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Communities Can 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 municipal, regional, or neighborhood policies and laws can serve to reduce power and gasoline consumption.

First, an energy conservation building code can be enacted to cover new construction only.

Second, 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.

Third, quality subdivision regulation and control of suburban sprawl can contribute to fewer vehicle miles traveled, which means less energy use.

Energy Conservation for Cities and Non-Profits

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.

Those 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.

In the commercial and office sector, heating and cooling represents only about 30% of usage, but lighting is a whopping 25%.

So if we want to make our city government offices, our non-profit offices, and our homes more energy efficient, the lines of attack to me seem to be transportation, heating and cooling, and office and retail lighting.

For City Hall, other city buildings, and neighborhood offices, let's ask for:

  • Programmable thermostats (programmed appropriately)
  • A policy of turning off computers and their peripherals at night (especially the printers and monitors), and turning them to any available low-power or standby mode when not in use
  • Reduction of leaking energy by unplugging the computer-related power strip at night
  • Energy conservation through turning off the lights when leaving the room and at night, except for any code-required safety light
  • Reducing the water heater thermostat

If you ever watch your city hall being cleaned in the early evening, you may find, as I did, that for as long as four hours, every light in the building is turned on. At my office too, the first order of business for the cleaning company is to turn on every light in the place. Then if they find me still working, they take off and don't reappear for another three hours, but they don't turn off any lights!

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.

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.

Here are 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.

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.

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 top tips for reducing automobile orientation include:

• Make every street possible walkable and bikeable. This should not even be open for discussion now, but experience shows that it is a hot topic in many locales. 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.

As capital improvements are planned, think about converting each street to a "complete street," as this concept is now called in federal transportation jargon.

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.

• 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.

Advantages of an Energy Conservation Program

A city or a neighborhood can urge its citizens to implement such a program.  The advantages of such a program are:

• Reduced or steady demand postpones the need for extremely costly investment in new energy generation facilities at the local or regional level, thereby keeping costs 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, and the potential for that rare nuclear accident is 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 through 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 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.

Yet another important element of an energy program at the local level probably would be enacting an energy conservation code.   In simplest terms, the energy conservation code from the International Code Council could be enacted as an alternative to the traditional building code, and would apply to new construction.

Energy and Potential for Local Jobs

Energy conservation represents an 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, or active transportation can generate much-needed employment for the community.

So while we're leaving the energy conservation tips for the household to some other website, you see that energy conservation really is a topic that you can address in part at the local community level.

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.

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