Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Michigan Cities Building a Sustainable Energy Platform: Focus on Grand Rapids


Editor's Note: This is the first post in a two-part series examining how Michigan cities are adopting sustainable energy efficiency platforms to recover from the economic downturn. Stay tuned for the second installment, which looks at Holland, Ann Arbor and other Michigan cities.

By Dr. Haris Alibašić

In an era of remitting financial crisis, cities seek a multitude of venues to reduce cost and to embrace strategies for financial resiliency. Michigan was one of the states on the receiving end of the economic downturn. Cities and local governments in Michigan felt the brunt of the financial distress. Several cities sought to address revenue losses and cuts in the state portion of funding for local governments through building an effective and efficient energy platform. In addition to creating more sustainable and increasingly resilient communities, the pursuit of a sustainable energy platform continues to be of high priority to several cities in Michigan.

Energy is the common denominator for many communities. Michigan organizations interested in advancing a joint energy agenda would be best served in joining efforts to try and influence decision makers and policies at the state level. While it is evident that several similar platforms have been used, there are also significant differences between these cities. The cities of Grand Rapids, Holland, and Ann Arbor, Mich. are few of those local governments, which using varying utilized energy strategies to not only cut costs, but also attempted to increase the renewable energy in their portfolio. Common elements to these three cities' strategies were:

  • Building awareness and education of the importance of energy to the organization and community, internally and externally;

  • Razor sharp focus on energy efficiency and energy conservation;

  • Some level of renewable energy investments or pursuit of renewables.

The following provides an overview of these elements for these three cities.  Some common elements apply to other cities in the state.

Grand Rapids sustainable energy platform

The city of Grand Rapids does not own its own electric utility. However, energy is a large cost driver for the entire organization, and by effectively addressing energy costs the city tries to ensure savings for its operations. Notably, increased electricity costs and decreased renewable energy costs have made return on investment for renewable energy more economically and financially feasible.  To achieve the most energy and to integrate this work into larger sustainability goals, Grand Rapids took a more systemic and strategic triple bottom line approach to energy efficiency.

Using internal resources through the organization, the city staff built a significant level of awareness to promote energy efficiency and use energy as an opportunity to include in the asset management and capital planning.  Externally, the efforts were focused on creating a sustainable platform for energy audits in neighborhoods and tools to increase energy performance in homes. The city organized the sustainable energy team, which consists of staff from various departments involved in energy management decisions relative to energy use in city-owned facilities, fleets or equipment. All types of energy use are analyzed, including natural gas, steam, electricity and fuel. The team incorporated a large cross-section of staff from across city departments.

In line with transformation investment strategy, staff from Water, Environmental Services, Facilities, Fire and Economic Development departments joined to develop a sustainable energy plan to serve as a blueprint document to be updated regularly as technologies evolve and budgets warrant. It presented opportunities to select strategies to consume energy more efficiently, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, bring down energy and fuel use, lower energy costs and support efforts to meet the renewable energy target of 100 percent by 2020.  The energy strategy was built on the principles of reducing electricity and natural gas consumption and costs, reducing transportation-related fuel consumption, and meeting renewable energy and greenhouse gas emissions targets.

Ultimately, the purpose of the plan is to provide sound policy guidance for future energy planning, good asset management of energy assets, buildings and facilities, and tools for effective management of energy and transportation needs for the city.

Efforts to reduce energy consumption continue to pay annual dividends

As noted in the city's most recent Sustainability Progress Report, since 2011 Grand Rapids has reduced energy consumption by an average of 1.2 percent annually, and has continuously implemented energy efficiency projects on city-owned buildings which has helped lower the overall consumption of energy. However, as with virtually all other goods, the price of electricity has gradually risen over the years. This increase in energy prices has created a net increase in energy expenses for the organization, even with a lower overall energy consumption. In FY2009, the use of electricity in city-owned buildings totaled approximately 106 million kWh. The total usage of electricity in city facilities in FY2013 was 100.7 million kWh -- a 5 percent drop, but energy costs increased by 6 percent over the same period.

Energy efficiency efforts are in line with targets in the Sustainability Plan and Transformation Investment Plan, and energy and cost savings support the investments. Annualized avoided cost from energy efficiency improvements were in excess of $300,000.  Further electricity savings of over $250,000 were achieved in recent years with the use of grants, energy optimization rebates, savings and one-time investments.

Externally, the city focused on a partnership with the West Michigan Environmental Action Council to use grant funding for energy audits in six neighborhoods through the Better Building for Michigan program. Ultimately, a total of 1,925 homes had energy assessments performed, with some level of energy efficiency improvements made for homeowners who participated in the program.

With respect to renewable energy, 25.8 percent of Grand Rapids’ electricity comes from renewable sources, and the city even made the Environmental Protection Agency’s Top 30 Local Governments Green Power Partnership list.  The city is purchasing more than 25 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of green power annually and producing onsite with solar panel projects.  The city has also installed geothermal at fire stations and have sought actively to install LED lighting in operations whenever it made financial sense.  A solar deployment project at the Water Administration building is producing 30 percent more electricity than originally projected, and the Water Department will benefit directly from electricity used onsite and sold back to the grid.

Image credit: Flickr/stevan

Haris Alibašić directs the City of Grand Rapids’ Office of Energy and Sustainability and teaches courses and workshops in the Graduate Certificate in Sustainability program at Grand Valley State University. Haris holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration.  He may be reached at halibasi at grcity.us

3p Contributor

TriplePundit has published articles from over 1000 contributors. If you'd like to be a guest author, please get in touch!

Read more stories by 3p Contributor

More stories from Energy & Environment