A Local Perspective: The Energy Efficiency Mantra

April 12, 2010

Contributed by Henrietta Davis, vice mayor of Cambridge, Mass., and chair of NLC's Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

Following directly after the NLC Congressional City Conference last month, a leading meeting on energy efficiency moved into the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, D.C. The 2010 National Symposium on Market Transformation, organized by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and the Consortium for Energy Efficiency (CEE), attracted top professionals in the energy efficiency community, and included a wealth of information for cities. The message: "Capture all cost-effective energy savings." 

The focus on energy efficiency is especially useful as local governments are formulating sustainability plans and struggling with city budgets. Many cities are also beginning to identify the best uses of ARRA and Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) funds. 

Marc Hoffman of CEE said "the cheapest, cleanest energy is the energy we don't use," and the conference offered plenty of examples. For instance, LED lighting uses a fraction of the electricity compared even to CFLs, and operating savings are available to cities that convert their traffic and street lights to LEDs. The cost is also rapidly decreasing, while the federal government is looking at requiring energy efficient bulbs. 

Significant building retrofit projects are taking place in cities around the country as developers and owners voluntarily ramp up energy efficiency goals. In the U.S., more than 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to buildings, and by some estimates that percentage is as much as 65 to 75 percent in cities. 

Steve Morgan, a board member of ACEEE, said, "The key to high adoption and deep penetration of energy efficiency is mandatory standards in existing buildings, but to get there, we have to first show that voluntary energy efficiency measures work." 

Some urban areas have begun a new type of service agency to capture all cost effective savings in cities. Featured at the meeting were energy alliances in Cincinnati and Charlottesville, Va. These agencies are public-private partnerships that have teamed up with cities but are not wholly funded by them. 

Cincinnati is planning a door-to-door effort aimed at driving homeowners to request energy audits. In Charlottesville, an ambitious agenda will search for multiple ways to overcome hurdles to retrofit buildings. The goal is to assist building owners with auditing, contracting, and connecting with utility rebate programs and other financing mechanisms. 

Questions around funding for energy efficiency projects came up often at the conference. While building audits usually begin the process of installing efficiency measures in older buildings, audits alone don't always lead to action. In some energy efficiency programs only 25 percent of audits led to building improvements, usually because of the up-front costs associated with efficiency measures. 

Some communities are developing programs to finance owners' efforts, developing property assessment financing arrangements to tie the cost of improvements to the home and not the homeowner. More and more of these creative financing efforts are in the pipeline, including a possible federal program that would create an energy efficiency mortgage. 

Another key policy area of concern to cities that received attention at the conference was building codes. Codes are handled in different ways across the country, with varying levels of state and local control. Some localities operate with no codes. The federal government is beginning to weigh in on codes, especially those aspects that decrease energy consumption, pushing states to adopt stricter codes in return for some types of grant funding. 

Speakers also noted that building codes have important potential to constrain energy demand and reduce carbon impacts from new buildings. For instance, five cities and towns in Massachusetts have voluntarily adopted a "stretch" energy code offered by the state that is more stringent than the base code for residential and commercial property. 

While not thought of as a city issue, efficiency standards for appliances are another effective way of ratcheting down energy use. Federal, state and local governments, as well as utilities, often provide rebates for the purchase of new appliances to create incentives. One recent rebate program in Minnesota was fully subscribed in only six hours - just one example of an appetite in the public for more energy efficient appliances. 

As many policy leaders have concluded, energy efficiency must be considered the "first fuel." While getting power from energy efficiency is not free, estimated at 2.5 to 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, it is far cheaper than the 8 to 15 cents per kilowatt from all other sources. Furthermore, efficiency measures don't have the time and permitting hurdles associated with new power plants, and energy efficiency uses little if any carbon, furthering the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

It makes sense for cities to go "full throttle" for energy efficiency. The cheapest, cleanest energy is the energy we don't use. The mantra at the conference should be the mantra for cities: "Capture all cost-effective energy savings!"