They’ll get used to new habits. When we change habits it’s always difficult, but once we adapt it becomes the new normal. It’s important to encourage the people of Louisville to change some habits modestly that would really improve our climate.

We also need to change the ways that we generate power by using more solar power, more hydro power, and it needs to be a priority for the city government. All of the tools are there, it just needs to be a priority to make these things happen.

Another challenge is that some of this costs money up front and it has an incredible long-term return on investment. It’s critically important that the city support residents who can’t afford to make the needed changes when it comes to home improvements, to better insulate a home particularly if you’re renting. We need to provide incentives for that to happen.

When it comes to transportation, not everyone can afford an electric vehicle, for example, and so we need to provide incentives and support for that. We need to improve our public transportation system so it’s not just something that people feel like they have to take, but it’s something people feel they want to take. I’m confident just like all of the challenges we face in Louisville we can come together and put these solutions into place and make Louisville a safer city, a stronger city, a healthier city, and I truly believe that a clean city is a safer city, it’s a happier city, it’s a more vibrant city.

Dieruf: Unified together is how we move the needle. Separately we don’t. As we look to the future, the number one thing that has moved the needle of late is technology. Technology will help us move the needle even faster farther. Technology has brought us the electric car that will go farther than 50 miles. Technology has brought to us the energy that we can get from solar panels. I remember the original solar panels would hardly produce anything compared to the solar panels we have now.

But the key thing we need to do as a group is teach, not preach. Because when you start preaching to other people they will not join you, they will fight you, and we need everybody on board in order to move what we need to do. So if you look at what we’re 80% agreeable on and move forward with that 80%, we can work on the 20%.

In Louisville, we have several examples of what we can do right now, and as I said as mayor of JTown we’re already doing many of them, but as the past president and board chair of (Kentuckiana Regional Planning & Development Agency) and on the board now, KIPDA has grants for electric buses that we should be able to reach out and grab. It’s something that’s there, it’s something I know how to bring to the table.

Another area comes up with LG&E and streetlights. If we change streetlights to LEDs, LG&E is going to charge us extra, but yet they’re saving the money. We need to sit down with them and explain the (return on investment) they’re going to get when they come to the table and when we all work together.

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Paul Wesslund

Paul Wesslund writes on energy issues and is an organizer of the REAL Good News environmental forums. He blogs on how decency succeeds in business and in life at paulwesslund.com.

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