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Energy Efficiency Pioneers: Who's Leading the Charge?

Officials say efficiency will boost competitiveness, prosperity

Efficiency First | May 29, 2013 | By Jim Dulzo

About the Author

Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy advisor. Reach him at jimdulzo@mlui.org.

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Arlington’s plan sets very high goals—a 55- to 60-percent cut in energy use for all buildings, residential and commercial; extensive deployment of waste heat for district heating; a whopping 160 megawatts of solar power; and a broad public education effort. (Photo: Arlington County, Virginia, Community Energy Plan)

In Loudoun County, Va., there’s a solar-powered “park and ride” transit stop with electric-car recharging stations. Next door, in Arlington County, plans are pending for using heat from power generation to warm an entire neighborhood.

Meanwhile, in Guelph, Ont., 250 homes now have solar power panels on their roofs. And, in Holland, Mich., a citizen group is figuring out financing for retrofitting 90 homes to make them significantly more energy efficient.

Slowly but surely different communities are reaching the same conclusion: When it comes to making and using energy, it’s time to replace business-as-usual with breakthrough innovation.

These communities share two things: contacts with Garforth International LLC, an efficiency consulting firm, and a belief that how their government, businesses, and residents handle energy will strongly affect their competitiveness, prosperity, and quality of life.

Not surprisingly, communities using the same consultant came up with somewhat similar energy principles: Efficiency is key; district heating is pivotal; renewables are good, but not the top priority; and small tweaks to business-as-usual energy use simply cannot address the huge changes sweeping the global energy industry.

But each community is also traveling a somewhat different path to a better energy future.

First Steps toward Success

In Loudoun County, the push for a community energy plan (CEP) began in early 2009 when Loudoun and Arlington county officials attended a Garforth workshop.

Impressed by Garforth, Loudon officials asked for help from the regional commission’s energy and environmental planning staff, and began pursuing a CEP in 2009.

Arlington officials were inspired by Loudoun’s decision, but took a longer route to formulating their plan, one that included significant amounts of community involvement. On New Years Day 2010, the county announced it would develop a CEP; stakeholders from around the county joined the planning process.  A draft plan debuted the following year, and, after extensive vetting, county commissioners will vote on a final version in June.

Guelph launched a CEP process in 2006 after Ontario’s provincial government designated it a growth area. Officials realized that, unless their town used energy more efficiently and cooperated with the province’s rapid development of renewables, it would face expensive energy infrastructure problems.

“That offered us opportunities for community energy,” explained Robert Kerr, Guelph’s community energy manager.

It helped that Guelph’s mayor was a professor of sustainability at the University of Guelph. Two years of community workshops and presentations followed and “engaged hundreds of individuals, three- or four-dozen institutions and their constituents, who ultimately signed off on the plan,” Kerr said.

In Holland, the idea of a CEP came from the city-appointed Holland Community Sustainability Committee, formed when the city signed the U.S. Council of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. When members saw positive results from the City of Holland’s own energy saving measures, they asked the council to hire Garforth to help them form a citywide plan. The council agreed in 2010, and last fall it informally approved a 40-year strategy and appointed citizens to work on five CEP-based pilot projects.

Different Folks, Different Strokes

Although the four CEPs share some points, their goals and emphases differ.

Loudon’s plan would cut its county facilities’ fossil-fuel use through efficiency and some solar power deployment. Beyond government, however, the plan is strictly voluntary. It suggests modifying state-based building codes to cut energy use in new structures by 30 percent, and by 25 percent in old buildings. Loudoun committed to cutting energy in its own new buildings by 30 to 50 percent, and using solar power to meet 25 percent of peak energy demand on hot, air-conditioned days.

Arlington’s plan sets very high goals—a 55- to 60-percent cut in energy use for all buildings, residential and commercial; extensive deployment of waste heat for district heating; a whopping 160 megawatts of solar power; and a broad public education effort.

Guelph’s sweeping CEP immediately implements tough new provincial building efficiency codes to avoid constructing new power stations to meet energy demand as the city makes plans to add 20,000 new homes. It requires efficiency labeling for buildings, moves away from fossil fuels toward renewables, and gets 30 percent of the town’s electricity from power stations that share waste heat. It also calls for solar power to meet 40 percent of peak demand from air-conditioning, and heat sharing for large parts of the city.

Holland’s CEP also aims high. It calls for cutting energy use in every building in the city by 30 to 60 percent; rating and labeling all buildings’ efficiency; using modest amounts of solar and wind power; and sharing industrial and utility waste heat with businesses, public buildings, private homes, and an enlarged downtown “snowmelt district.”

But what kind of progress have the four communities made?

Step by Step toward Big Breakthroughs

In Loudoun, things got off to a quick start, according to Najib Salehi, the county’s energy manager. Besides using solar panels to power its car recharger and ultra-efficient LEDs, Loudoun’s park-and-ride facility uses net metering to cut its power bill to zero.

Meanwhile, the county’s data center drastically cut its energy use, saving $29,000 a year. Also, the county uses geothermal heating and cooling in five new buildings, and now operates nine buildings that are gold or silver “LEED certified”—placing them among America’s most efficient. Loudoun also spent $1.1 million to analyze and retrofit seven older county buildings that accounted for 40 percent of its overall energy use.

In addition, Salehi’s energy committee, which regularly gathers county department heads to figure out more ways to save energy, saved $128,000 in its first year.

The Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce sponsors the Green Business Challenge, which attracts companies like AOL, Raytheon, and Staples; public facilities such as Dulles International Airport; and smaller agricultural businesses and solar companies. Contestants self-report on recycling and efficiency; a chamber awards dinner fetes winners.

“It’s definitely spreading,” said Lynn Kaye, who chairs the project. “It’s only three years old; last year, 200 businesses registered.”

Arlington County has a full-time staff member working on all aspects of its CEP—governments, businesses, and homeowners—Energy Manager John Morrill. He says one possible CEP project would focus on building a comprehensive district energy system for the Crystal City neighborhood, including efficiency upgrades and small-scale power generation driving heat, steam, and chilled-water distribution systems.

Building codes are Virginia’s prerogative, not its counties’, so Arlington can’t require widespread building efficiency labeling. But it does label its own facilities as part of an outreach plan—so far, three companies have followed suit. Planners have confirmed there’s adequate commercial rooftop space for the 160 solar megawatts the CEP calls for.

But until the county board fully approves the CEP, officials mostly concentrate on aligning the CEP’s goals with Arlington’s “smart growth” master plan and existing LEED program. The county, meanwhile, recently met its initial greenhouse gas reduction goal—cutting emissions from county operations to 10 percent below their 2000 level. 

“The bones of the plan are solid,” according to one expert who studied the Arlington CEP closely, but requested anonymity. “If their board of supervisors commits to it, you will see astonishing results in the near term.”

Guelph’s Robert Kerr also spends lots of time meeting with people in and out of city government to design, promote, and execute its CEP, which he says is “truly a community plan, not a plan done behind closed doors by specialists.”

Since its adoption, officials have worked to entrench their CEP as deeply as possible in Guelph’s municipal culture. The city is moving quickly on renewables projects because of Ontario’s aggressive feed-in tariffs, which pay profitable rates to solar or wind power development. Guelph is awaiting approval of 30 megawatts of solar power, plus 30 megawatts of gas-fired generation that would send waste heat to nearby neighborhoods. Those two projects alone would provide one-quarter of the city’s average energy demand.

Guelph is also engineering district heating and cooling proposals for four parts of the city and facilitating several other large-scale solar projects and biogas recovery in its wastewater treatment plant.

Holland now has five pilot projects aimed at implementing its CEP. Citizen task forces are working on home efficiency retrofits, district heating for several neighborhoods, shared industrial energy services, commercial and institutional efficiency assistance, and public education. Late in 2012, the city dropped plans to build a new, coal-fired power plant in favor of constructing a gas-fired unit, and signed several wind power contracts.

That in itself marked a huge change for the community, where the proposed coal plant was very controversial.

But as Arlington Energy Manager Morill cautions, CEP supporters generally should not be looking for those kinds of immediate, dramatic results.

“One thing that is important about a plan is that it is setting a direction,” he explained. “There’s no expectations of anything happening tomorrow, but we now have a vision and a goal and a plan to implement changes over time. That is what will get us to our desired destination.”

Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy specialist. Reach him at jimdulzo@mlui.org. MLUI sponsored two presentations by Peter Garforth, of Garforth International LLC, in Traverse City in 2012.

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