Despite its relative small size, Culver City, Calif., has gone big on developing its energy management program. By deploying a fleet of environmentally friendly vehicles, Culver City counts itself among the forward-thinking communities concerned with progressive energy practices.

Relying heavily on alternative fuels, the city’s fleet has reduced diesel fuel consumption by 60 percent in the past five years, annually replacing over 800,000 gallons of diesel with compressed natural gas (CNG) at a savings of $1.2 million in fuel costs per year. For its efforts, the city receives high marks from national rankings of “green” fleets.

“The paradigm for us is to create a better environment,” says Paul Condran, fleet services manager for the city of 45,000 located west of downtown Los Angeles. “We want to leave a legacy to future generations.”

As governments consider how they will manage energy needs in the next five years, they are increasingly assessing new technologies and carefully watching market forces to identify trends that will accelerate efforts to reduce carbon emissions and find efficiencies. Energy management is becoming synonymous with efforts to be good stewards of the environment.

While governments are concerned with the future of the planet, their initiatives come at a time of significant change in the energy market. Changes have the potential to disrupt the economics driving energy policy. Presently, oil prices are at the lowest in years and, if they remain at current levels, these prices could undermine the anticipated savings from conversion to alternative fuels.  

At the same time, many of the domestic oil discoveries that are driving down the price of oil have also uncovered huge repositories of natural gas, which is the favored alternative fuel. With such a cloudy financial picture, the incentives to save money take a subordinate role to the broader goal of managing energy to reduce governments’ environmental footprint.

As they review options on how to manage energy usage, governments have identified areas with the most potential for reducing environmental impact:

Fleet management – As technologies make new options available, governments are converting vehicles to alternative fuels.

Solar – As its price becomes more economical and new formulations for its use are proliferating, governments are examining how to make use of solar energy.

Building management – Often considered “low-hanging fruit,” building conversions are becoming more integrated into overall energy policy, as new technologies make complicated changes more feasible and savings from even the smallest improvements are seen as adding up to means of achieving a larger goal.

Communication – Officials argue that changing the behavior of residents and government workers can offer huge potential savings, and they are investing in programs to engage employees and constituents in meeting larger environmental goals.

Local governments have multiple objectives in developing modern energy practices. Some cities, towns and counties have mandated policies to meet sustainability goals while others are primarily focused on saving money through efficient use of resources. Others have combined energy management initiatives with other objectives, such as promoting resiliency after a natural disaster.

Whatever the policy goals, governments are working to keep energy consumption to a minimum, find alternatives to the traditional carbon-based fuels and engage citizens to become partners in energy sustainability.

“The trends are significantly headed toward reducing petroleum products, reducing our carbon footprint,” says Kelly Reagan, fleet administrator for Columbus, Ohio. “We don’t want to be dependent on foreign oil and we want to save taxpayers’ money.”

Many communities have long-established programs for energy conservation, which are now taking larger strides toward meeting their goals thanks to improving technologies. At the same time, the federal government is using grants to spur development of better energy management practices and using its larger perspective to seek out innovations that, if successful, might be deployed on a larger scale.

“The City and County of San Francisco has had broad, audacious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for a long time,” says Guillermo Rodriguez, director of policy and communications for the San Francisco Department of the Environment, which recently received a grant from the federal government for a demonstration project. “Now, we are looking at how solar power could help us bounce back after a natural disaster.”

While governments focus on new technologies, they are also finding savings in both usage and cost by converting existing buildings into more economical structures and by using an untapped asset – rooftops – as platforms to capture solar energy for municipal use.

In Montgomery County, Md., the Department of General Services is identifying buildings that are suitable for capturing solar energy, which could become part of a public/private partnership to produce a micro-grid for the county, says David Dise, the department’s director.

“We don’t want to own the solar system, but we do have rooftops,” he says. “We can lease out our rooftops and get a low-cost fixed price. We’re doing research on who we can partner with to promote sustainable, model practices. We’re looking for clean energy to lower our carbon footprint.”

In Cook County, Ill., the county sustainability office is using a recent $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a “community shared” solar system for its 5.2 million residents. As a densely populated area with many multi-family structures and low-income residents, the county is not suited for deployment of individual solar panels, says Deborah Stone, the county’s chief sustainability officer.

Through community shared systems, solar-electric power and/or financial benefit are brought to multiple community members, expanding access to solar power for renters, condominium owners, those with shaded roofs and those who choose not to install a residential system on their home for financial or other reasons.

With its grant, the county is acting as a facilitator to promote solar energy on a community-wide basis, Stone says. The goal of this initiative is to provide at least 30,000 people in Cook County who would not otherwise be able to benefit from solar energy with access within the next eight years, according to the county.

“We are trying to come up with five to seven ownership models for solar,” she says. “We think the lessons learned from our process will apply nationally. We can become an example of how to solve the city’s and county’s energy problems.”

The project, which is part of the county’s goal to eliminate 80 percent of its greenhouse gas usage by 2050, will involve multiple partners, including private firms and utilities, to map out the potential for solar development and usage, potential consumers and regulatory obstacles. “We anticipate there will also be a big effort in public education,” she says.

According to Elaine Ulrich, soft costs program manager for the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative, the grants for Cook County and the City and County of San Francisco, among other local communities, are part of the federal government’s commitment to reduce the cost of solar energy to the same as other energy sources by the year 2020.

“We are encouraging local practices to spur local markets and find out what it will take to deploy solar,” she says. “We are looking at innovative programs that can spur the market.”

Solar energy is also being used in the transportation system to power equipment, such as traffic cameras and traffic signals, but the primary energy management tool is changing the fuel systems on vehicles, says David Davis, the procurement and materials manager for the Washington State Department of Transportation.

“Our main incentive is to reduce emissions,” Davis says. “We want to use less oil. Cost is not the main driver.”

As recognition of its sustainability efforts, the state DOT became a finalist in a national competition for sustainably, managing a fleet that runs on a mix of alternative fuels, including electricity, biodiesel and propane. The fleet was evaluated for innovation in reducing fuel consumption and emissions, increasing vehicle efficiency, using sustainable and biodegradable products and recycling.

In addition, the state’s DOT Fleet Operations also became the first state agency in the country to reach an agreement with Nissan to lease its all-electric, plug-in Leaf cars. Its land and water fleets also passed a million-gallon milestone for biodiesel in 2013. It was the first year the agency purchased more than 1 million gallons of emissions-cutting biodiesel to fuel ferries, trucks and equipment.

Many of the issues facing the department as it undertakes the conversion to non-carbon fuels are related to technology and human behavior. While the state has established charging stations on its highways so electric vehicles can move about without concern, officials are taking a cautious stance when it comes to converting the ferry system to electric power. “We don’t want a ferry stranded in the middle of Puget Sound,” Davis says.

In addition, employees have to grow accustomed to vehicles that now run on alternative fuels. “It’s a whole different technology,” Davis says. “People have to be retrained. It’s hard to change cultures. People need to get used to diesel.”

In Culver City, the government fleet is already 85 percent on CNG, which, Condran says, is less corrosive than ethanol and more widely available and safer than liquefied natural gas. “The days are numbered for gas-powered internal combustion engines,” he says.

The community is looking into an all-electric bus system, which might charge up the buses from lines running either beneath the buses or above them. Before this becomes a reality, though, managers must resolve issues of range between charges and designing and building necessary infrastructure. This places the concept on a longer-term horizon.

Condran sees significant savings potential in converting buildings to alternative energy sources, as well. “Change is hard,” he says. “It’s difficult to switch. But progress will be through a gradual migration. It takes training and education.”

Converting buildings to more efficient energy usage is also a major goal of Montgomery County, according to Dise. Among the changes the county has instituted in its buildings that have generated significant reductions in energy costs are motion sensors, green lighting and replacing boilers.

“Each area that we are looking at may be a small thing but it all adds up,” Dise says, pointing to groups that leave meetings in recreation centers with the lights on. “I would love to modify behavior. But through motion detectors and mechanical means, we can ensure that the lights go out. These are the low-hanging fruit. There’s tremendous potential.”

In Cook County, officials have concentrated energy conservation initiatives on reducing energy usage by 15 percent in two major complexes – the county hospital and the county correctional facility – which are among the largest in the nation, according to Stone.

“These are really small cities that operate 24-hours a day,” she says. “We are looking for energy efficiencies through everything from replacing a giant boiler down to the level of steam traps.”
As part of its multiple projects, the county is engaging the community in sustainable energy practices and seeking to learn how such practices can best be implemented on a national basis, Stone says.

“We are trying to draw in community groups,” she says about the community solar initiative. “We want to learn from them. We want to take a deep data dive. We want to reach out to our overall suppliers and help collect information that will have broad applicability.”

Working with the other grantees, she expects that there will be a great deal of information sharing, as there already is among fleet managers converting trucks to alternative fuels and building managers looking for the best new lighting and heating systems.

“We expect to be working around the country,” she says. “It’s all about gathering information.”


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