June 2023 – In the city of Frederick, Maryland, Mayor Michael O'Connor has made sustainable urban development a hallmark of his time in office.

Nexamp first met with Mayor O’Connor in early June when he came to our “Solar Blast Block Party,” an event put on in partnership with Asbury United Methodist Church in Frederick. The block party, which was free to attend, helped Frederick residents to learn about community solar and how it can help them save on their annual electricity costs. Residents were able to speak with Nexamp liaisons about community solar and enroll on-site if they wished to.

Mayor O’Connor, who has championed numerous sustainability initiatives over his nearly 15-year career in city government, made an appearance at the event to show support, and to encourage residents to consider subscribing to community solar. O’Connor is no stranger to renewable energy; perhaps most notable of his sustainability achievements was the move to begin buying renewable energy credits equivalent to 100% of the city’s electricity consumption, a practice that Frederick started in December 2020 under the guidance of Mayor O’Connor and Sustainability Manager Jenny Willoughby. This move completely outperformed the city’s official goal, which was to get 20% of the city’s energy from renewables by the end of 2022.

After first meeting the mayor at the block party, we had the pleasure of interviewing Mayor O’Connor and Jenny Willoughby about their work building a sustainable and environmentally conscious community. Here are some highlights from that interview, and some things we learned from these two community leaders.

Consider Sustainability in Everything

“When I was first elected in 2009,” Mayor O’Connor tells us, “there were enough of us on the board of Aldermen who understood the impact that climate change was having, and that as a city we needed to take some really concrete steps if we were going to reposition Frederick to be a more sustainable community.”

From that point forward, O’Connor and his colleagues in the Frederick City Government made sustainability a top priority in their approach to development. The first written goal of O’Connor’s CommUNITY 2030 plan – a comprehensive 10-year strategic development plan – is to manage sustainable urban growth. The plan is clear about this commitment, stating that “as the city grows, we must carefully plan and re-plan communities in ways that combat climate change, immobility, and equity.”

With this goal at heart, O’Connor has made a point of considering sustainability in every aspect of urban development. He tells us that there are certain obvious projects that the city can undertake to address climate change, including energy usage, the city’s vehicle fleet, and construction practices. On top of that, O’Connor was adamant that sustainability must go beyond the immediately obvious changes. “It moves into the kinds of businesses that we seek to attract to our community, and what we want to talk about with them, and how we do our planning processes to build neighborhoods that are more walkable and bikeable and less car-centric.”

Within the broader mission of sustainability, the mayor reminded us that renewable energy is an important piece, but not the only one. “Energy is just one piece of this much bigger puzzle,” the mayor tells us. In addition to renewable energy, the city has recently been focusing efforts on promoting climate resilience by improving its stormwater management infrastructure, improving the water quality in its streams, and reducing the city’s reliance on automobiles. “Every piece of the puzzle builds the future that we’re trying to create.”

Sustainability Can and Should Save You Money

The future that Mayor O’Connor and his colleagues want for Frederick involves both economic and environmental sustainability. In many cases, O’Connor has found that the two go hand-in-hand. We spoke with the mayor at length about the economic benefits of renewable energy, and he explained how he sees renewables as not just a way to decrease his community’s carbon footprint, but also to save money for the city.

“You're no longer having a debate about whether it's more expensive to go this route,” the mayor says. “You can do all these things that are more environmentally sustainable at the same cost, and in some instances substantially less cost, than doing it the old-fashioned way.” These savings are primarily due to the falling costs of renewable energy. In 2020, renewables became the lowest-cost source of energy worldwide. Prices have continued to drop ever since, creating an opportunity for communities like Frederick to work on fiscal and sustainability goals simultaneously.

The low cost of renewables made the switch an easy choice for O’Connor and Willoughby. While they were investigating the possibility of buying 100% renewable energy credits for the city, they found that it would cost the city no more than it would to rely entirely on fossil fuels, and in some cases, it would save them money. “It wasn’t going to cost us more to go in that direction. So why wouldn’t we?”

Any initiative that is both cost-saving and environmentally responsible is a win in Mayor O’Connor’s book. As technology advances and the cost of renewable energy continues to fall, he hopes to take full advantage of whatever new opportunities arise.

Community Engagement Is Key

Mayor O’Connor was quick to remind us that sustainability is a team effort. “We’re lucky to be in a community that embraces the goals that we’ve set out,” he says. “It makes it easier for us to do our work if we’re not fighting against any headwind when it comes to the community.”

In this spirit, O’Connor and Willoughby are making renewable energy more accessible through education. There are many questions one must ask when considering adding renewables to their energy portfolio: what kinds of renewables are available where I live? Do I have space for solar on my own property, or should I opt for a community-shared solar farm or coop? Jenny Willoughby told us during the interview: “the Sustainability Committee is trying to get that information out there.” She stressed the importance of making all the information easily available so residents can make their own informed decisions, a sentiment that Mayor O’Connor echoed.

“We, as the government, can only do so much,” says the mayor. “It has to happen at the household level, where people are making their own decisions about where they buy their energy from… What we can do is promote those opportunities and help people to understand why it makes sense to explore them.”

Endorsing events like our Solar Block Party is one way to promote those opportunities. The Frederick City Government has sponsored similar events in the past and hopes to continue doing so. Coming this Fall, the city will host an energy fair for all residents. “We’re really excited about it,” says Jenny Willoughby. “We’re going to tell people how to read their electric bill, teach them about weatherization, provide audit information, and get them information about community solar and solar coop… hopefully they’ll be able to sign up when they’re there.”

Nexamp’s Community Engagement team has found that community-based partnerships are critical to getting people to sign up for community solar. Often, communities are skeptical of community solar and its benefits – it sounds too good to be true. This healthy skepticism is often greater in low-income areas that have historically been targeted for predatory products in the past. Having trusted community entities like Mayor O’Connor’s office and the Asbury United Methodist Church give residents reassurance that community solar is a reliable way to lower energy costs.

Sustainability Is the Path to Success

The more Frederick embraces sustainability, Mayor O’Connor says, the more that quality of life will improve in the city. Modernized and sustainable urban planning not only directly affects the city's residents but will also feed back into continued prosperity by attracting economic activity.

“Companies will want to come here because their employees will want to be here,” the mayor says. “And so, these things all work in concert with one another to create a community that’s got high livability.” Watching Frederick use sustainability as a tool for success, not just a goal to achieve, is a breath of fresh air. With any luck, other cities will follow Mayor O’Connor and the City of Frederick’s lead. In any case, the City of Frederick’s sustainability initiatives are yet another sign of the significant tailwinds behind our mission to build a greener future.