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SSU student leads environmental charge in Sonoma

City of Sonoma intern Connor Price. (Photo by Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune)

KATE WILLIAMS,

Nostalgia is a funny thing, unpredictable and shifty. Humans tend not to miss things till they’re gone. Take the clear skies that capped the Valley before the fires. When they turned black and stinky, people longed for the air they’d ignored before.

Environmental issues, in particular, lend themselves to regret. Who’s got the time to worry about theoretical problems, after all?

Connor Prince, for one. He’s just wired that way.

Wrapping up a degree in environmental science at Sonoma State this year, Prince was hired by the City of Sonoma as its climate action technician last May. The city tasked him with implementation of the climate measures adopted last year by the City Council, because who else would a municipality trust to safeguard its environment than a 22-year-old college student?

Prince is not your average undergrad, to be sure. He’s articulate, concise, and preternaturally serious. Sonoma’s climate action plan, the document that defines Prince’s workday, is thick with verbiage and industry code. But in Prince’s hands, it is beach reading.

For instance, “Encouraging a Shift Toward Low-Carbon Transportation Options,” translates into a bike- sharing program when Prince walks the idea back. “I’ve been working with Zagster, who’s bringing a program to Healdsburg,” he said.

Sonoma’s take on the concept, expected to take shape in the next year, could involve stations outfitted with bikes in high traffic areas. “Instead of workers driving to eateries around the square, they could take one of these bikes,” Prince explained. “To make it attractive, one option is to make the first half hour of use free.”

Calculating the exact environmental benefits of such a program is difficult, but pedal power in lieu of internal combustion is an empirical environmental win, no matter how slight.

Many of the objectives of Sonoma’s Climate Action Plan are ongoing, such as incentivizing the installation of solar power at residential properties, which would remove an estimated 395 metric tons of greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.

Will Sonoma’s efforts reverse global warming?

“If San Francisco and Oakland switched to 100 percent renewable energy tomorrow and saved a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, they would not significantly affect our current climate change trajectory long term,” Prince said without blinking.

“But if all cities in the Bay Area from San Jose to Santa Rosa made a cooperative effort to drastically reduce their CO2 emissions, the results would be astounding.” That’s full-throated enthusiasm from a science geek.

A few of the action items on the city’s plan have been completed, like replacement of inefficient outdoor lights with high-efficiency LEDs. Eighty percent of the city’s fixtures have been upgraded, reducing Sonoma’s carbon footprint, kilowatt usage, and annual electric bill by $73,892.

Other items on the list seem more aspirational, like the “idling ordinance” limiting how many minutes a parked car can sit running. Who knew that state law allows drivers only five minutes in neutral? Sonoma’s climate plan limits its citizens to three.

But is there an enforcement plan for curtailing scofflaws? “Not yet, not really,” Prince admits.

Prince grew up in the smoggy landscape of Los Angeles, and has — one assumes – an experiential PhD in pollution. He is both youthfully enthusiastic and academically grave, capable of confounding political restraint.

“Of global warming doubters, I don’t press the science,” he said. “I just focus on the benefits of our climate action plan. All mitigation techniques focus on increased efficiency, ultimately saving money and reducing wastage.”

“If there is something we can all agree with, it’s saving money. I like to think of it like this: working to reduce climate change is essentially working for increased sustainable energy efficiency, environmentally and economically.”

This summer, California River Watch, a Sebastopol-based environmental group, won a court ruling affirming that the Sonoma County Action Plan didn’t go far enough, and climate change legislation countywide ground to a halt.

“Since the adoption of the Climate Action was successfully challenged, individual cities did not adopt the plan,” Prince said.

“The City of Sonoma chose to adopt the individual measures by resolution, thereby taking measurable actions to reduce greenhouse gases,” he said. “So now the other cities in the county are looking to Sonoma for guidance in how they can go the same route and do their part in achieving the countywide goals.”

“Personally, it feels pretty good to be working for the only city in the county to have taken the initiative and set goals for itself rather than waiting,” Prince said. “It’s nice to see progress, and it’s the kind of thing we need to see more.” Ditto for ambitious young men with vision and heart, dedicated to service of the greater good.

Contact Kate at Kate.williams@sonomanews.com