Burning issues: Energy-efficiency improvements start showing results

  • • Oct. 8 public hearing on steep-slopes policy
  • • Elingburg, Thomas appointed to Parks & Rec board
  • Discuss Special Needs Registry

Topping the agenda for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ Sept. 7 meeting was a report on the county's energy costs and carbon footprint. Delivered by Brad Ellington of the General Services Department, the report found that, although costs and carbon emissions have risen over the last five years, recent steps to lower them are starting to make a difference.

The report measured county government's consumption of electricity, heating and vehicle fuels, and water from 2005 through 2009, expressed in Btu. All told, county operations burned through 152.8 billion Btu of energy in 2005, the study found. Consumption peaked in 2008 at 181.9 billion Btu. Last year, that number declined to 177.5 billion Btu as energy-saving measures began taking effect, Ellington explained.

He attributed the overall increase in energy consumption to the significant expansion of county facilities, which now comprise some 1.46 million square feet (up 364,670 square feet since 2005).

Overall, per-square-foot energy costs rose only very slightly (from $1.128 to $1.131, after peaking at $1.316 in 2006). Ellington ascribed much of the variation in those costs to fluctuating gas and oil prices.

In 2009, county government's energy use produced 57.4 million pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions, he reported — an 11.3 percent increase over the 2005 level but a 1.3 percent decrease from 2008. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas believed to be a key contributor to global warming.

Operating the county's buildings accounted for 59 percent of total carbon emissions, the report found. The next biggest contributor was employee commutes (18.2 percent), closely followed by the county’s own vehicle fleet (17.1 percent). The remaining 5.7 percent was attributed to "other direct emissions," including those from the landfill and diesel-powered generators.

Ellington highlighted the county's ongoing efforts to reduce both emissions and costs, such as by replacing windows at the courthouse and lights at the detention center. Those improvements alone are expected to cut carbon output by 787,185 pounds per year, he noted. Ellington also cited plans to upgrade three HVAC systems and replace many of the Health Center’s windows.

Several commissioners praised the study as a necessary starting point for making additional progress.

"I think this is really an exciting report," Commissioner Holly Jones exclaimed. "Knowledge is power. … We have to know it in order to work on it."

She also zeroed in on the carbon emissions due to employee commuting, asking if a four-day work week might help lower them.

"It would affect the commute; it would also affect building energy consumption. But we've also got to weigh that with the level of service we provide," responded Ellington.

"Clearly," agreed Jones, noting proudly that the county’s per-square-foot consumption (64,595 Btu.) is well below state and national averages (138,000 and 90,500, respectively).

"I want all the newspaper folks to write that down right now, because that's big news," she proclaimed.

"I think that this is a national problem, and we have to lead," added board Chair David Gantt.

Special Needs Registry sign-up lags

In other business, Mack Salley of Emergency Services updated the commissioners on the county's Special Needs Registry. Residents with special needs can register to be contacted during emergencies such as blizzards, floods, power outages and disease outbreaks. In such situations, they’ll be given information about shelters and how to best prepare or respond, he explained.

To date, about 307 people have registered; in Henderson County, which has a much smaller population, more than 1,000 people have signed up for a similar service, noted Salley. He believes more residents will start taking advantage of Buncombe’s program once they learn about it.

"As we become a larger retirement area — as we all age — there are more and more folks who need to be on this registry. They’re just not aware of it," said Salley.

Commissioner Carol Peterson asked if the county should make sign-up forms available at branch libraries.

"Absolutely," he replied.

Other business

Before concluding the hourlong session, the commissioners also:
• approved proclamations designating Sept. 13-17 as Minority Enterprise Development Week and honoring the Blue Ridge Parkway's 75th anniversary;
• acknowledged the county’s Human Services Support Team and Rich Munger for winning a productivity award;
• scheduled an Oct. 8 public hearing to consider a proposed revision of steep-slopes policy; and
• unanimously appointed Rick Elingburg and Neil Thomas to serve on the Parks, Greenways and Recreation Services Advisory Board.

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at jfrankel@mountainx.com.

About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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