Anyone wondering what the hot button issues were for U.S. cities and counties in recent years need only read through the profiles of American City & County's Crown Communities Award winners. In this issue, the featured local government winners offer prime examples of how counties can take positive actions that have lasting effects on residents, businesses and the environment. City winners will be feature in the December issue.

The four Crown Communities County Award winners are:

  • Fuel cell cuts expenses

    Alameda County, Calif.

    Alameda County, Calif., for its fuel cell project at the Santa Rita Jail that is reducing energy costs at the 1-million-square-foot facility;

  • Manistee County, Mich., for its role in organizing the first statewide Energy Fair, which taught residents how to reduce their energy use;

  • Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Alaska, for its public outreach project that engaged residents in discussions about where to build a large state prison;

  • Polk County, Fla., for its expedited construction of a bioreactor landfill cell that is expanding its capacity and contributing to solid waste research.

The Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, Calif. — the fifth-largest jail in the United States — is a 1-million-square-foot facility that houses more than 4,000 inmates. Until now, it also consumed more than 8 million kilowatt hours of electricity costing about $1.5 million annually.

In 2006, however, Alameda County's Energy Program took a giant step toward reducing the jail's electricity use, utility expenses and global-warming footprint by installing California's first megawatt-class fuel cell cogeneration plant at the Santa Rita Jail. Fuel cells are among the cleanest, most reliable sources of power generation and provide continuous, high-quality power with virtually no greenhouse gas emissions, according to Matt Muniz, Alameda County's energy program manager. The exhaust heat byproduct can be used for combined heat and power applications using hot water, steam or chilled water to heat or cool buildings.

For more than a decade, Alameda County has completed energy-efficiency projects at the Santa Rita Jail that collectively have slashed its electrical load by one-third. In 2001, it installed a 1.2-megawatt rooftop solar power system that produces up to 30 percent of the facility's peak summer electrical needs, according to the county.

Siting project builds trust

Mat-Su Borough, Alaska

Because the electric expenses were still high, the county began constructing a fuel cell plant in 2005, manufactured by FuelCell Energy and installed by Chevron Energy Solutions. Completed in May 2006, the electrochemical technology system generates 50 percent of the jail's annual electrical needs and 18 percent of its hot water requirements with virtually no emissions. Along with the jail's solar power system and energy- efficiency upgrades, the fuel cell reduces the jail's power purchases by 80 percent during peak-demand summer months. “To date, the fuel cell has generated over 7 million kilowatt-hours of ultra-clean energy and effectively reduced the electrical purchases from the local utility by $490,000,” Muniz says.

The total project cost $6.1 million, but federal and state incentive funds ($1.4 million from the Pacific Gas and Electric Company's Self Generation Incentive Program and $1 million from the Department of Defense's Fuel Cell Climate Change Grant Program) helped pay for the project. The county also received a $2.8 million fixed 4 percent interest loan from the California Energy Commission's Energy Efficiency Financing Program to be repaid through electricity cost savings over the next 13 years. Muniz expects the 1-megawatt fuel cell will save the county more than $4 million over the next 13 years.

In addition, more than 8 million kilowatt-hours of annual electricity is no longer consumed from the grid. “The ultra-clean generated electricity from the Santa Rita Jail fuel cell plant will reduce emissions of global warming gases by 3,200 tons annually,” Muniz says.

Agencies/companies involved: Alameda County General Services Agency, Alameda County Sheriff's Department, California Energy Commission, U.S. Department of Defense, Chevron Energy Solutions, FuelCell Energy, Pacific Gas & Electric

The Alaska Department of Corrections desperately needs a new prison. Because of overcrowding, it currently spends $20 million annually to incarcerate 1,000 prisoners in Arizona. The state tapped Matanuska-Susitna Borough as a potential site for a 600,000- to 800,000-square-foot, all-male, medium-security prison. But, few residents wanted 2,251 prisoners moving in next door, even if the prison would provide 600 new jobs with a payroll of more than $34 million.

In anticipation of the opposition to the new facility, the borough launched a comprehensive Internet site to educate and include the public in site-selection. The Web site posts studies on newly built prisons and safety, on prisons and property values, and lists Alaska prison escape statistics. “Upholding the public trust is what necessitated a highly interactive public process between Mat-Su residents and local government,” says Patty Sullivan, Matanuska-Susitna Borough public affairs manager. “Placing a prison the size of a new city into a community in just three years is a drastic transformation anywhere … We knew we needed to keep our residents involved, get their questions answered and listen to them.”

Fair raises energy profile

Manistee County, Mich.

The Mat-Su Prison Project Web site received 44,449 hits and 3,255 unique visits between September 2006 and January 2007. Three borough employees devoted most of their time to updating the site, and other staff, including the borough manager and assistant manager, also helped, according to Sullivan. Through a consultant, RISE Alaska, the borough organized five public hearings to solicit comment, and nearly 700 residents attended. The borough voiced residents' concerns during negotiations with the project's partners, the Alaska Department of Corrections and the Alaska Housing Finance Corp.

After five months of public debate and technical analysis, Point Mac-Kenzie, a rural part of the borough, was chosen for the prison site. Because critics said the mega-prison would harm migrating animals, and the facility's water needs (an estimated 250,000 gallons daily) could drain the crucial watershed area, prison officials pledged to avoid negatively affecting the nearby Goose Bay Refuge and Susitna Flats State Game Refuge. They also would build the prison around the sensitive watershed, and wells would be dug deeper than 300 feet to avoid contaminating or draining the area's groundwater.

The borough provided the land and initiated the financing for the $330 million prison through revenue bonds. The Alaska Department of Corrections will lease the prison from the borough and eventually own it when the lease-revenue bonds are repaid through 25 annual lease payments. Ground was broken for the new facility in June with an expected completion date of September 2010.

Agencies/companies involved: Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Alaska Department of Corrections, Alaska Housing & Finance Corp., DLR Group, RISE Alaska, Tryck Nyman Hayes, Shannon & Wilson

Manistee County, Mich., like many other counties in the country, has been struggling with rising energy expenses. Allan O'Shea, Manistee County Commission chairman, wanted the county to become more energy efficient and improve the “conservation consciousness” of all its residents.

In June 2005, O'Shea asked the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association (GLREA) if it would hold a statewide energy fair in Manistee County. The association had organized similar fairs in the state during the 1990s to educate Michigan residents on ways to reduce their energy costs and environmental impact through energy efficiency, renewable energy and sustainable living practices.

The county provided contacts for sponsors, in-kind donations and services, and media outreach. It negotiated use of the county fairgrounds for the event and encouraged the community to support it.

The biggest challenge was funding. “Start-up for a statewide event is a very expensive and complicated process,” O'Shea says. “The first year budget was about $87,000 and thousands of volunteer hours.”

GLREA raised the money for the fair by selling sponsorships, vendor booths, advertising and admission tickets. After several months of planning, the first statewide Michigan Energy Fair was held June 16-18, 2006, at the Manistee County Fairgrounds in Onekama, Mich. More than 2,500 people attended the fair, which featured 63 exhibitors, 53 educational workshops, four keynote speeches, renewable energy home tours, hybrid bus/biodiesel boat tours and bands. A children's activity tent hosted energy-themed carnival games for younger attendees, including Geothermal Golf, Hydro-power Duck Pond, Biomass Bowling and more.

Landfill advances science

Polk County, Fla.

The event attracted tourists to the county and significant business through sales of goods and services, accommodations and leisure activities. Beyond that, however, O'Shea says a loftier goal was reached. “The project has united our county and cities and surrounding counties with a significant statewide event,” he says. “Our energy and efforts will not only help our immediate area [of northern Michigan] but the whole state of Michigan work toward energy independence, create jobs in conservation and renewable energy, and bring our utilities, manufacturers and citizens into a unique partnership for the future.”

This year, the second-annual Michigan Energy Fair was held June 22-24, again with help from Manistee County. The budget grew this year to $100,000, according to O'Shea, along with the volunteer base, the workshops (70), and the exhibitors (120). The county's media outreach efforts reached half the state, and more than 4,000 attendees were expected.

According to O'Shea, the county plans to develop the tools and organization to make the Michigan Energy Fair an annual event “for the next decade and beyond.”

Agencies/companies/nonprofits and service organizations involved: Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association and dozens of local and regional businesses.

The Polk County, Fla., North Central Landfill (NCLF) expansion was not planned until 2008, but then Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne came plowing through in September 2004, and the facility began filling with storm debris. A year's worth of airspace quickly disappeared, forcing the county to fast-track design, permitting and construction of the expansion from its previous 36-month schedule to within 24 months.

“We are the sole Class I landfill facility in the county. Not having capacity to accept up to 3,000 tons per day of waste would impact all residents and businesses in our community,” says Brooks Stayer, Polk County solid waste director. “Our optimal contingency plan was to haul waste out of the county to another landfill. As the least-expensive alternative, this still would have cost the taxpayer $250,000 a week.”

To avoid that cost, the county worked quickly to design its planned bioreactor landfill cell. The cell includes a complex pipe system to collect leachate and spread it over the waste to speed up its disintegration. In bioreactor landfills, waste is actively digested. Although several landfills across the country have been converted to include bioreactor technology, Polk County's expansion was the first true “as-built” bioreactor landfill in the United States.

Design and construction required 75 engineers and scientists, and consisted of clearing, filling, building roads, migrating wetlands, and constructing a stormwater system and a lined 60-acre landfill cell. The landfill includes a bioreactor-ready bottom-liner system that will recirculate up to 75,000 gallons of leachate per day. A system was installed to monitor, control and record the leachate injection lines, and researchers at the University of Florida in Gainesville can access the system to test injection programs. The cell also is equipped with instrumentation that allows studies of landfill loading and settlement.

The landfill is expected to recirculate 100 percent of its leachate and will import leachate from two other county landfills. By recirculating the leachate, the county will not have to pay the average $0.11 per gallon disposal costs, saving $880,000 annually.

“The cell was constructed with a reinforced foundation that will ultimately allow a waste stack in excess of 300 feet upon final build out,” Stayer says. “In addition, instrumentation was installed that can be utilized by engineers to aid us in designing the most efficient bioreactor process to promote waste decomposition and dispose of leachate.”

The expansion is only the first part of a multi-cell landfill that will accommodate waste disposal for the next 70 years. The project was completed in September 2006, at about $870,000 under bid.

Agencies/companies involved: Polk County, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, South West Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), Army Corps of Engineers, Jones Edmunds, Nodarse, Madrid Engineering, Hubbard Construction, APAC, and Cherry Hill Construction