Going for the green

A March 15 workshop led by staffers from the Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls Inc. could point the way toward a substantive sustainability initiative for Asheville. Invited by the city’s Sustainable Energy and Environment Advisory Committee, company representatives led some 50 participants—including Mayor Terry Bellamy, City Manager Gary Jackson and many high-level city staffers—through a series of exercises designed to help them identify their city’s problems, goals and strengths.

Gas sippers: Fleet manager Chris Dobbins shows off a few of Asheville’s alternative-fuel vehicles. photo by Jonathan Welch

Among other things, Johnson Controls contracts with governments to design systems that can achieve specific performance goals. Recent projects include a landfill-gas recovery project in Little Rock, Ark., and a Wi-Fi system for Cumberland, Md., that will simultaneously add wireless (and more accurate) water metering, environmental controls for municipal buildings and lighting, and control of traffic lights. Each of those projects saved the city in question millions of dollars while reducing energy use, the company maintains. What’s more, Johnson Controls actually guarantees the projected savings, reducing the risk for clients. “If our plans fail to deliver the savings we predict, we refund our fee,” said Richard Self, an account executive in the firm’s Raleigh office.

Appointed by City Council last December, the advisory committee has lost no time tackling broad questions of how, how much and how quickly Asheville can “go green.” The group is charged with delivering its initial recommendations to Council later this spring (see “Setting Goals” below).

Among the other workshop participants were Council member Robin Cape, Public Works Director Mark Combs, Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford and Assistant Director Shannon Tuch, Building Safety Manager Robert Griffin, David Wallace of the State Energy Office, Asheville Fire Department representatives, UNCA Vice Chancellor for Campus Operations Stephen Baxley, advisory committee co-chairs Margie Mears and Sasha Vrtunski, and city residents, including several architects and community activists.

Asked about the event later, Cape told Xpress, “Asheville has a long way to go, but … it all seems so much simpler when you just look at it head-on.”

In a related move, City Council narrowly endorsed a green-building initiative in December that will offer as-yet-unspecified incentives for complying with the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards, which rate buildings for energy efficiency and environmental impact (see “Year’s End Flurry Tackles Long-Running Issues,” Dec. 20, 2006 Xpress).

Asked about her opposition to the December initiative, Bellamy told Xpress, “I was opposed to the process, not the goal.” She repeated her support for the advisory committee and praised Cape for advancing green-building issues in general and specifically in connection with the Johnson Controls forum.

Collective wisdom

Johnson Controls staffer Clay Nesler led the participants through a two-part game. The overarching goal was achieving sustainability using “triple-bottom-line accounting” that considers environmental stewardship, social responsibility and economic prosperity.

First, each group of participants ranked 50 sustainability needs—ranging from “maintain healthy indoor environments” to “increase eco-efficiency across the entire supply chain” to “promote local economic development”—in terms of how well they feel those needs are being met now. This highlighted important issues that the community isn’t addressing.

Nesler then toted up the combined rankings on participant concerns. The method, which Nesler said is remarkably accurate, is based on research reported by James Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds (Random House, 2004).

The top concerns were “reduce energy usage across all operations,” followed by “reduce the environmental impact of vehicle transportation,” “increase the use of energy from renewables,” and “increase use of energy-efficient building systems and equipment.”

The group then ranked 50 strategies—ranging from “natural-habitat protection and rehabilitation” to “sustainable fleet management” to “minority work-force development programs” to “green-product certification”—based on their value to the community and current implementation level.

This time, the top pick was “renewable energy systems design and operation,” followed by “life-cycle design and cost analysis,” “renewable building-material usage,” “pollution-source reduction,” “sustainable-transportation support,” “energy and environmental education,” “demand-side energy management” and “sustainability strategic planning.”

After that, group members brainstormed and voted on ideas for addressing the top 10 identified needs. The company will crunch the numbers and graphs and deliver the results to the committee by March 29, said Nesler, who will then meet with committee members and city staff to discuss planning and implementation.

Contacted later, Cape envisioned “a time in the future when these ideas are the fundamentals of good planning and decision-making in all sectors.”

Setting goals

The next day, the nine-member advisory committee held its regularly scheduled biweekly meeting. The group has been examining other cities’ methodologies and programs as possible models. Vrtunski noted that while Chapel Hill/Orange County is ahead of Asheville in implementation, they are only now organizing an oversight committee. “They’ve been asking me about our committee and how they can do it there,” she said.

Spector reported on Olympia, Wash., which set a goal in 2004 of reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions by 2 percent per year until the city returned to 1990 levels. The plan has worked so well that the city expects to hit its 1993 levels by next year, said Spector.

With an eye on their April 1 deadline for making an initial report to City Council, committee members considered whether they were ready to begin setting goals for Asheville. “I would hope that this group could at least make some preliminary recommendations, so we can get started,” said Council member Brownie Newman, who co-sponsored (with Cape) the resolution creating the committee. He urged the committee to follow up with “more detailed information as soon as possible.” To that end, the group decided to ask for a 30-day deadline extension.

Newman also emphasized the importance of looking at what scientists say must be achieved to mitigate global climate change. “We can use science to set those goals and [then] figure out how to meet them,” he said, adding, “I’m impatient; I want to get started.”

Public Works intern Diana Flores presented an analysis of CO2 emissions for Asheville’s fleet vehicles. Emissions increased 8 percent between 2003 and 2006, she reported, due to an expansion of the city fleet (and despite the introduction of substantially more fuel-efficient cars). Flores cautioned that 2003 is the earliest year for which highly accurate benchmark figures are available; the later figures are approximate.

Cathy Holt of Sustainable Asheville, who was sitting in at the meeting, asked if the proposed Progress Energy plant is within the committee’s purview. Combs and Mears said that while the group’s mandate covers possible pollution from the plant, it does not extend to regulating public utilities.

“The way this commission is structured, we’ve been given two tasks,” Mears explained. “First, we are supposed to look at city operations, because it is something that government has direct control over. Then we can provide leadership for the community as a whole. We’re trying to learn to crawl before we learn to run.”

The Sustainable Energy and Environment Advisory Committee meets biweekly in the William F. Wolcott Public Works Complex (161 S. Charlotte St.). The next meeting is Thursday, March 29, at 3:30 p.m.; meetings are open to the public.

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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