Re-energizing Asheville

About a year ago, the Asheville City Council set an ambitious long-term goal for reducing the city’s contribution to climate change: an 80 percent cut in city government’s carbon emissions by 2050. That means looking for ways to conserve, retrofitting city facilities with more energy-efficient technologies, and generally shrinking Asheville’s carbon footprint at a rate of about 2 percent each year.

To help make it happen, the city hired Maggie Ullman as Asheville’s first energy coordinator. Working closely with the Sustainable Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment, she focuses on finding ways to curb energy consumption.

A 2006 UNCA graduate, Ullman is brimming with enthusiasm. But she’s also pragmatic, backing up every bright idea with hard evidence of not just environmental gains, but financial savings. “It’s their money,” she says about Asheville taxpayers. “We want to be responsible with it.”

Mountain Xpress:When did you start as energy coordinator?
Maggie Ullman: Jan. 15. Having gone to school here and done a lot of environmental activism before, it was just like coming back home. I studied environmental policy and management and also economics. And I did a lot with public transportation—I worked with Brownie Newman on the fare-free pilot project. As soon as I was unleashed into the world, I was like, someone is going to pay me to do this work? I’ve just been doing it because I like it so much. Then I went to Atlanta and did alternative-transportation consulting. … It was pretty cool, but I was feeling called back to Asheville.

What’s your role with the Sustainable Advisory Council on Energy and the Environment?
I am a staff liaison. … I give staff reports when we meet. They’ve been working very diligently to see how city government can incentivize sustainability in the community. From tax incentives to supporting nonprofit organizations in their sustainability goals—it’s a real range of things.

Anything having to do with green building?
A lot. Looking at fee structures, so developers can get a price cut on their fees if they’re incorporating some green components. We’re also looking at a lot of tax-incentive-style stuff.

Robin Cape is the City Council liaison for [the advisory council], so the relationship between the members, myself as a staff person, and Robin Cape is all very fluid. We share a lot of information, thoughts and vision-based thinking. They’re such fun conversations; SACEE is such a dynamic working group, and they’ve accomplished so much in the short time they’ve been around.

Can you talk a bit about the LED pilot program you’ve been involved in putting together for the Civic Center parking deck?
You know that massive, dark hole that you’re afraid to park in? We’re going to have better lights there! And they’re going to be really energy-efficient. We’re still getting all the nitty-gritty stuff settled. It’ll be a quarter of one of the floors, and we’re going to be putting in 14 light units.

Before we install them, we’ll meter that section to see what energy demand it’s drawing for a week, and then we’ll compare it once we install the lights, and then I’ll do a cost-benefit analysis and an energy analysis. We’ll be able to say you save this much energy, which translates to this much CO2, which is better for our environment. And also it has this much financial savings, which is a better way to serve our community.

On the list of top 10 [energy-consuming] city buildings, the Civic Center is No. 2, and the Civic Center parking deck is No. 9.

So what tops the list?
The North Fork water plant. They pump lots of water all over the county. As a result, they’re pulling over 2 million kilowatts annually.

You mentioned doing a sustainability survey with city employees.
I just wanted to check in with the folks in management roles, so I created a survey. Just preliminary stuff, saying, do you think about sustainability when you’re making key decisions? What are the top three things you think about when making these decisions? Then I said, what is sustainability to you? And the top answer was, a responsibility of our organization to our community—which is exactly what I’m going for.

So you’re saying the mindset is already there—it’s just a matter of taking some concrete steps?
And we’re going to have to figure out some creative funding structures. Right now, we don’t really have the funding mechanism—we’re not there yet. You can’t say we’re not going to repair this sidewalk that we’ve been planning on because we want to change out light bulbs. That’s not a responsible way to use our funding. I think the willingness and understanding is there from the management crew. … We need to make sure that everyone supports the direction that we’re moving.

Assuming funds were provided, what projects do you see on the horizon?
We’ve volunteered as a host site for the Ashevillage Building Convergence. The city is going to host volunteers, so folks will come into city buildings and work on projects: putting stickers on light switches [as reminders to turn them off]. It’ll kind of be a guerrilla-marketing campaign in city buildings. I’m just really jazzed about having community support.

Another thing that has so much potential is … creating a green-business certification program. … There’s a team of folks I’m working with right now, and we’re starting the research phase. That’s something that I see will help reach a larger goal of ours—which is to eventually create a community greenhouse-gas reduction goal.

What’s your target for greenhouse-gas reduction, and why set one?
Global warming is a severe threat. I don’t see that problem going away unless we start tracking and accounting and reducing what carbon we’re releasing into the air. The city’s [own] goal is an 80 percent reduction [in carbon emissions] by 2050. So 2 percent a year.

When you set this big [community] goal, each individual can say I can reach it in my way. And they’re empowered to figure out … what they can physically and financially do for themselves, instead of saying everybody needs to put a green roof on their building. That’s not good policy.

Have you encountered any resistance since you started?
Nope. I’ve had folks say show me the facts, provide me with a cost-benefit analysis. But I don’t see this as resistance at all—I see it as thinking through the plan. There’s an overwhelming sophistication in the level of understanding about sustainability here. Especially coming from Atlanta, where the conversation was still in its infancy.

Do you get to drive one of the fleet vehicles that runs on compressed natural gas?
I do. … It’s nice to have that perk. It also serves as a good marketing piece—our CNG station is underutilized right now. And it’s pretty sweet. I filled up my tank for under $10, and I have 97 percent less emissions out of my tailpipe.

To learn more about Asheville’s energy program, visit www.ashevillenc.gov/green.

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One thought on “Re-energizing Asheville

  1. nuvue

    Hey Maggie
    Good luck with your position, it is wonderful to have a city that is amenable to something like a green coordinator.
    Now, can you help me get the Historical people to come around to the fact that we are going to have to change some antiquated windows in older houses??? They can stay the same general looks, but will be much better weatherproofed.
    Wouldn’t it be cool to get the old rail lines back thru the city also? It would be a huge draw, and rider service could increase.

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