Communities Work Best When They Foster Energy Conservation


Energy conservation is important for neighborhoods and communities, as well as for individuals, nations, and the planet. Here we'll be interested in the community issues and how neighborhood, municipal, and regional advocacy, practices, policies, and laws can serve to reduce power and gasoline consumption. It turns out that reducing the energy requirements of housing, transportation, and development patterns also are key ingredients in making a community visually appealing and attractive to new residents and visitors alike.  So an emphasis on using less energy is a win-win strategy for a community.

Energy Conservation in Housing

Within residential neighborhoods, the largest energy expenditures on a national average basis are heating and cooling (about 40%), water heating (about 13%), and lighting (about 10%). Computers were edging up to about 1%, so I plan to keep using mine for awhile.

Items related to the home's systems and appliances can be covered by an energy conservation code, which an increasing number of communities are adopting. The International Code Council provides a model energy conservation code, which local communities can amend in any way they see fit through the ordinance by which they adopt the code.  The 2018 Energy Conservation Code covers both new construction and renovations, repairs, additions, and occupancy changes to existing buildings. Here we are particularly concerned with housing, where windows and mechanical systems improvements can bring good returns on investment.

In the commercial and office sector, heating and cooling represents only about 30% of usage, but lighting is a whopping 25%. So for those buildings, programmable thermostats, sensors that turn off lights automatically when no one is present, and policies about turning off computers and equipment at night will be helpful. 

But in homes, requiring new construction to accommodate best practices in conservation will help the housing retain its value over time and assist with affordability. Both of these benefits are quite popular with homeowners.

If the entire energy conservation code proves controversial in your community, it's worth trying to incorporate whatever parts of the code have not inspired opposition into other codes.

In addition to the code-based solution for energy usage in homes, neighborhood groups and the city government can educate residents about simple energy-saving techniques that are very low cost, and then also use newsletters or bills to send information about government programs at the state or federal level that will help with updating the home's systems.

One final idea for exploration is the possibility of engaging an architect, contractor, or other professional to provide information and tips to residents about resolving any particularly common energy leakage issue in the community's housing.  Many neighborhoods or entire suburbs have housing stock of similar age and architecture, and each of these building types no doubt have their challenges when it comes to electricity use. If you can help residents solve a problem that is widespread in your town, so much the better.

The Energy Use Implications of Transportation

You might think there's very little reason for someone to own a gas-guzzler car. However important the difference between the old junker and your efficient new hybrid, I think each community will be more successful by increasing the efficiency of their own road network.

One of the most important policies a community can enact to increase individual choice, and reduce energy costs and presumed contribution to global climate change, is to adopt a complete streets policy that requires transportation facility planners to consider how to make transit, walking, and cycling available along with vehicular roads.

Below we discuss the transportation planning policies that a community should be considering to facilitate energy conservation.

• Promote better driving. When police talk in the neighborhood, they could add a little riff on the fact that speeding, rapid acceleration, and hard braking and sudden stops are big energy wasters. While they're teaching people who had to parent themselves not to leave their car idling with their toddler in it, they also could add that idling wastes gasoline.

• Promote a grid-based street system, and only approve developments that conform to the policy. A grid provides the shortest driving distance. It's great for energy conservation (except remove extra traffic signals that cause unnecessary idling). Cul de sacs make the drive from Point A to Point B longer than necessary.

A side benefit of the grid is that it provides alternatives, should an accident, altercation, or water line break occur.

Wherever there is an opportunity, re-connect the grid of basically rectangular blocks. I don't care if your 1950s suburb was built around the cul-de-sac principle. If a lot is vacant, think seriously about buying it and converting the middle of it to a street.

Give the unnecessary land to the adjoining homeowners or ask the neighborhood if they'd like a community garden.

Of course, like all universal planning recommendations, you have to make sure this makes sense in a particular case and actually will shorten some residents' trip distances. But it's worth some serious contemplation of your and how to make it more energy efficient but also more effective and satisfying as well..

After you get new development playing by new rules that promote choices for all, plan how to get rid of the cul de sacs and the need to travel on the interstate highway to get around your city. In fact maybe you should be like Portland and get rid of the interstate downtown altogether. Then downtown actually would have the traffic it needs.

The Active Transportation Approach Is Fun Too!

If automobile travel is to be reduced, the substitute behaviors of riding a bicycle, walking, and using transit must become attractive and safe.

Our four top tips for reducing automobile orientation are listed below.

• Make every street possible walkable and bikeable. This should not even be open for discussion now, but experience shows that these topics can still spark local ire in many towns. When you make the street a way to move as much traffic as possible as fast as possible, you certainly discourage other forms of transportation.

If your streets don't have sidewalks, install them. If the sidewalks don't have ramps at the end for strollers and wheelchairs, there’s no time like the present.

The end result will be both a walkable community and a bikeable community. Both are very desirable to young professionals, families, and seniors.

• Plan and build skinnier streets. If you combine so-called road diets with complete streets and an emphasis on a versatile grid, instead of one-way-in, one-way-out systems, you'll have a street perfectly adequate to handle traffic. But the energy cost of building and maintaining the street will be decreased considerably, and you'll have room for bike lanes.

• Make off-street trails. Multi-use paths and trails are a retrofit that many communities can afford. Their unused stream buffers, utility corridors, abandoned rail lines, and various other slivers of leftover land can become ways for cyclists and pedestrians to travel safely while getting some much-needed exercise and fresh air.

• Make transit use sexy. Neighborhood associations could accept the challenge of making their commute fun, because people who know each other from the association are using transit together.

At some not-so-magic number of adoptions, an idea begins to take off. So maybe your city employees or neighborhood association officers can all commit to using transit for a week. Then on Friday you can have a party and share your experiences. Transit not only is a good idea, but also can be a source of new stress-free living and pleasure, if you get creative.

Controlling Sprawl and Building at Appropriate Density Can Help Reduce Driving Also

A related factor that we decided to make a major point is to work with other to get your regional sprawl under control. The use of more land for urbanized purposes than is required by population and economic base growth guarantees that too much is spent on energy for transportation.

It's one thing to address behavioral resistance to using walking and biking more as transportation, and to deal with actual behaviors to safe and comfortable to pedestrians and cyclists. But it's quite another consideration when our very development pattern as a community means that people would have a 20-mile bike ride to work and not a 2-mile ride.  

If talking about sprawl is a lost cause in your own community, maybe you can at least attend to your subdivision regulations to make sure that subdivision design does not require extra driving just to exit the subdivision safely or to visit nearby stores or amenities that most residents certainly will frequent. Avoiding lots that are larger than necessary and streets that are wider than needed for your particular market also is a viable and important energy strategy that will make your community more attractive as well.

Sometimes developers will fight this notion, but if so, they need to update their thinking.  Younger people and environmentally conscious adults will really respond to a subdivision that pays attention to these basic principles of design that add up to less driving and a little bit more density.

Advantages of Nudging Residents Toward Energy Conservation 

A city or a neighborhood can urge its citizens to be more conscious of energy consumption. In some communities where sustainability is not particularly popular, local governments and neighborhood groups may be reluctant to spend much of their influence on residents urging lower energy use. However, there are many advantages to tackling this subject, which we describe briefly below. 

• Reduced or steady demand postpones the need for extremely costly investment in new energy generation facilities at the local or regional level, thereby keeping utility bills for residential, business, and industrial customers lower and adding to the attractiveness of the community to investors.

• To the extent energy is generated locally, air pollution or costly controls to reduce that pollution to an acceptable level are reduced.

• As the Middle East, Africa, and the U.S. demonstrate, petroleum can generate enormous wealth for a few people, while leaving consumers of petroleum vulnerable to cost fluctuations in global markets. In the U.S., recent research has shown that foreclosures have increased when gasoline prices increased, and decreased when prices tapered off.

• Gasoline-powered personal automobiles require huge public subsidy in the U.S., in the form of pressure for federal funding of major roadways and bridges, the drive for speed and efficiency on state roads, and unnecessarily spacious local streets that create a huge clean water problem because of rapid rain water runoff from streets covered with petroleum residue.

Communities whose land area would be reduced by rising sea level as a consequence of global warming should be especially motivated to reduce energy usage. Concrete examples of rises in sea levels could be effective communication devices to convince people in such communities to live in a more compact urban form and turn off the lights.

Another talking point for some communities is that a quarter of all automobile trips are trips that could be within walking distance.  This has contributed to lack of physical fitness and quite possibly to obesity, certainly public health issues and significant societal health care costs.

Yes, walking instead of driving for short distances would require behavior changes, as would most of these measures. Just communicate that not everyone needs to adopt 100 percent of these practices every day. Small changes can produce big results.

You'll find it to be very gratifying work, especially if you employ some measurement techniques that can make the savings visual for your residents.

One source for such measurement approaches is a broad network of communities concerned about energy usage and its contributions to climate change. This entire nexus of "green" issues is addressed by an organization called ICLEI.

They have an increasingly interesting and complex set of tools and ideas to offer communities, and it's really gaining momentum internationally.

We will leave specific energy conservation tips for the household to some other website.

Energy and the Potential for Local Jobs

We want to comment on one final compelling reason to be excited about energy conservation at the local level.  This field represents a real economic development opportunity due to the need for innovations that allow cleaner technologies to substitute for petroleum and coal.

New types of jobs connected with new energy generation methods, transmission, new "smart" appliances or vehicles, large-scale retrofitting of buildings, installation of solar and wind, or active transportation can generate much-needed employment for the community.

Push on Your City to Do Its Own Energy Audit

Of course neighborhood groups also can advocate for energy conservation within the city government itself. A college student could do some good work on auditing the city's usage and how to lower it as a summer internship project.  Here are just two ideas.

When new governmental buildings are constructed, a big opportunity for efficient energy usage is presented. Irving, Texas, built a net zero energy library. (The "net" part here or in other similar statements means a building or facility uses some energy but generates the same amount or more.)

For many small city governments, street lighting constitutes a major portion of the utility bill.  Replacing energy-squandering lighting with newer street lights, which are almost always more energy efficient, will help with the budget in the long run and also allow the city to participate in enhancing environmental sustainability and climate resilience.

Pages Related to Energy Use

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