Save Energy, Save Tax Dollars
Efficiency pioneer to lead forums for Grand Traverse residents, governments
February 12, 2010 | By Jim Dulzo
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
The Ann Arbor Energy Office is saving that city and its taxpayers millions of dollars by cutting energy use and climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.
Next week, Mr. Konkle travels to Traverse City to conduct forums for the Grand Vision Energy Working Group and the Northern Michigan Council of Governments Sustainable Business Forum. It is the kind of thing he’s been doing since retiring from his municipal gig in 2008: visiting municipalities—either physically or digitally—to share his hard-won, hands-on, conservation and efficiency wisdom.
His message: By getting aggressive about conservation and efficiency, local governments can finance their own energy offices, attract grant money, and save millions of dollars—all while generating new jobs, slowing climate change, and increasing their energy independence.
Mr. Konkle’s visit is timely: The Northwest Michigan Council of Governments is ready to launch its own energy office, the Obama and Granholm administrations are rolling out efficiency programs, and Traverse City Light & Power, the municipally owned utility, is pushing for the 30 percent mark in renewable energy.
Mr. Konkle’s track record suggests he’s expert at connecting such federal and state programs to local projects.
While he was in Ann Arbor, Mr. Konkle’s leadership helped establish the town as a U.S. Department of Energy-designated Solar America City. He won the first ICLEI (international Council for Local Environmental Initiatives) Climate Invitational Award, in 2007, for developing and implementing a public lighting program using LEDs—bulbs far more efficient than compact fluorescents. It’s the kind of effort that makes him a nationally recognized pioneer and leader in municipal energy saving
He also now works with businesses, too, including the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority.
Mr. Konkle spoke by phone with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service last week.
GLBNS: Do most people understand efficiency?
Mr. Konkle: I think a lot do now, but I don’t think most understand the dire straights we are in with energy at the moment. Most people spend no time thinking about things like peak oil or how much money we spend to bring oil in from other places. It’s not in their psyche.
My presentations always suggest five problems: One is air pollution, and we’re doing a better and better job there. Second is national security, the whole idea that we are so dependent on something we don’t control. If the oil stops, we have to go to war. Third is peak oil. Fourth is climate change. Fifth is money.
Each of those is pretty bad news. People, right now, understand the fifth one. That’s admirable, but I love the opportunity to tell them all the sustainability reasons, pride of humanity reasons.
As a pioneer in bringing the efficiency message to local governments, what were you up against when you started your work in Ann Arbor?
Konkle: Mostly that nobody knew what I was supposed to do. It was energy efficiency for a municipal government, but there wasn’t such a thing.
They hired me at the same time they were ready to do bonded improvements to city buildings. So for two years I was construction manager, changing out streetlights, retrofitting lighting and insulation. Then, after two years, the city administrator decided my job was over and didn’t include my pay in the next budget.
But the city council put it back in.
From then on, my job was to verify my work and do things that saved the city money. I was successful to the point that when I give a talk, I can show a graph that proves the cost of the energy office pays for itself six times over. We saved about $6 million in ten years, and it cost about a million to run my office over that time.
So, after 20 years on the job in Ann Arbor, what is left to do there?
Konkle: There are tons of things. Now they’re going back through all of those buildings, with the newest bulbs. The next parking structure will have LEDs. Technology changes, more efficient ways of doing things keep coming along.
My experience is, after 10 years, check to see if we can do it even better.
The biggie right now is grant funds. Local governments should be just raking in grant money—like the Department of Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program. Communities with 35,000 people or more just got the money—they didn’t even have to compete for it. But it is competitive for communities under 35,000.
Then there are EPA climate mitigation grants, grants from the State Energy Office. There’s a new non-profit in Ann Arbor, Energy Works Michigan, which has 3.5 mills for improving school systems. I can’t even name them all.
But aren’t the possible savings getting smaller as time goes on?
Konkle: First time, you can knock 30 percent off. The second time it does get down to 10 or 15 percent, but the economics still work because the price of power keeps going up. Look at LEDs—we cut energy use by 50 percent from what was cut the first time, with compact fluorescents, and cut the maintenance costs by a factor of 10.
How do other municipalities react to the idea of investing in conservation?
Konkle: I’ve worked with lots of communities around the U.S., and the question is always about the expected energy savings. If they’re lucky, they already know how much they are spending on energy, but mostly they have not done energy audits.
They will find ways to save 30 percent of their energy costs or better, but I tell them you can save more than that. Most places, I can make an energy office pay for itself if you can find just 10 percent, but we can double or triple that. It’s way more fun to see them do better than they expected.
I have a rule of thumb about starting an energy office: To keep it working full time, you need 100,000 people and four to five million dollars in annual energy cost. AA is about $5.5, maybe $6 million. Regional offices are easy to share; if you cut $4 million by 10 percent, that’s $400,000, way more than cost of an energy office.
How much have you worked with other cities?
Konkle: I’ve physically traveled to something between 10 and 20 cities and sat with department heads and facility managers talking about having a local energy office, how it gets started, how it pays for itself.
The barrier to starting an energy office is the local funding situation, which these days is usually pretty bad. So the federal stimulus funding was the answer to the barrier. $200 thousand from the energy efficiency block grants should allow an energy office.
That all happened very quickly, so now I give Webinars. I’m sure I’ve communicated to hundreds of local governments.
No matter how much sense it makes, it is really difficult to hire someone into a municipal government. There’s a hiring freeze; it makes it politically difficult even with logic and financing. But some places are moving forward anyway.
It really is the mechanism for mitigating climate change. So, we need a program to explain energy offices to cities. That’s what my ICLE program is about.
I’m not the kind of guy to retire, relax, and go fishing. So my goal is to create a national municipal energy office association. [The Michigan Public Utility Commission’s] John Sarver and I are talking about that.
Is efficiency bi-partisan?
Konkle: It absolutely should be bipartisan. We’re just talking about being more intelligent about using energy. How can that be political?
But politics does get in the way. We’ve sunk so low; neither party wants the other to pass a really good bill. Things are just a little strange in our Washington politics.
There are obvious energy-saving things like weatherization, retrofitting buildings, modern furnaces and boilers, LEDs for lighting and traffic lights. What are some things officials probably would not think of without help?
Konkle: I think an energy engineer would think of most of the things I could think of. But most governments don’t have a person who is paid to think about energy use. Utilizing capacitors to reduce demand, variable speed drive for pumps, CO2 sensors controlling air intake: normal energy manager would know.
So we need a training program. I was talking yesterday with people who run school systems. I told them my job wouldn’t be so different if I was looking over their stuff. We all have swimming pools and parking lots, sports facilities, and big buildings.
The easy stuff that you see, most people know about, but there are tons of things I’ve learned over the years and will continue to learn on ways to save energy. I hope to never quit learning.
So, where do you start in a place like Traverse City or this whole region?
Konkle: I’ve been working some already with Northwest Michigan Council of Governments, SEEDS, Michigan Energy Alternatives Program. So I am coming to TC with two presentations; Thursday night I talk to the Grand Vision work group, and Friday morning to the Sustainable Business Forum.
The business forum talk is titled “Demand Side Management,” a really commendable goal. They are hoping I can talk strongly about how conservation has to be the major and first part of that.
It’s a little hard to tell companies, like a utility, to sell less of their product. I will use the Ann Arbor example, try to get that into their minds and plans—it’s not just about the utility; it’s about the entire community moving forward. I hope I can be a momentum starter.
I’m going to tell them, coming from Ann Arbor, smack dab in the center of DTE Energy territory, that we are completely jealous of them having Traverse City Light & Power. DTE is nothing but combative; they never make it any fun for anybody.
So I’m thrilled to come to Traverse City to help; it has already done amazing things, not just the utility, but the groundwork being done by these community organizations. My job is to come share some knowledge and accelerate it even more.
Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s managing editor. Reach him at email@example.com.