December 27, 2014 -- As Houston leaders push the counter-intuitive notion that the world's energy capital can go green, and pledge ever-lower emissions goals for municipal operations, installing energy-efficient lighting and low-flow toilets can seem like hopelessly small measures.
City data show a seven-year effort to retrofit municipal facilities with those types of energy-efficient upgrades is working, however. And that matters, since Mayor Annise Parker's office says energy costs are the city's third-largest category of spending, after employee salaries and benefits.
The energy and operational savings produced by upgrades to 87 city buildings, completed over the last four years, have averaged $5.2 million a year. That trend is beating officials' original estimates, and, if it holds, will see the investments pay for themselves in about 10 years, more than two years sooner than projected.
The city will continue to operate the buildings beyond the next decade, added Gilberto Lopez, a senior project manager in the city's General Services Department, capturing even more savings into the future. Even if the positive trend were to reverse, Lopez said, both contractors handling the upgrades for the city guarantee results from their work, and will cut the city a check if the buildings don't perform.
"The savings is absolutely a win," Lopez said. "Is it a windfall, is it taking our breath away? We're always looking in terms of, 'Let's clear the baseline and then we'll celebrate everything else.' But we feel very positive about the program."
The first six batches of upgrades encompassed 4.3 million square feet, including police stations and dozens of health and parks facilities, as well as the city's main office tower on Walker Street downtown.
Another $8.2 million project to upgrade 18 libraries and two other facilities is underway and scheduled to finish in 2015. Those upgrades will save a projected $550,000 annually.
Houston's work to retrofit buildings began under former Mayor Bill White in 2007, with help from the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and the Clinton Climate Initiative.
White also required new city buildings and major renovations of more than 10,000 square feet to meet LEED Silver standards, a measure of energy efficiency; as of last month, the city had completed 23 such projects.
Mayor Annise Parker launched the Houston Green Office Challenge, a competition encouraging commercial property owners and tenants to decrease energy use, and signed an energy efficiency policy for the city that dictates the way heating, cooling and lighting systems are run, bans space heaters and requires all electronics to be shut down after work hours.
Houston has decreased its greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent since 2007, and Parker earlier this year committed to cut emissions by another 10 percent by 2016. Parker also this year announced the city would work with CenterPoint Energy to convert 165,000 city streetlights to light-emitting diodes to reduce energy use, electricity costs and emissions. White and Parker also passed new codes for new commercial and residential development requiring greater energy efficiency.
Such efforts are an important component of acting sustainably, said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, because an estimated 40 percent of all the energy used in the United States is consumed by buildings.
More work to do
"A lot of older buildings are still wasting a lot of energy in terms of leaking insulation or outdated appliances, lighting and heating controls," he said. "They really are largely an untapped resource in terms of saving energy - and the more energy we save, that means power plants are running less and pumping less pollution out of the smokestack. It definitely has a huge impact in terms of cleaning up the air."
City staff have identified another $29 million in upgrades to 167 buildings, mostly fire department and parks facilities, but no dollars have been set aside to pay for the work.
"We have a finite amount of money we can borrow, and we've got all the other needs, so we're just taking a look at everything and determining where is the best place to put our money," said Janice Evans, a spokeswoman for Parker. "Do we need to buy police cars, or should we do this energy savings project? It's not just a matter of, 'Let's go do it because they can produce benefits prior to the length of time that we're having to finance the project for.'"
Metzger acknowledged energy efficiency projects do not get as much public praise as a new park, but he said such efficiency efforts urgently are needed.
"Certainly cities have to balance all the needs, but we think this one is a no-brainer because it is so cost-effective and pays for itself and has that added benefit of helping reduce pollution," he said. "We're coming under new, even stronger federal standards for air quality, and we have to be smarter and find new ways to reduce pollution. Energy efficiency is widely understood to be the lowest-hanging fruit; it's the cheapest, easiest way to help us clean up the air.”
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