published Sunday, August 5th, 2012

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield mandates 25 percent energy reduction


by Cliff Hightower
Jason Gilliland, left, and Nathan Foxton, employees from Living Roofs Inc. of Asheville, N.C., unbox plants while installing a "green roof" on top of the Chatttanooga-Hamilton County Health Department in December. The City Council building also is going to get a green roof.
Jason Gilliland, left, and Nathan Foxton, employees from Living Roofs Inc. of Asheville, N.C., unbox plants while installing a "green roof" on top of the Chatttanooga-Hamilton County Health Department in December. The City Council building also is going to get a green roof.
Photo by Dan Henry.

CITY ENERGY REDUCTION GOALS

35 percent in electric and gas consumption in all buildings

20 percent of green house gas emissions

20 percent in water use in all buildings owned, leased or operated

25 percent of solid waste headed to the landfill

CURRENT COSTS

$185,000 a year on water

$5.7 million a year on landfill tipping fees

$2 million on building energy costs and purchasing cars

Source: Chattanooga

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Just over 40 years ago, Chattanooga had the nation's "dirtiest" air. Fifteen years ago, it was the nation's new "environmental city." Two years ago, city officials created an office with the specific mission of becoming a "sustainable" city.

This week, Chattanooga's mayor enacted a real plan.

By executive order, Mayor Ron Littlefield is mandating that city departments and offices accomplish a 25 percent reduction in overall energy use by 2020 to save the city and its taxpayers $2.85 million per year.

That's more than $22 million in the next eight years. And city leaders say it's a conservative estimate.

"We think it's very doable," Littlefield said. "A lot of it is common sense. But a lot of it also is about saving."

The executive order sets up goals and standards for energy efficiency -- many that have been put into practice since September 2006, when the mayor joined 275 other cities in pledging to the U.S. Mayor's Climate Protection Agreement to reduce carbon dioxide pollution.

That pact committed city governments to bringing carbon dioxide emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Now the list includes the signatures of 1,054 mayors.

The new Chattanooga order builds on that start and formalizes the city's continuing commitment to it, said Chief of Staff Dan Johnson, who ticked off such items as new smart streetlights that will save millions in energy costs and the City Council building's planned new green roof.

It's true the city may spend more now, but it's "to save more later," he said.

Councilwoman Deborah Scott, who often has balked at expenditures for environmental-minded projects such as smart streetlights and the council building's green roof, said she could not comment in depth about the order yet.

But she did say she supports energy conservation, as long as other factors also are considered.

"You have to look at what the costs are," she said.

Building the plan

Johnson said the state of New York enacted a similar order some years ago. He said he and Office of Sustainability Director Heather Adcox and former director Dave Crockett used it as a model for Chattanooga's plan.

It applies only to city operations and city-owned or city-leased buildings, and it calls for new construction to be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified and energy efficient. The city's new wellness center and the last five new fire stations have been LEED-certified.

But it also requires new equipment to be energy efficient, and for each department to develop programs to reduce energy use by things as simple as turning off lights and printers or as complicated as installing technology-controlled lighting and temperature-control systems.

To come up with the plan, city workers conducted audits on city departments and compiled data on energy usage.

Littlefield said he then went to department heads and asked them if they thought the goals -- such as using 35 percent less electricity and gas and 20 percent less water in all buildings -- could be implemented.

"I really expected some push-back," Littlefield said.

But in the end, the administrators came back and said it could be done.

Littlefield said the $2.85 million per year the city can save could equate to about 6 cents a year in property tax.

"That doesn't mean we'll be able to lower the property tax, but it does mean we might not have to raise it," the mayor said.

Energy expenses

Adcox said the city spends $11.4 million annually on energy. It costs $2 million a year to heat, cool and power buildings, and Adcox said she thinks $500,000 could be saved through lighting retrofits.

An additional $4 million in savings will come eventually from the smart streetlights, Johnson said.

Since the policy is being implemented through an executive order, any future mayor could make it easier, tougher or rescind it entirely, Littlefield said. The policy doesn't bind the city council, should its members choose not to spend money on more "green" projects, Littlefield said.

"It just provides a framework" of guidelines to continue such things as buying more fuel-efficient cars, and it provides a process to monitor the costs and savings of both dollars and the city's environmental footprint, he said.

A practical example

The Department of Parks and Recreation did a comprehensive study of ways to meet the goals of energy and waste reduction.

The result? The department is looking at recycling containers at all area parks, using electric weed trimmers instead of gasoline-powered ones, and overhauling heat and air conditioning units at recreation centers.

"It's things that come natural, in a sense," said Parks and Recreation Director Larry Zehnder.

Public Works Administrator Steve Leach said his department has been buying more-efficient vehicles for years — something the public already can see.

But efforts such as shutting off printers and eliminating under-desk heaters will be less noticeable everywhere but on the balance sheets.

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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