It’s a question that’s often pondered—does the political will exist to transform our current inefficient, fossil fuel-based energy system into an efficient, clean tech energy future? Certainly the financial incentives for increased efficiency are there. At a basic level, we all know that lowering our energy use results in a smaller utility bill and a better bottom line. Unfortunately, the concept of efficiency (and its bedfellow, “sustainability”) can be hard to pin down. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to wide-scale implementation of efficient and sustainable practices is the lack of clearly defined benchmarks and the sketchy connection between cause and effect. For example, does “efficiency” mean we should aim to reduce the amount of energy we use, or should we be aiming to increase what we get out of each kilowatt so that we can do more with less? And does it make sense to include environmental impacts, and the pressures being placed on our natural resources, when calculating the overall effectiveness of our energy programs?
In a market-based economy, it’s usually business interests that yank the chain and lead the way. But when it comes to reducing energy use, business owners often have to find a way to balance overhauls and retrofits with profit margin. While many CEOs understand that increasing efficiency makes sense as both a long-term business strategy and a savvy enhancement of their brand’s reputation, it’s often an uphill battle to justify capital expenditures to stakeholders and investors, particularly during times of economic uncertainty.
But while Wall Street hedges its bets, Main Street is taking action. With urban populations continuing to increase as citizens migrate to cities looking for employment and greater economic opportunity, municipal infrastructure has been forced to adapt in order to accommodate an influx of citizens. At the recent first annual SXSW Eco, in a presentation entitled “From Site to Corporate: Managing Energy and Utilities in a Global Economy”, panelists Paul Allen (Constellation Energy), Alison Taylor (Siemens Corporation) and Karl Van Orsdol (Hewlett Packard) all agreed that as a result of these population increases, cities are spending despite the challenging economic climate. And local governments are anticipating a big return on their investments as they compete for the ideal citizen: educated, affluent, and able to contribute to the community and the city’s tax base. The best way to woo these model urbanites? Clean, modern, livable cities with solid infrastructure, a vibrant economy, and a local government committed to creating a sustainable future.
There’s no doubt that cities are up to the challenge. The United States and Canada Green City Index (a research project conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, sponsored by Siemens) states in its introduction: “It is well known that city life can exacerbate problems such as harmful greenhouse gas emissions or urban sprawl, but increasingly cities are also generating unique solutions to these challenges through effective local policies.”
The Green City Index rates 27 cities in a variety of urban initiatives in several categories, including CO2
emissions, energy efficiency, buildings, water, land use, and transportation, and highlights the successes and future possibilities of these urban innovators. For example, in Los Angeles, CA, the LADWP (Los Angeles Department of Water & Power) plans to eliminate its use of coal by 40% and have 40% of its power come from renewables by 2020. In Seattle, WA, the recently launched Community Power Works program aims to retrofit about 15% of the city’s structures—including 2,000 homes, 120 small businesses, 25 large commercial buildings, and 4 hospitals—with the goal of achieving a 15% to 45% energy savings and a total reduction of reduce carbon emissions by 70,000 metric tons. Meanwhile in Philadelphia, PA, Lincoln Financial Field (the city’s football stadium) will be energy self-sufficient by the end of this year, thanks to 80 wind turbines, 2,500 solar panels, and a 7.6-MW cogeneration plant.
The truth is, once you start digging around you can find similar gems throughout the country—cities taking it upon themselves to initiate energy efficiency protocols and standards, while also encouraging investment in clean tech and renewable energy. And there’s every possibility this localized action could trigger a “Walmart effect”—an energy efficiency chain reaction that encourages private enterprise to adopt and incorporate efficiency standards in the same way that Walmart’s decision to enforce its own sustainability standards caused its suppliers and vendors to “voluntarily” adopt new practices and protocols in order to satisfy their biggest customer. In the end, it could be our cities that, by transforming themselves into incubators of new technologies, end up delivering the efficient, reliable, and sustainable energy future we’ve been waiting for.
Author's Bio: Elizabeth Cutright is the Editor of Distributed Energy magazine and Water Efficiency magazine
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