While Island kids slid joyfully down snow-covered hills last week, Cape Wind continued to have rough sledding. But our local citizens’ energy cooperative, Vineyard Power (VP), had a triumphant moment. In partnership with wind developer Offshore MW, Vineyard Power successfully won a 170,000-acre offshore federal lease, a quarter of the giant 1,200 square mile parcel which begins about 12 miles south of the Vineyard. The arrangement comes with a full commitment to a package of community benefits for the Vineyard. Vineyard Power’s staff and board have tenaciously slogged through a long journey to arrive at this moment which promises the potential of future energy independence for the Vineyard. It will be years before we see (don’t see – they’ll be too far away) what 350.org founder Bill McKibben once described as, “The wind made visible. The slow, steady turning that blows us into a future less hopeless than the future we’re steaming toward now.” But the day will come.

As for Cape Wind, the first planned offshore wind farm in the U.S. (there are currently 73 operating offshore wind farms in Europe) has had a series of setbacks. But all is not lost, or won, depending on your perspective. There are signs of potential resurrection. The Better Futures Project has mounted a petition drive to convince Mary Reed, the president of National Grid and a longtime offshore wind supporter, to bring her company back to the Cape Wind table.

And just days ago, two key Danish lenders continued to express support for Cape Wind. When the Danes speak about wind energy it’s rarely just hot air — they are the world wind leader, having satisfied over 40 per cent of electricity consumption in the first half of 2014 with wind.

It’s worth considering why the Cape Wind path has been so arduous. There were plenty of missteps, beginning with the fact that the Horseshoe Shoal location is sensitive. But perhaps the critical aspect is that Cape Wind lacked — as the new VP proposal does not — clearly articulated local community benefits. If these had been built into the proposal from the start, it might have been different. The Koch brothers and their ilk would still have been just as opposed, but public support may have overwhelmed the opposition and shortened the path to construction, which is now in doubt.

The question is, why does any of this matter?

Because we have, in this country and on this planet, an unprecedented challenge ahead. Climate change is not some unfortunate future possibility — it’s what we live with, right now, today, and it has us on a knife edge. Climate change is the most vexing problem civilization has faced to date. The long-term, out-of-sight out-of-mind nature of climate change leads to indifference and inaction, even though the cost of doing something is dramatically less than the cost of doing nothing. Deep energy system de-carbonization will require tremendous innovation, rapid improvement in every critical technology area, and robust policies to ensure large-scale adoption of renewables.

We’re not doing that. Yet.

The U.S., remarkably, doesn’t even have an energy policy. But if there is an aspect that both sides of the aisle agree on, it’s energy independence, the idea that the origin of our energy is the critical issue, not the burning of fossil fuel itself. Other countries have energy policies driven by aggressive carbon reduction, which is the heart of the matter. No gasoline powered cars in Sweden by 2030. Carbon emissions down by 80 per cent in Finland by 2050. But here we can only agree that energy independence is a good thing and we need to use all of the above to get there — including fracking for low-return fossil fuels, using dirty coal and imagining a nuclear future.

Energy independence can mean different things. It can mean solar panels on your house which protect you from electricity price increases and fluctuations. It can mean adopting a low-energy lifestyle. It can mean building an offshore wind farm to provide power for the Vineyard.

Ultimately, whether we choose to believe it or not, we (as a species) will need to abandon the growth economy, create an alternative paradigm and consume less. Don’t want to think about that? Me neither, mostly. For now I will propose only two considerations. First, it’s not an altogether gloomy prospect (the good work of the Post-Carbon Institute and many others attest to this); and second, the need for a fundamentally different economy brings the energy issue home to what we do locally — in our homes, our businesses and our communities.

There are challenges and opportunities. At South Mountain Company one of our goals is to become a zero energy, zero waste company. Sound like a pipe dream? It would be, if we gave ourselves three years to do it. But not at all if we assume we will get there in 2030, or 2040, or 2050, and if we design the kind of continuous improvement path that our country has not. A few years ago, with that in mind, we asked ourselves these questions: While we are working so hard to make zero energy buildings, how are we doing with energy and waste within our company? What is the size of our own carbon footprint, let alone those of the buildings we build?

We didn’t know, so we set out to find out — to measure our impacts, consider ways to reduce them and track our progress over time. We developed a methodology, gathered the data and produced the first phase of our carbon footprint project. “What gets measured gets managed,” business sage Peter Drucker once said.

Last year we made our offices, shop, and storage facilities net energy positive by adding a large solar array and replacing our oil heating with electrically driven super-efficient air source heat pumps. Now our greatest energy use, according to the assessment, is employees getting to and from work and driving around doing errands during the day. Not so easy to zero-out that one, but the data has caused us to change policies, benefits, and incentives in ways that we think will reduce that part of our footprint as well.

We are also beginning the complex second phase of our assessment — to conduct a life cycle assessment of the materials we purchase for our projects, from the extraction phase through processing, manufacturing, distribution, use, and disposal. This requires extensive research and new learning.

We have an impossibly (almost) long way to go. But the first phase of our project has served its intended purposes. We identified what we are already doing well, found the areas most ripe for improvement and determined the aspects which need further inquiry. By continuing to measure and improve, measure and improve, over and over, across decades, we may be able to reach our goal. While there is likely to be no end to this project, we are no longer at the beginning. It’s part of a path to a more sustainable future and genuine energy independence.

The recent Vineyard Power award is a big step in the direction of community-wide energy independence. The VP efforts (onshore solar and offshore wind) are about energy supply. But there’s another side to deep energy system de-carbonization. It’s what we can do — each of us and all of us — to begin the gradual ascent to a low-carbon economic system.

There’s plenty, and plenty that we’ve done already. Not long ago there was no public transportation on the Vineyard. We can continue to improve it and we can make the Vineyard safe for cycling. We can ratchet up our already vigorous efforts to localize food production. We can pull our public buildings off fossil fuel once and for all. We can reduce SSA rates for high-MPG and electric vehicles. We can even think hard about turning Vineyard Power into a complete local citizen-owned electrical utility (our outstanding state Sen. Dan Wolf is beginning to study this right now in Barnstable). The list could be much longer, and the process of making radical forward progress could invigorate our local economy.

There will be no easy sledding to a low carbon economy; rather, it will be a long, slow hike up a steep, slippery hill. I hope the view from the top will be worth the journey.

John Abrams is president and CEO of South Mountain Company, a West Tisbury architecture, building, and renewable energy company.