March 05, 2021 Climate

Our Town’s Net-Zero Dream Helped Inspire a Mining Company to Fully Embrace Renewable Energy. Now It Isn’t Just a Dream.

Written by: Leslie Austin


It started with a simple but bold idea. If making a building net-zero was now so doable, what about an entire community? My good friend Seth Capron decided he should try. If we embrace energy independence in my hometown of Aromas and turn it into the first net-zero community on California’s Central Coast, he thought, then maybe we can create a model for cities — even states and nations — to follow. Then, he thought, how do I convince Graniterock?

For though Aromas — a pastoral rural community, population 2,650, give or take, that straddles the border of Monterey and San Benito Counties — is largely populated by ex-hippies, lovers of nature, and environmental activists of all stripes, it’s also home to big industry. Our largest consumer of electricity, Graniterock, is a mining company. And the hard truth was that, over the years, Seth and his fellow Aromas environmentalists hadn’t always seen eye to eye with the town’s Goliath.

Meanwhile, down the road in Santa Cruz, Ben Eichert and Daniel Nelson of the Romero Institute had just wrapped a major campaign. Romero’s Greenpower project had spent most of 2016 and the first half of 2017 working with local government agencies throughout Monterey, San Benito, and Santa Cruz Counties to inspire region-wide participation in Monterey Bay Community Power (MBCP), a new publicly-run utility company that would now provide renewable electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses.

That summer, over a fateful dinner, a vision was born when Ben and Daniel met with Seth at his home in Aromas. If they were going to turn Aromas into a net-zero community, the first step, they agreed, was to reach out to Graniterock and encourage it to power their quarry operation with renewable energy generated onsite.

Six weeks later, during Aromas Day, the town’s annual gathering, Seth spoke to Graniterock’s Wilson Quarry manager, Peter Lemon, about bringing renewable energy to the company’s operations. Gratefully, not only did Seth find a willing ear, he discovered that Graniterock had already created a small solar array and was open to take the next steps in its new mission to be more sustainable.

That’s when Seth reached out to me and introduced his concept of a net-zero community. As co-chair of the Aromas Progressive Action League’s (APAL) Climate Action Team, I helped him lead a discussion with others in our town. The team, showing its usual pioneer spirit, embraced the idea. And over the next two years, we conducted a variety of public activities to improve energy efficiency, increase the use of renewables, and encourage the shift to electric vehicles communitywide.

A few months after my initial conversation with Seth, as part of Greenpower’s and APAL’s community outreach efforts, I contacted Graniterock’s management to follow up on Seth’s conversation with Peter. Thus began a series of discussions between those three entities and Mynt Systems, a solar and energy efficiency firm located in Santa Cruz. And, the rest, as they say, is history.

Three years later, our mutual vision has become a truly exciting reality. Now, Graniterock is prepared to break a new kind of ground. It’s on track to create just the third green energy-driven quarry in California — and Aromas is further down the road toward our net-zero dream. During the process, we discovered that California encourages the installation of solar power as part of mine reclamation, so ultimately, we’re also helping the state meet its ambitious renewable energy goals.

Soon, Graniterock’s 5.3 megawatt solar project will cover 20-plus acres of land slated for reclamation in the hills east of town. It will provide enough renewable energy to power 65 percent of the quarry’s operations.

What a big win for all of us! This landmark project will truly be a triumph of cooperation between activists and industry, environmentalist organizations and corporate operations, for the mutual benefit of community and Earth.

As Seth put it in a recent conversation:

“Graniterock was at the top of our list. I was delighted to learn they already had completed their small solar project and were considering something bigger and bolder. Now, here we are, 15,000 PV panels later! I’m hopeful about how advances in technology mean that doing the right thing is now also doing the financially smart thing. I hope other businesses are paying attention.”

– Seth Capron

I couldn’t have said it any better. I’m grateful to Seth for his vision, Ben and Daniel for their organizing acumen, and especially to Peter and everyone at Graniterock for their forward-thinking business model and willingness to invest in our future. It just goes to show: bringing people — even unlikely partners — together to realize a shared goal increases the chances of shared success. This is what it’s all about. It took just a few determined people to usher in a large-scale, renewable climate solution for a small rural community. And if we can do it, so can you.