Building Resilience at the Commonweal Site

by Arlene Allsman, Commonweal Chief Operating Officer

As power outages and other emergencies have become more common, the need to make our site and buildings more resilient has become critical. We want Commonweal to be prepared to weather future storms and to be able to continue with operations even when the power is down—and to be a resource for our staff and community. 

Initially, after an experience during winter 2019, when power went out in the midst of a Cancer Help Program with very sensitive participants, it was clear that we needed to have robust backup at our Retreat Center. This year, a generous donor allowed us to install an automated back-up propane generator that is sized to keep the house warm and provide hot water for retreatants during power outages. 

We worked to “green” the houses as well, weatherproofing windows and making changes to insulation. 

To offset 95% of our power use across our site, this fall we installed a 92-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system funded by grants from the Bothin Foundation and the Solar Moonshot Program (funded by Left Coast Fund) as well as by an anonymous donation. We’re looking into a battery system so that we can be completely self-sufficient when the power is out. We also have two electric-vehicle charging stations at our site now thanks to an incentive from Marin Clean Energy. 

Other projects include a site-wide internet network and a cloud-based server. We’re creating a more fire-resistant site by clearing brush and reducing the fuel load in the forest. We’re minimizing water use and looking into water storage tanks, so that we can be a resource for firefighters. For off-the-grid communications, we recently finished the installation of new antennas and equipment that allow us access to the ham radio network. Finally, for some time now we have been designated as a Red Cross shelter, as well as a storage facility for some of the local fire department’s emergency equipment. 

Our move toward resilience allows Commonweal to thrive and be a place of refuge, despite disturbances—epidemics, wildfires, and loss—to both our community and land.