Dialing back energy use
Keeping energy costs under control is a huge challenge for local governments nationwide, and as concern about global climate change increases, a growing number of communities are using energy management plans to attack both issues. Energy use and energy costs are tightly intertwined, making it possible for local governments to be both fiscally and environmentally responsible through proper management.
How much energy a local government uses affects both its costs and how much greenhouse gas (GHG) it emits. Every unit of energy has a related quantity of GHG emissions; the more energy used, the more emissions created.
However, the efficient use of energy is not the be-all, end-all of sustainability or energy management. Renewable energy — like solar, wind and emerging technologies — has an important role to play. Reducing employee commuting and travel also can help local governments reduce their environmental impacts. A comprehensive energy and sustainability program will include elements of all three, but will do so in a way that maximizes benefits and minimizes costs. It also will extend through all levels of the local government, from policy makers to public works departments to the treasurers’ offices to facilities staff. That does not usually mean big changes or greatly increased workload for employees, because small changes add up to big results.
The key to a successful energy management program is the quality of the planning behind it. The following five steps are designed to help local governments plan strategies to reduce their energy use and energy bills.
1. MAKE A COMMITMENT
More than 1,000 mayors have signed the Washington-based U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, pledging to work toward meeting the carbon emissions reduction targets set out in the Kyoto Protocol. There are many other international, national, state and regional initiatives that municipalities can join to show commitment, as well. Vocal support from policy makers, such as mayors, councilors, selectmen and municipal managers, is usually enough to build on. It also helps to set up a committee or working group, which can include government officials and community members, to guide the planning effort and implementation.
2. DEFINE BOUNDARIES
The group’s first step should be to define a boundary that describes what the plan will cover and what it will take responsibility for. It is best to start with the aspects of a community’s emissions that the local government controls, such as government and community facility heat and electricity, vehicle fleets and streetlights — in short, the energy use that the city or county pays for directly. In the long run, communities will have the greatest positive effect and generate the largest emissions reductions by helping residents reduce their home energy use, but it is a good idea to start small and build over time.
3. DETERMINE YOUR BASELINE
With a boundary established, the next step is to determine the energy use and emissions within that boundary for a chosen year, which will act as the baseline for goal setting and measuring progress. The simplest way to do that is by using utility and fuel bills. Those documents have all the necessary quantity and cost data to calculate emissions by source.
Knoxville, Tenn., chose 2005 as its baseline year and compiled energy use and cost data for its buildings, fleets, streetlights, waste stream, and employee commuting, which many municipalities include in emissions despite the fact that they do not pay for it. Knoxville found that its energy use accounted for nearly 80,000 tons of equivalent carbon dioxide emissions (eCO2, the units used to measure GHG emissions), with one-third attributable to buildings alone. Its energy costs for the year were nearly $8 million.
4. SET GOALS
The baseline calculations provide the framework for setting realistic, achievable goals. Goals should take the form of a percentage of emissions reduction below the baseline year.
5. CHOOSE PROJECTS
The next step is the most exciting and potentially the most complex: choosing which projects to pursue. The options will vary based on geography, demographics and population, among other factors. It is important to pick projects that make both financial and environmental sense.
Saco, Maine, chose to pursue both a highly visible wind power project and less flashy efficiency measures, such as replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents, replacing inefficient appliances in city buildings, and upgrading to LCD computer monitors. The efficiency improvements yielded a net annual savings of more than $13,000 and about 60 tons of eCO2, and the wind turbine provides power to city buildings. The turbine also has become a symbol of Saco’s commitment and a source of civic pride.
Any plan should consider how to access funding opportunities, because they often are the difference between pursuing a project and shelving it. “We want to create a lasting investment instead of just spending our money,” says Meg Parulis, town planner in Westbrook, Conn., where First Selectman Noel Bishop led an initiative to leverage grant money into an energy management plan. “There are so many possibilities out there — programs we can participate in, grants we can pursue. It’s hard to sort through it all. However, if we do the analysis, create a plan, and set priorities, we can pick projects that work for us and pursue grant money to implement them.”
Many communities also build outreach and education programs into their plans. Miami, for example, lays out educational aspects for each initiative it describes in its 2008 climate action plan. That includes promoting alternative commuting, providing energy efficiency information to residents, and publicizing available tax incentives for energy efficiency and renewable energy generation.
PLANNING PAYS OFF
It is tempting to jump right into capital energy projects and initiatives, but that is risky. Installing a community wind turbine is a highly visible project, but does it offer both a financial or environmental return? Upgrading the boiler in a building might seem like an obvious choice, but could that money be better spent elsewhere?
Having a plan in place that is built on a solid foundation of data and analysis can answer those questions definitively and provide a clear benchmark against which to measure the success of any projects or initiatives. “Alternative energy projects are great if they make sense, and that’s the hard part,” Parulis says. “We’re not going to do it just to be ‘green.’ It has to be practical. It has to be pragmatic. Planning gives us the information we need to make good decisions.”
Jay Sheehan is senior vice president, and David Bouffard is a project engineer for Portland, Maine-based Woodard & Curran.
Step 1: Make a commitment to reduce energy use and GHG emissions. Establish a committee, working group, or task force.
Step 2: Define your boundaries. What will your plan cover?
Step 3: Determine your baseline. How much energy do you use, and what are your current emissions?
Step 4: Set goals. Be realistic but ambitious.
Step 5: Chose projects that fit your goals. Start with easy-to-implement projects with shorter payback, and consider all funding opportunities.