Small Energy-Efficiency Investments Add Up

States and cities are finding that even the simplest tasks, like switching to LED streetlight bulbs, can result in significant savings.
 

In our house, when we need a new computer printer, we debate about buying a higher-priced model. But when dinnertime rolls around, we don’t think twice about ordering Chinese takeout. At the end of the year, our order-out bills make up a big part of our household budget -- a whole lot more than a computer printer.

There’s a similar phenomenon that’s now taking place in local governments. Although painful budget squeezes are firing up political debate and citizen aggravation, a variety of other efforts are being undertaken that don’t get the headlines but can make a real difference.

One of the most important of these is in the area of energy savings. According to the National Governors Association (NGA), more than half the governors are focusing on saving dollars by making energy more efficient. In New Hampshire, according to the NGA, Gov. John Lynch has called for $3 million in savings from reducing energy use across all state agencies. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback wants his state to be known “not only as the Wheat State -- but as the Renewable State.” Meanwhile, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell wants to have his state derive 50 percent of its electrical power from renewable sources by 2025.

For states and cities, the variety of opportunities for saving cash on energy abound. Many own a large number of buildings, which can rack up big power bills for heating, air conditioning and lighting. Several cities have multimillion-dollar budgets for street lighting, and state-owned fleets can consume uncounted gallons of expensive gasoline.

Missouri presents one example of the kinds of savings -- and environmental improvements -- that can be gained through careful planning and implementation of energy-saving plans. The state has about 32 million square feet spread across hundreds of state-owned buildings. Back in 2005, facing escalating costs, a plan was developed to cut energy consumption by 15 percent by 2010. The state negotiated performance contracts with Johnson Controls, which managed much of the technologically based effort to create a more efficient approach to energy use.

The centerpiece of the effort was to upgrade the systems for facilities, control and information management, and combine them into a shared Building Information Management System in order to effectively monitor inefficient operating conditions and take actions to alleviate them. The benefits of the more efficiently run system, according to Johnson Controls: Annual savings surpassed $35 million per year (equal to 370 percent of the guaranteed savings of $9.5 million per year).

Back when it was putting together its 2005-2006 budget, Ann Arbor, Mich., saw an opportunity to save money on its streetlights. Energy Programs Manager Andrew Brix points out that street lighting is a big target for saving energy and saving money. It is the single largest line item in utilities and costs the city $1.5 million per year.

With that in mind, the city stopped putting up new street lighting to help keep costs under control, and city staff set about finding ways to reduce public lighting costs. The answer the city arrived at was to replace traditional streetlight bulbs with LED lighting. Using a $630,000 grant from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, it replaced more than 1,000 downtown lights for a savings of more than $100,000 per year. By 2007-2008, the entire downtown was converted, for a total estimated savings of $375,000. Using stimulus money, more streetlights were just converted, likely accelerating returns.

Much of these savings come from a dramatic decline in maintenance costs. LED lights have a 10-year lifespan, five times longer than the previous lights. According to Brix, the city saves $100 per year on each of these bulbs, with $80 of that coming from maintenance.

It’s just common sense that for energy savings programs to achieve the best possible outcomes, the government entities involved need to base decisions on data. If ever there were an area in which cost-benefit types of information could be useful and convincing, this is it. But Ann Arbor’s Brix, while agreeing with this thought, warns that overemphasizing the need for every last ounce of data can stand in the way of progress. “You have to have good enough data to make these decisions,” he says, “but it doesn’t have to be every last kilowatt-hour accounted for before you engage in projects.”

Yet significant changes are rarely easy. Oregon, for example, used stimulus money to embark on a seemingly simple plan to replace lighting fixtures in the capitol building for a savings of $14,000 a year -- not a huge amount, but not bad for just one building. Surprise: It turned out that the building’s hallway lights couldn’t be replaced without time-consuming back and forth with the State Historic Preservation Office, which would have thrown the whole project off schedule. As a result, the hallway lights weren’t changed.

At the end of the day, though, it seems pretty certain that states, cities and counties are going to continue to follow the energy trail in search of some kind of way to save money. The approach has one other powerful advantage. Not only does it please fiscal watchdogs, it makes environmentalists happy too. A nice daily double.

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