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How Energy Efficiency Strategy Pays Off in Grand Rapids

3p Contributor | Thursday August 30th, 2012 | 1 Comment

By Haris Alibašić, Legislative and Sustainability Director, City of Grand Rapids, Michigan

For countless city governments, energy efficiency has become the cornerstone of their sustainability efforts. With municipal budgets across the country constrained or even in crisis, finding cost savings has become an imperative. Energy costs are a major component of city budgets, and across the country those costs are increasing every year. You’d be hard pressed to find a local government that hasn’t initiated a major energy efficiency project that saves them money, from insulating government buildings to upgrading HVAC equipment.

The City of Grand Rapids, Michigan, is among these local governments. But we’ve recognized that to achieve the biggest energy savings and to integrate this work into our larger sustainability goals, we must take a more systemic and strategic triple-bottom line approach to energy efficiency. Our nationally recognized success relies on four key actions: institutionalizing energy efficiency and sustainability thinking into our organizational culture; dedicating ourselves to detailed measurement and progress reporting; developing a long-term energy efficiency and conservation strategy to guide our work; and empowering our staff to innovate and pursue smart energy projects.

Grand Rapids: A leading sustainable city
In the past two years, Grand Rapids has become recognized as a sustainability leader. In 2010, Grand Rapids was named the nation’s most sustainable mid-size city by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Civic Leadership Center and Siemens Corporation. In June 2012, the City of Grand Rapids and Mayor George Heartwell received the 2012 U.S. Mayors’ Climate Protection Award in the large city category, an initiative sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) and Walmart.

Over the past decade, the city has been increasingly active in advocating for environmental responsibility and sustainability. For example, in December 2007, the city began purchasing 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources. Today, the city’s sustainability work is guided by our FY2011–FY2015 Sustainability Plan, a multi-year, adaptable document that lays out specific, measurable outcomes related to energy and climate protection as well as the reduction of our dependence on and consumption of fossil fuels. Examples of targets include a reduction in total direct and indirect CO2 emissions and efforts to reduce municipal energy consumption to 103,000 MWh by 2013 (a target that was met two years ahead of schedule). Energy efficiency is obviously central to this effort.

City leaders have also committed to the target of obtaining 100 percent renewable energy by 2020. To meet the renewable energy targets, city staff are dedicated to finding innovative solutions to reduce energy consumption, and then using those savings to reinvest into renewable energy efforts.

Institutionalizing energy conservation into city operations
To achieve the city’s goals, sustainability thinking must be ingrained into the organizational culture. A range of staff from departments across the city organization and across departmental lines are involved in energy efforts, and they are continually seeking energy-saving opportunities. The sustainability plan promotes this institutionalization: the plan is used by each department to plan activities and justify budgets based on the triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental sustainability. This document holds the department leaders accountable for enforcing “Plan-Do-Check-Act” sustainability strategies as they provide their services.

Measurement is essential for success
To show a commitment to reducing energy, it is necessary to track, measure, and report results. Grand Rapids has established an inventory of electricity use for all the city buildings as well as quarterly reporting. By measuring, tracking, and reporting data, city staff can identify opportunities for cost-saving measures. Since it began tracking and reporting on energy efficiency efforts, the city significantly reduced energy consumption between 2007 and 2011. Through detailed measurement, the city has also gained a comprehensive understanding of the greenhouse gas emissions of its facilities and fleet, as well as the emissions generated in the community from residential, commercial, industrial, and transportation-related activities. The CO2 equivalent saved by Grand Rapids’ energy efficiency efforts is equal to the CO2 emissions of 886 homes in one year.

Developing an energy efficiency and conservation strategy
The history of energy conservation in the City of Grand Rapids dates back to 1987 when the first facility audits were conducted, implementing basic cost reduction strategies that have evolved over time into more modern energy efficiency strategies. In 2009, the city developed its Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy (EECS) to serve as a roadmap for becoming a more energy efficient and sustainable organization and community. Implementation of the EECS was funded
by the Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG). This “vision document” was meant to be “a fluid blueprint, updated periodically as technologies evolve and budgets warrant,” and provided a framework to select which energy strategies the city would pursue.

In recent years the city has implemented an impressive number of energy efficiency projects, including the replacement 40-year-old windows at the City Hall building, light fixture replacement, installation of motion sensors and other projects, resulting in an annual avoided cost of over $142,000. With annual increases in electric costs averaging 5-6 percent, the avoided electricity cost has become even more vital.

Each city department participates in projects that make their operations more efficient. In the past year, the Fire Department, for example, replaced 747 lamps or bulbs with more energy efficient bulbs at three fire stations that are expected to reduce energy costs by $6,000 per year. The Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) installed motion sensors and fluorescent lamps that are estimated to save $18,500 in energy costs per year. It is estimated that the projects undertaken by various departments in 2010 and 2011 resulted in a decrease of 1,500,000 kWh of electricity and reduced the city’s emissions by 937 metric tons – equal to the amount of carbon sequestered by 231 acres of forest. The total annualized avoided electricity cost for departmental projects alone was over $115,000.

Encouraging and empowering innovation among staff
The EECS has enabled city staff to use innovation and internal know-how to pursue these projects and then share the best practices with each other through an internal Sustainable Energy team set up to review and come up with future recommendations for energy improvements and energy related cost reductions. Empowering city staff to be involved and to look at energy as an opportunity to reduce cost and help the environment leads to innovative solutions.

For example, Technical Control Supervisor Laron Morgan designed a Heat Recovery Program at the city’s wastewater treatment plant to save on natural gas usage. The program involves transferring heat from a facility where the process produces too much heat to an adjacent building during winter months. Heating this adjacent building with natural gas used to cost $20,000 per year, but now there is sufficient waste heat to completely heat the building with no gas consumption. The cost for this project was approximately $100,000 so the anticipated payback of the investment is less than five years. Morgan won recognition for the city by accepting the 2012 DTE Energy Optimization Award on behalf of the Environmental Services Department. It is clear that our organizational focus on energy spurs innovation, new ideas, and ongoing commitment from all city staff in every department.

As the City of Grand Rapids moves forward, we continue to adopt new policies and strategies that are consistent with the triple bottom line. Our goal is to remain at the leading edge of sustainable community practices, saving taxpayers money and creating a more vibrant, healthy environment for residents. There are clearly still a wealth of new energy- and cost-saving opportunities to tap—for our city and for all municipalities.

For more information about the City of Grand Rapids’ sustainability efforts, please visit www.sustainablegr.com.

Haris Alibašić directs the City of Grand Rapids’ Office of Energy and Sustainability and as an adjunct faculty teaches graduate courses in public administration  at Grand Valley State University. Mr. Alibašić is a Ph.D. candidate in Public Policy and Administration at Walden University, with a research focus on sustainability, energy and public policy, and is a recipient of the Commitment to Social Change doctoral scholarships.

image: Ian Freimuth via Flickr cc (some rights reserved)


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  • http://www.therefinishingtouch.com/ The Refinishing Touch

    This article provides a great example of how local governments, through hard work, dedication and out-of-the-box thinking, can be at the forefront of sustainable change. Grand Rapids has proven that energy efficient investments, when coupled with proper measurements and strategy, can be sustainable and cost effective. Here at The Refinishing Touch, a large-scale furniture asset management company with decades of experience in the government sector, we understand this sentiment. We have worked with local governments across the nations to refinishing, refurbish, and remanufacture existing furniture assets to save money and reduce landfill waste, when compared to buying new. We hope other local governments will take note of these within-reach changes, and begin implementing more sustainable, energy efficient efforts as well.