COLUMBUS, Ohio - These are tough times for cash-strapped cities that struggle to continue sustainability initiatives, but one that can maintain traction and make sense to taxpayers is energy efficiency.
For cities like Columbus, Ohio, energy efficiency programs are viewed as a necessity in tough economic times simply because they stand to save significant tax dollars going forward.
In fact, the National Resources Defense Council named Columbus one of 22 2010 Smarter Cities for that very reason.
"Interestingly, economic necessity was a driver for Columbus, Ohio ... as it put together a plan to increase energy efficiency and reduce city government expenditures over the next 10 years," the organization states on its Smarter Cities website. It is referring to Mayor Michael Coleman's "Ten Year Reform and Efficiency Action Plan," which calls for the city government to reduce spending by $100 to $150 million by 2020.
Coleman set efficiency goals in 2005 after he brought together his "Green Team," a 35-member consortium of government, business and non-profit leaders to take part in the comprehensive policy and public education program, "Get Green Columbus." While the program tackles sustainability issues from transportation to recycling to air and water, it has a significant emphasis on energy efficiency.
Though steadily making progress since its inception in 2005, the program got a $7.4 million shot in the arm in 2009 from the Department of Energy with an Energy Efficiency Conservation Block Grant to do energy-efficiency upgrades.
"In this economy right now, that was vital," said Erin Miller, Environmental Steward for the city of Columbus.
Aside from the city's building code, which is adopted from the Ohio State Building Code, Columbus has not instituted specific ordinances to achieve its efficiency goals.
"Our housing rehabs and new builds, for instance, are built to a very high efficiency standard," she said. "We don't have an ordinance or requirement across the board to meet a certain level of efficiency. We use incentives such as grants and loans."
Lights and Buildings
Miller says the low-hanging fruit for energy efficiency is lighting retrofits. That's where they see the greatest return on investment
"At city hall, for example, we're doing exterior lighting retrofits with LEDs where we're going to see a reduction in our energy use by 90-percent," she said."
The city's fire station as well as approximately 3,700 pedestrian signals are also being retrofitted with LED lights. The pedestrian signals alone will save the city $163,199 annually in electricity costs.
Broader scale, the city is taking advantage of the Energy Star Portfolio Manager, a free, interactive building management tool created by the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It allows a city to gauge and track energy and water consumption across its entire portfolio of buildings, by comparing individual buildings with similar structures under similar conditions around the country.
"If you have an office building with a certain amount of square footage and certain amount of people working in there, then it'll search to find like buildings that have the same number of operating hours, staff, same square footage and then compare," she said.
This creates a benchmark for a city's inventory of buildings and provides a rating score to gauge each structure's performance. It can indicate which buildings should be audited and takes the guess work out of prioritizing upgrades and retrofits.
HVAC systems draw attention when it comes to energy loss. Miller said the city is in the process of upgrading those systems.
"Anytime we have a replacement, it's automatically upgraded to a high-efficiency model," she said. "But we have also been pro-active when we identify those that are operational but are very inefficient. We upgrade those with a high-efficiency model as well."
As for new construction, all new city facilities are constructed to meet at least LEED Certified, though most projects have reached the Silver and Gold standards. In addition a grant program, the "Green Columbus Fund," was created to incentivize businesses and non-profit organizations to "build green."
On the manufacturing front, partnering with the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) - a consortium of mid-Ohio local governments - along with the area's electric utility AEP (a unit of American Electric Power), and the Ohio Byproducts Synergy Network, the team received a U.S. EPA grant to expand its Energy Environment Economy (E3) program.
It's a case of building on success. Since it began, the E3 program has identified $5,334,008 of annual cost savings with a recommended one-time capital investment of $5,505,704, according to the 2010 Review of the Get Green Columbus program.
"It takes a holistic assessment of a manufacturing facility to identify all the savings that can be realized through upgrades or different methods of processing material," Miller said. It looks at all the environmental issues, including energy use, and then delivers a report to the manufacturer, identifying all the opportunities for greater efficiencies.
"We piloted that program with six companies in 2009 and we're going to be continuing that program with 20 to 25 additional manufacturers," Miller said.
"Using Community Development Block Grant funds, we can issue loans to companies for energy efficiency upgrades," Miller said.
Lean Green Fleet
As for energy efficient transportation, for several years, the city of Columbus has been listed as having one of the top 10 greenest fleets in the country.
"We have compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles, and we're actually opening the largest CNG fueling station in the Midwest this fall," Miller said. "We have hybrid electric vehicles and we have E85 flex-fuel vehicles."
The city has also instituted an Anti-Idling Policy for the fleet to support more efficient fuel consumption.
"We have installed equipment so that our vehicles don't need to idle, like police vehicles," she said. Additionally, the city has addressed the need for heavy duty trucks to idle for extended periods of time to warm up hydraulic fluids. A type of engine-block heater has done the trick.
"That has been really successful because it has saved us a lot on our fuel costs," she said.
The city of Columbus has several initiatives to encourage residents to promote sustainability in their homes and businesses.
"We found that the "Get Green Columbus" website, for example, is good for more detailed information about what the city is doing or if you want information about a grant program, but it's not engaging to the public," Miller said.
Working with the mayor's Green Team - his advisory group made up of representatives from area non-profits, the private sector, community organizations and educational institutions - they devised the Green Spot program, which provides answers to citizen questions when it comes to green initiatives and sustainability. Energy efficiency is one of its prime components.
Meanwhile, the area's electric and natural gas utility companies have exceptional energy efficiency programs, such the Columbia Gas of Ohio's Home Performance Program.
"My mom and dad had their house done. A Columbia Gas contractor came in and did a diagnostic test. They looked at everything in the home - tested the water heater, furnace-everything," Miller said. That resulted in a list of recommended improvements. "Then they called one of the recommended contractors to implement the measures. They had over $3,500 worth of work done to their home for $450."
An automatic rebate program makes it doubly convenient. The customer is automatically reimbursed, so there is little out-of-pocket expense. The program takes care of tax deductions automatically as well, she said.
"The reason why we have these great programs is because of State Senate Bill 221, which is on our Advanced Energy Portfolio Standard in Ohio," Miller said. "There are mandates on our investor-owned electric companies; they have to have a reduction of their electric usage by their customers as well as increases in the amount of renewables that are used."
It pencils out for the utilities because the programs are a factor in their overall rate plans, which go before the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, where the rates are negotiated.
"We continue to make significant progress in the greening of Columbus," wrote Mayor Coleman in the city's 2010 Review of the Get Green Columbus program, noting a variety of awards the community-wide effort received last year, including:
- American Lung Association Clean Vehicle Champion Award
- Keep America Beautiful Beautification and Neighborhood Improvement Project Awards
- Government Fleet Magazine's Environmental Leadership Award
- MORPC Energy & Air Quality Award
"This attention is encouraging and serves as an indicator that we are on the right path," he said.
Miller agrees, saying the city has come a long way since Coleman launched the program in 2005.
"We're getting a lot done and we have more to do, but I'm proud of what the city of Columbus is doing," she said. "Mayor Coleman is such an advocate for green initiatives and energy conservation. He really, truly is a leader throughout the nation on these issues."