2017-02-03 / Front Page

City meets sustainable goal

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — When South Portland signed the U.S. Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement in 2007, its primary goal was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent before 2017. Now, with the deadline year in hand, city Sustainability Coordinator Julie Rosenbach has delivered good news – the goal was met back in 2014, the same year the city council adopted a climate action plan designed to achieve its green objective.

Now, Rosenbach says, the goal of the city should transition over the next year from focusing on its own operations to reducing the carbon footprint of businesses and residents in the city.

According to a status update delivered to the city council at its Jan. 30 workshop, between 2007 and 2014, South Portland reduced its overall energy use by 3 percent, energy costs by 13 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 23 percent.

In all, the report states, South Portland was responsible for 2,331 fewer metric tons of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere in 2014 than it was in 2007.

At the workshop Rosenbach and Jessica Williams, chairman of the city’s energy and recycling committee, delivered an update on the 25 action items in the 202-page action plan approved by the council in Nov. 2014. Of those, five projects have been completed, 18 are in on-going compliance, and just two remain untouched.

“Overall, all of these actions have been a factor in reducing emission,” Williams said. “The city has made huge strides in reducing energy usage, using clean energy more efficiently, and transitioning to more renewable energy. And it’s raised awareness, started conversations, and has really set the stage for future climate action planning. We’ve made a lot of progress. This is a good thing and we hope to keep moving in this direction.”

One of the completed goals was to update the city’s inventory of its greenhouse gas emissions. Rosenbach and the energy committee did that last year, using 2014 data, and compared it to a list compiled by a consultant in 2011, which used 2007 data. Doing that was not always easy, Rosenbach said.

“There’s a lot of changes and fluctuations and its not necessarily apples to apples,” she said. “There were a lot of methodological and operational changes that happened between 2007 and 2014. A lot of factors came into play.”

Rosenbach said there were “gaps and inconsistencies” in how data was tracked in 2007 that were corrected by 2014. She also converted some data, from looking at just the living space in city buildings to the total gross square footage. There also were 25 more vehicles in the city fleet than the consultant reported in 2007.

“I can’t speak to the data in the 2007 report and where they got that,” Rosenbach said, noting that, in some cases, she simply had to accept the old data as presented.

“This could be a rabbit hole to keep going in and looking for where they got the 2007 data,” she said.

Rosenbach also acknowledged that some of the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions attributed to attaining the 17 percent reduction goal did not happen as a result of anything done as part of the 2014 action plan.

“Some of this stuff is out of out control,” she said. “The regional electricity grid got significantly cleaner. It moved away from coal toward natural gas. And so, when you see a 23 percent reduction in emissions but a 3 percent reduction in energy use, that means we did a lot on fuel, switching to cleaner fuels, and that’s reflected in our greenhouse gas inventory.”

According to Rosenbach’s calculations, South Portland reduced its heat and hot water costs at city buildings 28.7 percent, from $894,294 to $638,078 between 2007 and 2014. That came partly as a result of cutting energy use 18.1 percent, which helped cut greenhouse gas emissions 34.9 percent. The city actually increased electricity use in its buildings 9.6 percent, but as a result of the cleaner grid, reduced its carbon footprint 24.7 percent, while saving 23.8 percent on the bill, dropping it from $797,731 in 2007 to $607,830 in 2014.

The city also saved on wastewater treatment and electricity to run traffic lights, although both the costs and the emissions of the vehicle fleet shot up. The city spend 20 percent more to fuel the fleet from 2007 to 2014, and 4.7 percent more on public transit, and increased energy use in millions of British thermal Units of 20.6 and 20.2 percent, respectively, along with spikes in CO2 emissions of 20.7 and 21.4 percent.

Still, in total, South Portland spent 12.9 percent less on energy in 2014 than it did in 2007, the report shows, with total costs dropping to $2.65 million, while cutting energy use 3.2 percent, to 109,848 millions of BTUs, and CO2 emissions 23.1 percent, to 7,764 metric tons per year.

In addition to updating the greenhouse gas inventory, climate action plan goals completed by South Portland since adoption of the plan in 2014, include creating and maintaining a municipal energy database to better track its numbers, creating Rosenbach’s office and hiring her to do the job, creating a “green” component to its annual capital improvements plan, and completing a feasibility study for installing a solar array, a project it continues to move forward on in cooperation with the city of Portland and ReVision Energy.

Ongoing work includes development of an energy management plan, stepping up recycling efforts, improving HVAC systems through a performance contract with Siemens Energy, and improving fuel economy of the vehicle fleet. Since 2014, South Portland has purchased four Nissan Leaf electric vehicles and installed five recharging stations.

The two action items from the 2014 plan that never gained a toe-hold were to establish a “lights out at night” policy – Rosenbach said most city employees are doing that anyway – and finding a way to reduce to commuting impact of city employees.

“What I can tell you is that overall we are on the right track,” Rosenbach said. “We are reducing our energy use. We are reducing our emissions. Our data tracking is getting so much better.

“We will work on this until we can’t reduce emissions any more,” she said. “But we also know that even if we do everything we need to do, climate change is here and climate change in happening. So, we also need to simultaneously adapt.”

Rosenbach said she intends to spend the next three months crafting a “detailed plan” on what the city can do moving forward, and plan that, following public input, should result in an all-new climate action plan ready for council approval within the next year. That plan, Rosenbach said, will branch out from city responsibilities, to those of businesses and residents.

“My recommendation is not to go to just commercial, but to go to a community wide climate action plan,” she said.

However, when asked by Councilor Maxine Beecher what that will mean to homeowners – “because that’s what everybody is going to ask me about,” Rosenbach said.

“Honestly, I feel like we need to make this a very concerted process, to involve everybody and get everybody’s input,” she said. “I could come up with 100 actions right now that we could take. But what are the strategic next steps? In terms of targeting homeowners, I’d say we follow the same principals we follow with municipal actions. For that, I can give direction, but it’s important to make it a lengthy process, so people feel ownership of this as a community action plan – so it’s not, ‘Julie’s action plan.”

That will mean public input at a series of hearings, Rosenbach said, and the final form of the plan will necessarily spring from whatever happens at those sessions.

“Do we define the goal, and that helps us define the actions? Or, do we define the actions, and that helps us define the goal? I think that’s all part of the public process,” Rosenbach said.

While councilors were encouraged by Rosenbach to give direction, most seemed content to let her light the path.

“I would rather rely on you as to what you think are good ideas to bring forward,” said Councilor Linda Cohen. “If there’s something we think is an absolutely crazy idea, we’ll ell you that, but I have faith in you and your ability. You’re the one who is in the trenches with all of this stuff, who is leading the ship.”

On the whole, councilors agreed they are happy with where South Portland is going, and the green reputation it is gaining.

“It’s nice that we attained our goals,” Cohen said. “And it’s also nice that, around the state of Maine, we are known as the community that is very sustainable, and into sustainability, and wants to be very green.”

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