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Posted: January 13, 2010

Clean Tech as Civic Duty

Government embraces sustainability to save costs -- and serve as a role model (Special Section)

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Look no further than the front of Denver's city hall for a testament to how government and sustainability can dance seamlessly.

As is the tradition, the City and County Building again this winter was lit up heel and toe with holiday lights during December, continuing through the Stock Show in January. This year, however, there was something different: 585 LED lights. The emerging technology, along with a policy of shutting off the display an hour earlier, was projected to cut the electrical use 80 percent.

It's a handshake of form-meets-function. Less carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere, the electricity bill goes down, and the public still gets to see the show.
Governments, be they in Colorado's smallest towns or largest city, commonly wear multiple hats. They strive to be role models, while meeting very real bottom lines. Unlike the federal government, state and local governments cannot have deficits. Governments also are typically partners in economic development and environmental sustainability, the foundations for quality of life.

In the case of Denver's LED lighting, the display serves as a role model. The new lighting display cost $325,000, but the lights will last six times longer and reduce staffing needs. It's also a bottom-line issue. The city government, wracked by revenue shortfalls, figures to save $180,000 annually. That's a quick payback.

Governments have also strived to serve as role models in their public buildings. Denver policy mandated that new libraries and other municipal buildings must be built to attain certification for silver LEED, the second highest of four levels offered by the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Again, there's commonly a higher up-front cost with green buildings, but improved efficiencies yield savings down the line.

Such forward movement can be found across Colorado. Located on the edge of the San Juan Mountains, Ouray's town government has retrofitted all of its streetlights with LEDs. Cortez, in the southwest corner, in March expects to be producing 240 kilowatts of electricity by yoking the power of water flowing into its treatment plant. And in Avon, 110 miles west of Denver, the town government a few years ago had an energy audit, to calculate how the town government was heating and electrifying buildings. The audit found that the community recreation center used energy as if the cost were an afterthought.

In Avon, changes are being made: a new roof this coming summer, vapor-insulation barriers and, working with Eagle Valley Water and Sanitation District, exhaust heat from a nearby sewage-treatment plant is being tapped to warm the recreation center.

"We're into it big time," says Larry Brooks, the town manager of Avon. He notes that example-setting goes a long way in local government and is always the first step before mandates. Early in his career he was responsible for parks in another Colorado town. When parks are trash-free, he says, people most often will dispose of trash in the appointed barrels. When trash is strewn about, people will more often litter. That's why government must set a good example.

Building efficiencies matter greatly. To heat and cool them, plus answer our every electrical-delivered whimsy, requires vast amounts of energy, some 39 percent of all energy use in the United States. Getting it right the first time, whether it's a city hall or just a new home, makes absolute sense.

Andre Pettigrew, executive director of Denver's Office of Economic Development, observes that building standards have improved appreciably, even without mandates. "I am unaware of any major building, commercial or public, that is not trying to meet at least one level of the LEED standards," he says.

Preliminary analysis shows that buildings, whether LEED certified or not, can earn a premium in the rental market if constructed in ways to reduce use of water and energy and in ways that are better for the health and productivity of the people who work there, he says.

"Those buildings are holding value," Pettigrew says. As he sees it, anybody constructing a building that does not strive for improved energy and other efficiencies "runs the risk of being almost obsolete before that building is done."

But what about existing buildings? "We are not going to tear down all the buildings," says Pettigrew, talking about private, commercial and residential sectors. "For the next 20 years, 90 percent of the buildings that we will use will be those that already exist."

Many efforts are under way to weatherize and in other ways dampen the energy needs of existing buildings. A key partner in this is the federal government, which has allocated more than $300 million in stimulus funding to help improve existing buildings. "This is government taking a lead," he says.

Denver hopes to benefit from this federal program to improve its older buildings. "They are signature buildings, but they weren't designed with energy efficiency in mind," Pettigrew says.
The energy utilities have also been partners. The cheapest electricity to deliver, after all, is that which is not needed. As such, Xcel Energy has been offering increasingly attractive rebates to customers willing to invest in everything from more attic insulation to higher-performing hot-water heaters. Tri-State Generation and Transmission and its member cooperatives have similarly begun offering incentives - such as grants to install those LED streetlights in Ouray - to shave demand growth.

Sustainability also dovetails with another mission of local governments, to foster economic development. Each individual community wants sales tax revenues, in order to help build bike paths and what not. But to get shoppers requires attracting business sectors that provide better-paying jobs. That's what the clean-tech companies represent. As Pettigrew and other economic development directors in metropolitan Denver see it, these companies are the foundation of future prosperity.

By anybody's measuring stick, Denver and the Front Range are sitting in a pretty spot. This region is among a handful in the nation that are members of Climate Prosperity Inc. The project sees "not only an environmental imperative" in transforming energy use "but also an extraordinary economic development opportunity."

Portland, Seattle and California's Silicon Valley are also participants. To Pettigrew, this makes absolute sense. If the computer was 1.0, and the Internet is 2.0, then green tech will be 3.0, he says.
Pettigrew says that the role of government is to show commitment and then provide a sound infrastructure for the prosperity of clean-tech businesses. "We just think it creates the critical mass," he said.

As he sees it, environmental quality and economic development go hand in hand. If Denver had not figured out how to clip the worst of its air pollution that shrouded the metro region in the 1970s, would it have prospered in the 1990s? Not likely. And looking forward at this time, the expansion of light rail and other improvements continues to make metropolitan Denver more attractive to businesses now and into the future.

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