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Energy Challenge One: Greenbelt, Maryland

June 7, 2010 - 11:32am

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Vice President Joe Biden kicked off Earth Day in April by announcing the selection of 25 communities to receive up to $452 million in Recovery Act funding to "ramp-up" energy efficiency building retrofits. Under the Department of Energy (DOE) Retrofit Ramp-Up initiative, communities, governments, private sector companies, and nonprofit organizations will work together on pioneering and innovative programs for concentrated and broad-based retrofits of neighborhoods and towns—and eventually entire states. These partnerships will support large-scale retrofits and make energy efficiency accessible to hundreds of thousands of homeowners and businesses. Participating households and businesses are expected to save about a $100 million annually in utility bills. This initiative, moreover, will leverage private sector resources, creating an estimated 30,000 jobs across the country during the next three years.

Wearing various hats, I take part in similar, but scaled-down versions of DOE's Retrofit Ramp-Up Initiative.

For example, in 2003, I decided to recruit, mobilize, and publicize a rally of electric and hybrid electric vehicles in my city's Labor Day parade to demonstrate that clean, high-efficiency vehicles are here and now. The first year's rally consisted almost entirely of hybrid vehicles. We had Honda Insight, Honda Civic, and Toyota Prius hybrids. Partnering with the nonprofit Electric Vehicle Association of Washington, DC, where I'm a member, we've added all-battery electric vehicles, some converted from gasoline vehicles and others among the few produced by the major car manufacturers, as well as electric scooters and a solar racing car. I've done this now for the past 7 years. We won first prize last year in the parade's automotive category, and second prize several years ago. With our winnings, I've bought Kill-a-watt electric meters and donated them to the City of Greenbelt Public Works Department and Greenbelt Housing, Inc. (GHI), our local not-for-profit housing co-operative organization. GHI residents can borrow Kill-a-watt meters from GHI, and all Greenbelt residents can borrow them from Public Works.

I'm also a member of the Potomac Region Solar Energy Association, the local chapter of the national American Solar Energy Society, which organizes the national Solar Tour of Homes and Buildings. I've helped organize and publicize the Greenbelt component of the national Solar Homes Tour for half a dozen years. I welcome those who wish to see my own showcase energy-efficient modular house, partially powered by a small solar electric system, and I explain the many energy efficiency features that help keep my energy bills down.

I am also chair of the Greenbelt Advisory Committee on Environmental Sustainability (Green ACES). Green ACES consists of a dozen Greenbelt residents—all volunteers—advising the mayor and city council of Greenbelt, Maryland, on how to help make Greenbelt more environmentally sustainable.

Over the past year:

  • The city agreed to follow the guidelines found in a pesticide report we produced, encouraging pesticide-free plant pest care, and the use of low-toxic alternatives when pesticide use has been found to be necessary
  • The city also agreed to inform city employees on the need to recycle at the workplace, and instruct them on the appropriate way to recycle, including providing information in the new hire packages when hiring new city employees
  • We have and continue to strive to influence the selection of caterers and vendors in events that the city funds, sponsors, or approves, and to encourage caterers/vendors to minimize their waste stream, recycle all recyclable materials, and use "green" materials in place of materials that are more harmful to the environment, such as providing cardboard cups and plates instead of those made of Styrofoam
  • Green ACES has been helping promote the residential purchase of wind-generated electricity at various events where we exhibit
  • Last year, Green ACES began its most ambitious endeavor: developing a Sustainability Master Plan for the City of Greenbelt.

One problem we face is trying to gauge the actual savings accrued as a result of taking various energy conserving measures. If you don't measure your consumption, you don't really know if you're saving or not. And if you don't know how much you're saving, there's little incentive to save in the first place. That's why I personally like a program called Earth Aid, and plan on promoting this service locally. Residents give Earth Aid permission to request their utility data from their utilities. Earth Aid then collects actual electricity, natural gas, and water utility consumption for the participating residential customers, develops a baseline consisting of a year's worth of data, and makes it available to them online in various reporting formats. Participants can easily see if they saved energy (or water) this month versus the same month a year ago. They can also gauge their success compared to the collective savings of their community or participants throughout the country, although this is somewhat problematic since homes differ in size and energy requirements, and some people have all-electric homes versus those who heat and cook with natural gas.

Local merchants can also join and offer free or discounted products or services to Earth Aid participants to reward them for their good stewardship. For example, the local bakery may offer a free donut for so many points earned during the month, or the local pizza parlor may give a 15% discount. Residents earn:

  • 1 point received for each kWh of electricity saved in a month
  • 1 point received for every 10 ft3 of natural gas saved in a month
  • 1 point received for every 20 gallons of water saved in a month

Earth Aid offers tips on how to save energy. It also sells energy-conserving and high efficiency products and services, some that they produce, and some from participating companies.

Earth Aid is free for residential customers and to the local businesses (merchants) who offer the rewards. Earth Aid thus not only helps residents save energy and water, but it encourages community cohesion by fostering the use of local merchants.

We don't have the luxury of receiving Recovery Act funding for our efforts, so it's especially critical that we team with other groups to help accomplish our goals. I'm finding that a lot of local groups are partnering with a wide variety of diverse groups: nonprofits, volunteers, community organizations, state and local governments, and for-profit companies.

To help us in our local efforts, and to avoid reinventing the wheel, we are looking at what other local groups are doing who are trying to accomplish similar goals. Every Monday throughout June, I'll be highlighting the work that some of these groups are doing in nearby communities in Maryland and the District of Columbia. Stay tuned. For more success stories from around the country, visit Energy Empowers, and be sure to let us hear about the work you're doing in your communities.

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