“We are a 21st Century City of Innovation focusing on environmental, cultural and economic sustainability.”
So proclaims the Raleigh, N.C. City Council in the leading sentence of its mission statement.
“I think that’s a pretty strong statement in support of the work we do,” said Raleigh Sustainability Manager Megan Anderson.
Elected officials putting sustainability at the top of the agenda might seem a bit uncommon in a southern state where Republicans occupy the governor’s mansion and have commanding majorities in both chambers of the statehouse. But Raleigh – the state capital, county seat and college town – has always been more progressive than the state at large, and its rapid growth in recent years has helped make North Carolina a “swing state” in national elections of late.
In fact, perhaps the biggest challenge facing Raleigh now is its own success. With a booming economy that attracts more than 60 new residents per day, managing the growth has become more than a full-time job. In 2015, Forbes ranked Raleigh number two on its list of best places for businesses and careers. Its portfolio of local companies is heavily laden with high-tech giants, bio-tech research firms, banking/financial services, pharmaceutical companies and huge healthcare centers.
With all those high-tech companies and more than a dozen public and private colleges in town, Raleigh is also ranked as one of the most educated cities in America. It is one of the three cities and their respective research universities that make up the “Research Triangle” of Durham (Duke University), Chapel Hill (the University of North Carolina) and Raleigh (NC State University).
“So, our population growth is just crazy,” Anderson said. “It’s exciting, but also a lot to keep up with,” she said. “We want to grow smart.”
According to U.S. Census data, Raleigh’s population grew 49 percent between 2001 and 2014. As of 2015, it was the second largest city in North Carolina with 451,066 people. Raleigh is the seat of Wake County, which now has a population exceeding 1 million people.
The city of Raleigh opened its Office of Sustainability in 2008. The department reports directly to the city manager, which gives it easy access to every other department in city government. It now has three full-time and one part-time staff members who are sometimes supplemented with various fellows, interns and temporary staff that work closely with other departments and community partners to implement the city’s many sustainability initiatives.
Aside from its explosive growth, the city’s key sustainability “stressors” include reoccurring floods interspersed with periods of drought, exacerbated by the occasional hurricane. Protecting vulnerable populations and infrastructure from the intensifying effects of climate change has become a motivating factor in the city’s overall efforts to improve resiliency, Anderson said.
Last year, Raleigh was recognized as a 4-Star Community by the Star Communities sustainability rating system, scoring highest in the categories of Health & Safety and Economy & Jobs – not a big surprise, but it also pointed out some of the areas Raleigh needs to improve, particularly in infrastructure and the built environment.
“The Star Communities process was a great benchmarking tool for us and was so interesting that we weaved it into our strategic plan,” Anderson said. “It showed us that it’s not just the big things you do, but also all the little things that add up.”
Raleigh has been a leader in North Carolina and across the nation in energy conservation and renewable energy initiatives. It has been recognized for its use and support of alternative fuel vehicles, electric vehicle charging stations and energy analytics systems in its buildings. In 2006 it became the first LED City in the world in partnership with CREE, and its convention center was the one of the first in the nation to be LEED Silver certified, according to Anderson.
As the city’s population has grown, so have its municipal facilities. Suzanne Walker, Raleigh’s energy manager, said the square footage of city facilities recently increased 25 percent in 24 months. As new and expanded facilities come online the city’s approach to reducing fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions has focused on technology, collaborating with partners and taking a holistic approach to managing energy, Walker said.
“We have a very integrated facility management control and security system deployed in over 120 buildings now,” she said. “So, as the city was growing we were putting these smart building systems in place so we can manage the lighting; we can manage the HVAC, the sub-metering, the electrical.”
A Roadmap to Raleigh’s Energy Future: Climate/Energy Action Plan was approved by the City Council in 2012, according to project manager Cindy Holmes. It focused on a dollars and sense approach since the aggregated energy accounts for the City of Raleigh represent the second largest operating expense, surpassed only by personnel-related expenses. Strategic focus areas were established that have been guiding the sustainability office ever since and include transforming the city’s fleet to cleaner alternative fuels and/or electricity, increasing the energy efficiency of its buildings, implementing a wide variety of renewable energy projects, and reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.
Walker said the Raleigh Union Station project, a multi-modal transit center scheduled to open in 2017, is a great example of collaboration between the local, state and federal governments as well as GoTriangle, the regional transit authority in Wake County, and other partners. The project is part of a broader initiative to increase capacity, efficiency and safety in the railroad corridor between Raleigh and Charlotte.
The city has administered its own bus transit fleet since 1975. It operates 29 bus routes as well as a free downtown circulator service that runs in two 30-minute loops, so designated stops see a bus about every 15 minutes. As the city has grown, so has demand for improvements and more options in the transit system, Anderson said. The Union Station project is a major initiative in that direction and other regional projects are also in the planning stages, she said.
A City within a Park
Anderson said the Union Station project will include landscaping that provides support for bees and other pollinators, part of a long-term effort to improve pollinator habitats throughout the city. “There are a lot of local things going on with bee keeping,” she said, “on top of roofs at different buildings around the city, and we’re putting pollinator habitat in parks and in flood-prone areas of the city.”
With so many parks and green spaces, some folks joke that Raleigh is a “city within a park,” rather than the other way around, Walker said. Known as the “City of Oaks” for its many oak trees, Raleigh is proud of its 200-plus parks, four nature preserves and 117 miles of greenway trails, all of which combine to occupy 9,829 acres within the city. Keeping its streets and parks clean has been increasingly more difficult as the city has grown, and Anderson said Raleigh has developed a high-tech solution to assist.
“Our IT department has been pretty innovative and they’ve won a lot of awards for getting involved in a lot of projects,” Anderson said. “Recently, we were having some issues with our downtown. Because of our growth we were starting to see some issues with keeping it clean. So, we got together with our solid waste department, IT, sustainability and parks & rec… and in a matter of about two weeks we came up with a little litter audit app that basically identifies our hot spots and tells us where to focus. Then we built that into a longer process for coming up with a downtown clean plan that expanded way beyond just cleaning up litter,” she said.
Scott Bryant, senior engineer at the City of Raleigh Stormwater Management Division, said the city’s stormwater utility is funded by a single-family residential user fee that averages about $5 per month. Commercial and multi-family residential property owners pay fees based on the total impervious area of their properties (mostly roofs, driveways and parking lots). Those fees can be reduced when property owners install green infrastructure or take other measures to manage the stormwater on site. The utility fees generated about $23.7 million for the current fiscal year, Bryant said.
That money is spent on programs that provide flood control, reduce stream erosion, fund green infrastructure projects, restore water quality in designated “impaired streams,” reduce nitrogen and other nutrient loads in waterways, and expand volunteer engagement programs. He said Raleigh citizens have recently volunteered more than 1,500 hours per year on programs that clean up rivers and streams, mark storm drains to discourage illegal discharges, and monitor water quality in area waterways with city-provided testing equipment and training.
“Because, that’s really what it’s going to take,” Bryant said. “It’s going to take the entire city’s efforts and all the residents in the community working together to manage stormwater better and to protect our resources and have a sustainable community.”
Raleigh, and North Carolina in general, is fortunate to have no combined sewer systems, Bryant said. But, the city has experienced an increasing number of street and structure flood events in recent years and has 32.4 miles of EPA-designated “impaired streams,” where water is considered too polluted to meet the water quality standards established by the Clean Water Act.
The Stormwater Management Division has a capital improvement program that is designed to focus on reducing floods, improving water quality and completing watershed studies to identify existing and potential future drainage system problems. The division has completed 125 projects at a cost of $31 million since 2004.
Turning Wastewater Treatment into ‘Resource Management’
The Raleigh Public Utilities Department has historically been the largest energy user in the city, and the department with the largest carbon footprint. But, according to Assistant Public Utility Director T.J. Lynch, all that is about to change.
About a year ago, the city changed the name of its Neuse River Wastewater Treatment Plant to the Neuse River Resource Recovery Facility. The change reflected the city’s long-term goal of converting its 60-million-gallons-per-day treatment plant from an energy hog into an energy producer.
Lynch said the city is planning to install a $90 million anaerobic digester system at the facility. The project is in the detailed design phase and the city was recently promised a $50 million zero-interest loan from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s revolving loan program to help complete the project.
Once complete, the system will produce methane gas that can be used to make biofuel for vehicles or natural gas to produce heat and/or electricity. The final decision about how to use the methane has not been made yet, but Lynch said the goal is to reduce the facility’s energy demand by 2.12 MW per day.
“That’s a huge shift for us,” he said.
Part of that plan includes the ability to accept fats, oils and grease (FOG) from restaurants and food processors to generate even more methane. Currently, some FOG waste is being sent to rendering companies that convert it to biodiesel, but Lynch said most of it is taken to a farm field and land applied or illegally dumped into the sanitary sewer system where it clogs pipes and causes overflows.
“So, while we were planning this project, we decided it would be prudent to provide a beneficial outlet for this material,” Lynch said.
The city currently uses an aerobic process to create biosolids that it then uses to fertilize more than 1,000 acres of farmland the city owns surrounding the plant.
“We purposely grow some crops for market, but we also grow some crops for the production of biodiesel,” Lynch said. “We did a study in association with the Biofuel Center of North Carolina, NC State and some other partners, which estimated that with our current farming practices and crop production we’re actually capable of producing about 147,000 gallons of ethanol per year and about 19,800 gallons of biodiesel.”
The department currently uses between 13,000 and 25,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year to power the equipment it uses to farm the land, Lynch said.
Recently, the city purchased a 46-foot-long trailer that contains a mobile biodiesel production system. The trailer can be used to produce biodiesel on-site in any location and as a demonstration tool for educational purposes.
The department is also leasing part of its land to a third party that has installed a 2.3 MW solar array on the property, Lynch said.