Energy & Environment

Mr. Sustainability

John Coleman is the "sustainability director" for Fayetteville, Arkansas. At first blush, that may sound like some outdoorsy environmentalist job. But in truth, Coleman spends...
by | March 31, 2008

John Coleman is the "sustainability director" for Fayetteville, Arkansas. At first blush, that may sound like some outdoorsy environmentalist job. But in truth, Coleman spends a lot of time in drab, windowless rooms. In one such cave, a conference room in Fayetteville's city hall, Coleman gathers the division directors who make up his "sustainability team" and announces some good news. Fayetteville had budgeted $1.9 million for utility costs in 2007, but the final number came in about $180,000 less than that. "You just barely covered my salary," Coleman deadpans, in his mild Ozark Mountain twang. "I get to stick around for another year."

He's exaggerating -- Coleman's salary actually is $57,000 -- but his point is the same. Coleman was hired last May under the condition that he generate enough savings to the city budget to pay for his position. So far, that hasn't been too hard to do. There are easy pickings in every city department -- inefficient thermostats, wasteful light bulbs, computers that are left on overnight.

Coleman, who is 30, has an unassuming, easygoing presence to him, which generally works to his advantage. Because his main task is to delicately but deliberately cajole city managers, most of whom are two decades his senior, into reducing their departments' environmental impact by using less of everything -- electricity, gasoline, even office supplies. It seems to work. As members of his team report on their initiatives, a police captain boasts that using handheld computers for issuing electronic tickets is saving 1,000 sheets of paper a month.

To be sure, a few reams of paper won't add much to Fayetteville's bottom line or to Coleman's paycheck. Still, Coleman obsesses about little things, nosing around for energy efficiency like a mouse after bits of cheese. He once helped draft a memo telling city employees in sunlit offices to turn off their lights. Currently, he's working with the city council

on developing a policy that would allow free parking at street meters for vehicles that get more than 40 miles per gallon.

Coleman pushes these initiatives not just because his salary is riding on it. He pushes them because they are the simplest ways Fayetteville can do its part in preventing global warming from becoming a worse problem than it's already likely to be. Fayetteville's mayor, Dan Coody, is one of 805 mayors nationally who have signed pledges to slash their cities' greenhouse gas emissions in line with targets set in the Kyoto Protocol. Those mayors have lapped up international praise for leading on climate change where Washington lagged. But the truth is, they are just now getting down to figuring out what exactly they have agreed to. What does it really mean to reduce a city's carbon footprint?

Most mayors haven't thought this question through too far yet. But the ones who have are finding that one of the first things to do is to hire a John Coleman. About three dozen cities now have sustainability directors of their own, and there are more whose job titles reflect either the broader fight against climate change or the somewhat narrower quest for energy efficiency. The idea is to have one person -- or in Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and other big cities, entire staffs -- dedicated to squeezing greenhouse gas emissions out of the way government does business, and to serve as both a liaison and a beacon to businesses and citizens who want to limit their own carbon output.

The trump card in every sustainability director's hand is the vast amount of electricity that's currently wasted in government facilities. Saving power tends to produce big greenhouse gas reductions because half of all electricity in the United States comes from burning coal. And energy efficiency is one initiative that translates automatically into bottom-line savings. In other words, Fayetteville's demand that Coleman pay his own way is not that much of a gamble for either side, for the time being.

Cities don't need to do a Fayetteville-style deal to get results, however. Ann Beier, Milwaukee's sustainability director, is looking for dramatic energy savings by focusing on a handful of the city's largest energy users. The water works department, where pumps and equipment hog energy 24/7, is one of them. The city hired an energy-efficiency specialist just to find savings there. Beier also is looking at reducing Milwaukee's $14 million annual lighting bill by replacing incandescent lights with fluorescents and LEDs. Her goal is to drop energy use overall by 15 percent. As Beier puts it, "We're putting ourselves on an energy diet."

Powering Down

When Fayetteville advertised the sustainability job, five times more resumes landed on Mayor Coody's desk than he's received for any other open position. A NASA engineer and Harvard graduate were among the applicants. The mayor picked the low-key farm boy from Mountainburg, Arkansas.

Coleman doesn't identify himself as an "environmentalist" in a Greenpeace sort of way. He got a degree in civil engineering from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. From there, he found work in storm water management and stream restoration in Fairfax County, Virginia, before heading to the University of Texas to get his master's in public policy. Gradually, Coleman's subtle brand of youthful idealism took on a greenish tone. He took a job in the Austin city manager's office, where he worked on a car-sharing program and volunteered for the mayor on developing a climate-protection plan. His enthusiasm built when he read "Natural Capitalism," by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins. The book argues that there are profits to be made in using ecological resources more efficiently, if businesses care to look.

Coleman's current job allows him to combine his new environmental concerns with his engineering skills and a longtime interest in urban economic development. To him, promoting sustainability is the same thing as promoting a better quality of life in Fayetteville. Still, he's struggled a bit to define his job, and to manage his time when there are so many things that interest him and so many people who want to sell him their products or ideas. Energy efficiency plays a large role because it's quantifiable, and therefore he can use it to justify his position. But he'd also like to see new buildings have a lower impact on their surroundings and low-income housing go green. "There's still so much room for improvement in local governments -- ours especially," he says. "It's never really been focused on before."

Coleman has no pool of funds to tap for projects. And so his challenge is to get managers to feel as passionately about sustainability as he does. One idea Coleman came up with he stole from the television show "The Biggest Loser," in which overweight contestants compete to shed the most pounds. Coleman's version is an energy-efficiency competition among the various departments. Each month, he compiles a list of the seven offices that reduced their power consumption the most from the year before. Sustainability team members post the results in their lobbies and in break rooms, and Coleman hangs a copy on the heavily trafficked back door of city hall.

The only prize in Coleman's contest is pride. Yet some departments are taking it really seriously. The Solid Waste and Recycling Division, for example, installed programmable thermostats and more efficient lighting. The office's energy spending declined by 40 percent. "It was eye-opening, what we're saving," says Brian Pugh, the waste reduction coordinator. The running office joke, when a light has been left on unnecessarily, is for someone to come along, put a finger on the switch and say, "Here, let me get the light for you."

Not everyone in Fayetteville is as enthusiastic as Pugh is. Some division directors wonder why there's been so much hubbub over saving what amounts to less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the entire city budget. They figure it's all just a fad and will die down eventually. And while the city council seems supportive of Coleman's policy initiatives, they're more tepid about spending money to retrofit city buildings for energy efficiency. Coleman would like to replace magnetic ballasts in lighting fixtures with electronic ones -- an investment that would pay itself back in two years. But in tough budget times, he's having a hard time getting the upfront money to do it.

Councilman Bobby Ferrell, a fiscal conservative, says he'd like another year to play out before he decides whether Coleman's position has worked out as promised. "Let the proof be in the pudding," Ferrell says. "Let me see a year more of data."

Networking for Biodiesel

Coleman's job carries with it other responsibilities that are harder to quantify. The most important, he feels, is to continually check in with business and academic leaders on their environmental initiatives. The University of Arkansas has pledged to whittle its own carbon emissions. And there's nobody in Northwest Arkansas, home of Wal-Mart, who hasn't noticed how that company has greened its image by aggressively slashing energy consumption at its stores. "It's not just a left-wing discussion when you have business leaders involved," Coleman says.

One morning, Coleman sits in yet another windowless room, this time on the UA campus. Nick Brown, the university's sustainability director, leads a discussion on cooking oil. The university's dining halls produce 200 gallons of waste vegetable oil a week, and Brown wants to know if it can be turned into biodiesel.

Coleman doesn't know much about cooking oil. But he does know Steve Rust, head of the Fayetteville Economic Development Council, who he put in touch with Brown. And Rust has heard of a company that might know how to refine waste vegetable oil into motor fuel. Two representatives from the agriculture school also come to the meeting -- the university wants to incorporate biofuel production into its curriculum and is interested in having students do some real-world work. It occurs to Coleman that the city might purchase the biodiesel for its fleet. So he agrees to continue attending future meetings with Rust at the university.

Coleman doesn't have much more than his interest in the subject to add to this conversation. The conversation, however, might not have happened without him. Although the sustainability bug has clearly hit Northwest Arkansas, the green economy that Coleman had read about in "Natural Capitalism" still is a work in progress. There are people with ideas, and there are people with money. But it still takes someone such as Coleman to make the introductions.

This part of Coleman's job may take on even more meaning as time goes on. Governments do have a long way to go on energy efficiency, but it won't be long before they exhaust all the easy tricks. If mayors are serious about the pledges they've made to slash their greenhouse gas emissions, they'll soon face much tougher choices about how to power their facilities and fleets, and how to tighten building codes and regulations on private development. Not all of those choices will save money. Many will cost money.

For Coleman, the professional consequences of that not-too-distant future are obvious. A few years from now, it may be a lot harder to find the simple savings that make it so easy to keep him around. If he's concerned about that, he doesn't show it. Back at city hall, on his way to another meeting across town, Coleman stops at a staircase and notices that the light in a copier room is on. He reaches in and swats the switch down before descending three flights to the parking lot. "That's a sickness for me now," he says. "I can't go anywhere without turning lights off."


Gone Green

Popular Science magazine recently ranked the 50 "greenest cities," based on their usage of alternative energy, transit and carpooling, green building techniques and waste recycling, among other things. Here are the top 20.

1. Portland, OR

2. San Francisco, CA

3. Boston, MA

4. Oakland, CA

5. Eugene, OR

6. Cambridge, MA

7. Berkeley, CA

8. Seattle, WA

9. Chicago, IL

10. Austin, TX

11. Minneapolis, MN

12. St. Paul, MN

13. Sunnyvale, CA

14. Honolulu, HI

15. Ft. Worth, TX

16. Albuquerque, NM

17. Syracuse, NY

18. Huntsville, AL

19. Denver, CO

20. New York, NY


Low-Hanging Fruit

A sampling of steps local governments are taking to reduce their carbon footprint, as collected by ICLEI, an association that serves as a climate change clearinghouse for localities and counts more than 350 U.S. cities as members.

Municipal Building Energy Efficiency & Conservation

· Conduct an energy audit of municipal facilities

· Install green or reflective roofing

· Use ENERGY STAR appliances and office equipment

· Install low-flow toilets

· Institute a lights-out-at-night policy and install occupancy sensors

Community Building Energy Efficiency & Conservation

· Adopt strict residential or commercial energy code requirements

· Help low-income people weatherize their homes

· Implement time-of-use or peak-demand energy pricing

· Distribute free energy efficient light bulbs

· Offer trade-ins for halogen torchiere lamps or old Christmas lights

Outdoor Lighting

· Install energy-efficient traffic lights and street lights

· Decrease the average daily time street lights are on

Vehicles and Fleets

· Limit idling of municipal vehicles, transit buses and school buses

· Purchase fuel-efficient vehicles and retire old and underused ones

· Use alternative fuels such as biodiesel, ethanol and natural gas

Trip Reduction

· Improve bicycle lanes and trails, allow bikes on transit

· Support car-sharing programs, carpooling and telecommuting

· Encourage buses and taxi fleets to switch to alternative fuels

· Make it easier for children to walk to school

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