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3 ways cities can overcome barriers to energy efficiency

Cities have more potential than ever to implement significant enhancements in energy efficiency, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions at a time when climate change risk tops global agendas. However, urban areas in the United States face major impediments to some of the most effective energy-saving strategies. Overcoming these will require a coordinated effort between government, industry and civil society.

Johnson Controls convened dozens of mayors, city planners and NGO representatives Thursday for an urban efficiency roundtable at the National Press Club. The purpose was to bring together people who are intimately involved in urban efficiency programs, and to provide a space for them to discuss the challenges and solutions they encounter in their work. Three major themes emerged:

  1. State building codes often inhibit the deployment of the best available technologies and strategies for energy efficiency.

  2. In economically disadvantaged communities, many of which could stand to reap substantial benefits from efficiency improvements, a lack of trust in government and public institutions seriously impedes program implementation.

  3. Some of the most fiscally rewarding solutions are almost mundane in their simplicity, but require collaboration with industry.

Why cities matter

Almost 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. Some of the most rapid growth is taking place in areas least equipped to absorb the influx. This necessarily spurs infrastructural development, the efficiency or inefficiency of which is largely locked in for the useful life of the project. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), building efficiency has the greatest greenhouse gas emissions savings potential for the lowest cost. As such, cities have a major role to play in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

As such, cities have a major role to play in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

In May, the World Resources Institute (WRI), in partnership with Johnson Controls, published a report detailing a path forward for cities to avoid locking in decades of inefficiency in their buildings. Accelerating Building Efficiency: Eight Actions for Urban Leaders proposes the following mechanisms for accelerating building efficiency in cities:

  1. Building efficiency codes and standards

  2. Efficiency improvement targets

  3. Performance information and certifications

  4. Incentives and finance

  5. Government leadership by example

  6. Engaging building owners, managers and occupants

  7. Engaging technical and financial service providers

  8. Working with utilities

The discussion touched on all of these, but focused on three.

1. Fixing the codes

Building codes are supposed to provide a minimum standard. Their purpose is to lay out the lowest level of what is acceptable, to set a floor rather than a ceiling. However, representatives from various cities expressed frustration that these codes over time have turned into de facto standards, and more so into inhibiting factors for smarter development.

Some city managers further complained of aggressive lobbying efforts that had defeated attempts over the years to introduce better energy efficiency standards into state building codes.

Attendees also noted that as building codes are set at the state level, they often are not compatible with the circumstances at play in urban settings. Particularly, most building codes assume a single-payer model, which is inconsistent with the increasingly prevailing housing system in urban areas. More city dwellers are renters, condo owners or in other types of multi-family housing units. As such, they pay the electric bill, but have no control over building maintenance.

This presents a classic economic problem: the bearer of the cost of energy efficiency improvements is not the beneficiary of the cost savings. One way or another, the incentives will have to be shifted if this deadlock is to be overcome.

2. Community trust

Many city planners present at the urban efficiency roundtable brought up the challenges they face in gaining access to economically disadvantaged, often minority communities that often could see substantial cost savings from energy efficiency initiatives. Indeed, the forum led off with a success story in this area.

Francis Slakey, Georgetown Energy Prize director, described the case of Glenda and the $8 transformation, in which a community that justifiably had felt betrayed and forgotten by its public institutions developed trust in an energy efficiency initiative that saved individual households critical sums of money on their electric bills. For an $8 investment, Glenda saved $133 on her power bill in just one month, a savings that ostensibly would continue in perpetuity. 

But why was the case so hard to make in the first place? Why did so many city managers express near hopelessness at the prospect of gaining access to these communities?

Karl Singleton, senior advisor to the mayor of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, offered some thoughts about this. He noted that leaders have to be reflective of the communities they serve. In so many cities, that remains a goal but not a reality.

Singleton said that education and school engagement are critical, and that enlisting young people in these efforts is the only way to transform societies.

Singleton said that education and school engagement are critical, and that enlisting young people in these efforts is the only way to transform societies.

More immediately, it would seem that the issue of community trust and access adds further support to the imperative of diversity advancement in hiring practices. Two representatives of the American Association of Blacks in Energy (AABE) were present at the roundtable, and underscored the importance of including all stakeholders in tackling energy challenges.

3. Beauty in the basics

At a time when flashy new technologies and exciting innovations capture our collective imagination, it can be all too easy to overlook some tried and true basics when it comes to energy savings. Representatives from multiple cities reported some of their most substantial savings from good old light bulb replacement in their streetlights.

Converting streetlights to light-emitting diode bulbs not only saved cities staggering sums — one city realized an annual savings of $750,000, while another reported saving two-thirds of its pre-conversion energy costs — but it also improved city governments’ relationships with their constituencies.

In many cases, it turned out that poor streetlight maintenance had been a serious complaint in many communities, and the replacement program boosted people’s approval of government performance. Still, among the cities represented at the roundtable, only around 10 percent said they had completed an LED replacement program.

"In the race for urban efficiency, LED streetlights have the pole position," said Clay Nesler, Johnson Controls’ vice-president of energy and sustainability.

Among those cities that have completed successful programs, however, many highlighted the challenges associated with the fact that their local utilities usually had some form of ownership rights over the streetlights in their areas. Some utilities were decidedly more open to partnership and collaboration than others. The relative success of the various LED replacement programs discussed at the roundtable had much to do with how well the city and the local utility worked together.

Ultimately, the overriding takeaway from the roundtable is that successful energy efficiency initiatives demand collaboration. Government at all levels, industry, communities and civil society are most effective when they work together towards a common goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving people’s quality of life. As cities continue to grow and absorb an increasing share of the world’s population, there’s no time like the present.

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