Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Sustainability


How close are you to a grocery store?

Walk Score has a tool to generate heat maps showing how far you have to walk to reach things like a grocery store. Here's DC's grocery access map:

Image from Walk Score. Click for interactive version.

According to the Walk Score blog, 41% of DC residents are within a 5-minute walk of a food store, placing it 5th among US cities of half a million residents or more and just below Boston (45%). New York is tops, at 72%.

DC's sustainability plan (which gets a special mention in the WalkScore post) calls for 75% of people to have a food store within a 5-minute walk by 2032.

Southern and southwestern cities rank the worst, with Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, Charlotte, Tucson and Albuquerque all or at or below 7%. Tucson is an interesting case in that the city has done a lot to make it safer to walk, such as adding pedestrian signals to help people cross its wide streets, but everything is very spread out making many walks quite long.


Plans for a sidewalk and bike lane get caught on trees

While a proposed sidewalk and bike lane on Broad Branch Road has community support, possible damage to trees has sparked opposition. But it's unclear why these particular trees are worth saving.

Alternative 4 includes a sidewalk and bike lane, but would impact more trees. All images from DDOT unless noted.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and engineering firm Parsons have developed three alternatives to rebuild the deteriorated road for an Environmental Assessment. Numerous problems make reconstruction necessary: a collapsed culvert, deteriorating roadbeds, and undergrade that is crumbling into the adjacent stream, which is ecologically dead from runoff.

Alternative 2 only has room for cars, but would hurt fewer trees.

Alternative 2, costing $29 million, will rebuild only the road, adding retaining walls and stormwater retention swales. Alternative 3, for $34 million, would also include a sidewalk, while Alternative 4 adds a sidewalk and a 3-foot bike lane on the northbound, uphill side of the road, at a cost of $37 million. But it could also impact up to 460 trees, 175 more than if the road was simply rebuilt.

Environmental groups don't want to give up trees for a sidewalk

Alternate 4 is the only configuration that connects the neighborhood to Rock Creek Park. Currently, residents either have to face a hostile road or drive to appreciate the extraordinary woodland. Rebuilding the route with a sidewalk will allow residents to take advantage of the park without having to find parking.

Additionally, an uphill climbing lane would make cycling, either for recreation or commuting, significantly easier. What makes Broad Branch essential as a bike and pedestrian route is that it was originally designed for non-motorized transportation. The gentle grade and tree shade matter much more for people moving under their own power.

Alternative 3 adds a sidewalk, but no bike lane.

That's why ANC3F, which represents almost all of Broad Branch, unanimously supported bicycle and pedestrian access, as well as the best possible stormwater management. Tenley-Friendship ANC3E praised it. ANC3G voted to support Alternate 4. Testimony at the November 15th public meeting overwhelmingly supported the multimodal design.

But a number of organizations ostensibly committed to sustainability have come out in opposition to that option, primarily because of the loss of trees. DDOT's environmental assessment counts between 285 and 460 trees of at least four inches in diameter as "impacted," meaning that at least 30% of their root structure would be damaged.

The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, Casey Trees, and Commission on Fine Arts member Thomas Luebke have objected both to the loss of trees and loss of a "rural" look. One person at a recent presentation said she wasn't so "macho" as to be above driving into the park, if it saved trees. Another compared the 2-lane road to the Center Leg Freeway. On twitter, one critic called Ward 3 Vision's endorsement of Alternate 4 "anthropocentric."

I like trees. Joyce Kilmer likes trees. Everyone likes trees. But if we perpetuate auto-dependent appreciation of the park so as to not risk 175 specimens of unknown quality, then we are literally missing the forest for the trees.

What is a tree good for?

The reason for saving these trees is unclear. Is it for the enjoyment of residents? The environmental benefits for humans? Is it to preserve a tree as an element of the natural world? In all three cases, building the path and the bike lane would bring more lasting ecological benefits.

To preserve an environment for its own sake is to treat it as wilderness, where humans have no more impact than other animals. In a wilderness, the tree fills many niches as part of a larger ecosystem.

The National Park Service defines "wilderness" as the lack of motor vehicles and permanent structures. A paved road frequented by commuters, flanked by houses, and altered by two centuries of use definitely does not qualify.

Broad Branch Road with the Italian Ambassador's Residence gatehouse in the background. Photo by the author.

Critics of Smart Growth see urbanization as environmental degradation, but in the aggregate, densification protects rural and wild environments by using land more efficiently, especially as runoff from roads is the most pollutant-laden kind. However, as the Sierra Club's Kaid Benfield points out, density has its drawbacks in issues of air quality, aesthetics, and volume of water pollution.

Parks like Rock Creek counteract that effect. The "smart" in Smart Growth is striking the balance between those ecological effects globally as well as locally. On Broad Branch itself, the harm from damaged trees weighs against health gains from more activity, lowered vehicle emissions, and modern runoff infrastructure.

Plus, users would actually be able to stop and enjoy the beauty of the valley. It might no longer have the "country road" aesthetic Luebke praises, but it could take on any number of looks that have worked for metropolitan parks elsewhere. Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted and his sons, who designed Rock Creek Park, knew that a roadway could complement and frame the landscape, if it is well designed.

Cladding the retaining walls in stone, as the environmental assessment indicates, is a good step in getting good quality. However, where the design requires stream-side walls, using metal railings like the ones used on the Mission 66 bridges nearby would reduce the visual impact. Using dark stone set in dark mortar would make the uphill walls more discrete.

Controls to cut down reckless driving, like speed bumps and cameras are worth considering. A proposed T-intersection at Brandywine, with added stop signs on Broad Branch, would discourage speeding around that dangerous corner. Finally, DDOT should replant trees wherever feasible, with native species.

There are also a number of other projects in the area. Project managers should coordinate with the Soapstone Valley sewer replacement, 27th Street bridge reconstruction, and work with utilities to bury the overhead lines along the road.

Broad Branch Road has some very beautiful moments. A redesign that sensitively opens it to the broadest public will make the city more livable while making it easier to have a light impact on on the natural world.


College Park's mayor takes Smart Growth to school

Andrew Fellows came to College Park from Silver Spring in 1991 as a grad student at the University of Maryland and never left. Now mayor and newly elected to a third term, Fellows wants to draw staff and faculty back to this college town, all while making it more environmentally sustainable.

Andy Fellows, mayor of College Park. Photo by the author.

It's Thursday morning at the Starbucks in College Park, perhaps the main thoroughfare for college students in this 30,000-person city. Fellows walks in quickly. If you're not looking up at the time, you'll miss him. A hand shoots out.

"Morning, Mayor," says a man from a lounge chair.

"Hey, how are ya doin?" says Fellows.

In November, Fellows was reelected in the city's first contested election in 24 years. Fellows, whose day job is regional director at Clean Water Action, agreed to meet me for one of the first interviews since then.

What are the executive powers of mayors of small municipalities like College Park?

Mayor Fellows: Almost none...the city council sets policy. I have a vote on council matters, but only if it's a tie. Then we have a city manager who is full-time: basically who runs the city, and implements the policy that we settle.

It's not really my authority, but it's my ability to meet with leaders. When I was sworn in, I said that I wanted to improve the relationship with the University of Maryland and also with Prince George's County. So I spend a chunk of time meeting with people and talking with people about ways we could work together and improve relationships. I'm a little bit of an ambassador for College Park.

Could you tell me a little about your work [at Clean Water Action]?

Mayor Fellows: Clean Water Action is a national organization. We have about a million members around the country. I coordinate our program in Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia. Our mission is both to make democracy work and get people involved in the decision-making process on environmental issues, and also to implement the Clean Water Act, which is to make the water of the United States more fishable and to make sure there's safe and affordable drinking water. It's partly political because we do endorsements and we do election work, and it's also education and outreach.

It seems College Park is a bit of a hotbed for non-profit environmental work. Did that activity and organizing attract you to the city in the first place?

Mayor Fellows: It's part of being a college town where those types of groups tend to be here. In a sense it did attract me. But then again I didn't really work in environmental work at first. I worked at Citizen Action, which did do environmental work but they worked with other issues as well.

I've attempted to make it a point not to bring my Clean Water agenda to being the mayor at College Park, but it overlaps in the sense that I'm a green mayor. I'm an environmentally-minded mayor. So I want to encourage as much sustainability as possible.

What are some of the challenges that are unique to College Park instead of other nearby municipalities?

Mayor Fellows: I think the unique opportunity we have, and in some ways the challenge, is being home to the flagship campus to the state of Maryland. Because of that we have a lot of count-down issues. Sometimes it's the tension of people who are renting and living short-term and maybe have a different lifestyle than their neighbors: partying and noise. That's a lot of what the Quality of Life Workgroup does, is address some of those issues.

But also with planning, transportation, and economic development issues. The university has a lot of power and the city doesn't have final authority on land use; the county does. So, our focus is on coordinating our efforts with the university and the county to make sure that we're working together.

What are you proud of having accomplished?

Mayor Fellows: Well a lot of the university faculty don't live here in town, and so one of the things that we recognize for the university to be more sustainable is having them living closer to the university so that they can bike or walk to work.

The reason they don't is education. The public schools of Prince George's County don't have a good reputation, so education has always been a top priority of mine. But the city of College Park didn't run education. We do now that we are helping to run a new charter school called College Park Academy, that just opened this fall...It's in a former Catholic school called St. Mark's. We will be creating a full-time location for the College Park Academy, but we're still in the process of doing that.

To me that's a really concrete accomplishment of getting the university, the city, and the county to work together to improve public education opportunities for kids.

Where does affordable housing rank on the list of the city's priorities?

Mayor Fellows: It's pretty high, but affordable housing is one of those issues that's mostly related to students. Of course, that's not true in a lot of parts of Prince George's County. I think for us in College Park, we've got a pretty good amount of diversity of income and affordable housing.

We imposed rent control and rent stabilization to address what we felt were students being ripped off by landlords who were charging really high rates. A lot of the parents of students can afford high rates. So the rents around here in the group houses were going up. So we did two things: one, we put rent stabilization in place, and then we went to war with the landlords, which took a while to get going.

What were some of the provisions of your rent control?

Mayor Fellows: You could only raise the rent a certain percentage of the value of the property.

Are student advocacy groups active on this front?

Mayor Fellows: The Student Government Organization and the Graduate Student Government have somewhat engaged in housing issues. Their big issue is getting more housing. Because, the market says, in theory, that if you have enough housing, the prices will come down because of supply and demand.

Where does smart growth fit into all of this?

Mayor Fellows: Smart growth for me is the more we can build around transit areas, areas with transportation infrastructure, so that people aren't as dependent on cars. And for us it's working. We're actually decreasing the amount of vehicle trips on Route 1 because of the fact that students living so close to campus don't have to drive to campus, which reduces cars on the road.

Okay, let's switch gears. What's the strangest thing a constituent has ever said to you?

Mayor Fellows: Well, the first thing that comes to my mindů I'm not really sure if it's strange, but it's strange to me. We put up speed cameras a few years ago, and sure enough people got caught speeding. But I was amazed that people would call me up, the mayor, and complain about being caught for speeding. Basically, their attitude was, "How dare you put up a speed camera ad how dare you fine me for breaking the law." It was so weird to me.

What are some of your personal challenges that you've faced since becoming mayor?

Mayor Fellows: My personal challenge is probably time. I end up working 60 or 70 hours a week. And it's work I love doing. So it's figuring out, "how do I prioritize and get things done in a way that's effective, but doesn't drive me crazy?"

Also, being patient, which is somewhat of a strength of mine because I'm a pretty patient guy. But some things don't happen overnight or really quickly. The most sustainable things are the ones where people take a lot of community ownership or a lot of people involved in the project to get people going together. It's bottom up and not top down. And that also takes time.

A version of this post appeared on Jimmy's Writing Samples.


Calculate your commuting emissions with Metro's new tool

Earlier this fall, WMATA's sustainability team developed a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions savings calculator and have launched a draft version on their blog, PlanItMetro. You can use it to compare their carbon footprint when taking transit or driving.

Photo by Leonski Oh Leonski on Flickr.

The tool is simple and intuitive to use, similar to WMATA's trip planner. Enter your origin and destination and the calculator will give you options for how to arrive at your destination via transit or by driving, and will tell you the total amount of CO2 emissions for each option. If your trip involves walking, the calculator will even give you an estimate of the calories you expended in the process.

Check out a sample entry I did for a trip I used to make from my old place in College Park as a student at the University of Maryland to the Coalition for Smarter Growth office near Union Station. By taking the Metro rather than driving, I reduced my carbon footprint by 61% and burned over 90 calories in the process.

Metro's carbon footprint calculator.

A map of transit versus driving routes.

The transit emissions the tool calculates represent your slice of the total emissions pie of Metro's fleet divided by all Metrorail or Metrobus riders. Since we have already invested in these transit systems, every additional person who boards a bus or train improves the efficiency of the overall system, while avoiding the emissions they would generate by driving.

But it's also instructive to see the significant emissions our transit vehicles emit. Reducing transportation emissions by using cleaner fuels for Metrobus and Metrorail should be a goal for our transit system as well. Public concerns over natural gas have been increasing, given the devastating environmental impacts of fracking. Recent studies suggest that natural gas' net climate impact may be even worse than coal.

Metro wants to move from using traditional diesel or natural gas vehicles to diesel hybrid buses. Today, the bus fleet consists of 41% hybrids, which will rise to 62% by 2018.

The emissions figures from riding Metrorail are based on the amount of electricity the system uses from Maryland's and Virginia's electricity grids. Maryland and Virginia currently both generate over half of their electricity from fossil fuels.

Maryland must generate 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, and passed a major offshore wind bill last year. Virginia is lagging behind Maryland, having only adopted a voluntary renewable portfolio standard. Someday, if we have a clean grid, Metro could also consider running trolley buses on clean energy like in Seattle and San Francisco.

If we are to lower emissions at the rate and degree scientists say is necessary to avert climate disaster, we will have to find a way to dramatically reduce our transportation emissions, which make up 30% of the Washington DC region's carbon emissions. Tools like WMATA's offer the opportunity for individuals to understand the environmental impact of their commutes and the benefits of walking, bicycling, and transit use.

Still, behavior change is difficult, and studies have found that carbon calculators tend to reach a limited and self-selecting audience. So how can WMATA improve the tool to maximize its impact?

One idea would be to illustrate the meaning of "kilograms of CO2" in easily understandable ways by comparing it to gallons of gas, the cost of gas, or home energy use. WMATA could potentially use data from this tool from the EPA, which compares kilograms of CO2 to a wide variety of everyday energy uses.

It would also be great if the tool incorporated more options, especially biking to transit stations. In testing WMATA's calculator, we also found that it didn't offer biking or bikeshare as options where those appear to be a convenient alternative.

In addition, the emissions savings from one trip may not be a huge motivator, but what if you could see the impact of riding transit and ditching your car for a whole year? Driving represents by far the biggest share of the typical American's carbon footprint, so switching to other modes over the long term is one of the most important actions an individual can make to fight climate change. The following chart shows the major contributors to the average household's carbon footprint.

Graph from NRDC and UC Berkeley.

Finally, WMATA's tool could work in concert with the Housing + Transportation Cost Calculator pioneered by the Center for Neighborhood Technology and adopted by the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities to show how transit-accessible neighborhoods can not only reduce your carbon footprint, but your living expenses as well.

What ideas do you have to improve WMATA's greenhouse gas tool? Let us know in the comments.


Topic of the week: 4 more years for Gray?

On Monday, DC Mayor Vincent Gray said he will seek a second term. He joins an already crowded field, which will make for a very interesting race. But there's also the question of how Gray has done as mayor.

Photo by AFGE on Flickr.

What are his biggest accomplishments? What are his biggest disappointments? And does he deserve a second term? Our contributors weigh in:

Dan Malouff:
On transportation, Gray has been OK but not perfect. He's done a good job moving the streetcar program forward, but progress on bike infrastructure has moved much more slowly than it did under Fenty. He'd be a low risk/moderate reward choice for a second term. We'd know that we'd be getting someone who basically advances our goals, but maybe not as quickly as a more progressive candidate might. On land use planning, he's worth voting for just to keep Harriet Tregoning on the job.

Malcolm Kenton:
One Gray accomplishment that I'm fond of is the Vision for a Sustainable DC, which cuts across departments and agencies and sets aggressive goals for emissions reduction and restoration of clean waters and healthy ecosystems. It remains to be seen how aggressively Gray will implement the plan and whether each department will receive adequate funding for their share of the work, but the plan is a significant step in the right direction.

I also applaud Gray for sticking with the streetcar plan despite opposition from many corners, including many voters who supported him.

However, I am unhappy with Gray's positions on minimum wage and labor standards issues. The majority of the Council is ahead of him there. I supported the Large Retailer Accountability Act and am dismayed that Gray vetoed it.

Erin McAuliff:
I think Gray and Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services BB Otero have made great headway in planning, laying out a vision and foundation that moves DC in the right direction (Sustainable DC and Age Friendly DC are my two big ones).

We will have to wait and see, though, how implementation plays out (as Malcolm mentioned) either through Gray in a second term or through a newly elected administration that could turn all of that good work on its head. I'm inclined to say he deserves a second term because it's a better bet for successful implementation. But maybe I would also support a candidate that recognizes those accomplishments and is highly committed to being an implementer.

Matt Malinowski:
Although "One City" sometimes gets short shrift, Mayor Gray has done much to fill the slogan with meaning. The One City Summit, held in early 2012, brought 1800 residents to the Washington Convention Center.

It was actually successful at getting the participants to work together in diverse groups to identify the priorities for government services and the future of the city. Participants became engaged while educating themselves about the trade-offs of various policies, such as how new business attraction may drive out existing small businesses.

Increasing sustainability and diversifying DC's economy while improving access to it were the big policy winners at the Summit. And Gray's administration has followed up, continuing its support for the Sustainable DC plan, promoting development at the St. Elizabeths site, and enabling continued growth city-wide through the MoveDC plan and relaxation of the Height Act.

Bringing Walmart to the District is a negative for sustainability and diversifying the economy. While improving the connections between education and jobs will take much more time, it is clear that Mayor Gray is not just continuing past policies on autopilot, but is asking hard questions about how the city and the region can succeed in the years ahead.


Parking requirements aren't one-size-fits-all

Hearings on DC's zoning update continue this week with sessions today and Thursday on parking minimums. I'm testifying about the need to reduce or eliminate parking requirements downtown and in transit-accessible areas.

Differences in parking requirements across the US. Image from Graphing Parking.

Good evening and thank you for the opportunity to present my testimony. My name is Matt Malinowski and I live in the Truxton Circle neighborhood in Northwest DC. I would like to speak in favor of the proposed revisions to the zoning regulations, and in particular in favor of eliminating parking minimums downtown and minimizing parking requirements elsewhere, especially near frequent transit.

The current off-street parking requirements for general office uses most of downtown, including the C-2-B, C-2-C, C-3-B, C-3-C, and C-4 zones for buildings on lots greater than 10,000 square feet, is 1 parking space for every 1,800 square feet of floor space in excess of 2,000 square feet. This rule seems very precise, and I am sure that there are parties here tonight who would like to maintain it. But is it right?

Many cities across the United States either have or have had parking minimums, so there seems to be a precedent for maintaining them. But what is interesting is that each city has a different minimum, with Baltimore requiring more and Philadelphia less.

How can each city be right? Or are all the cities, and the idea of parking minimums with it, wrong?

One explanation for the variation is that each city is built differently, and the urban form of each city demands different amounts of parking. Sure enough, even within DC, the minimum parking requirements vary by zone, with less-dense commercial zones like C-1, C-2-A, and C-3-A requiring 1 parking space for every 600 square feet of floor space in excess of 2,000 square feet.

In effect, crossing the street from one zone to the other has tripled the parking requirement. But has the urban fabric changed so much that three times as many people will now drive to work?

M Street NW forms the boundary between C-2-A and C-2-C zones, drastically altering the parking requirements. Image from the DC Zoning Map.

The current system breaks down not just at the boundaries, but also within zones. In Truxton Circle, there are three schools within a block of each other: the newly rebuilt Dunbar High School, one charter school, and another charter school in planning. According to neighbors, cars are overflowing the parking lot at Dunbar, while the existing Community Academy Public Charter School (CAPCS) has recently built a parking lot for 140 cars overnight, and apparently without any permits.

Meanwhile, the forthcoming Mundo Verde Public Charter School is seeking a variance to give up 36 of its 53 required parking spaces and build gardens in their place. Staff are expected to ride bikes, so there are 20 bike parking spots instead, and the Metro is a 10-minute walk away.

Mundo Verde conceptual site plan showing proposed gardens. Currently, the entire lot is covered by parking.

So even for the same uses in the same location, one-size-fits-all parking requirements do not apply. Rather than develop even finer zone boundaries or zone definitions (an overlay specific to green charter schools?), how about a simpler solution: eliminate or minimize parking requirements wherever possible. That means downtown, in other higher-density zones, and near high-frequency transit.

Rather than perpetuating the current set of arbitrary requirements based on unknowable ratios of drivers to occupants, please focus on what we do know: land in DC is expensive and driving is unsustainable and causes congestion. Eliminating or minimizing parking requirements allows for the market to provide parking to those who truly need it, while making it clear that free parking is not a right, and that DC values its residents and natural environment over its cars.

Next Tuesday, there will be another hearing about parking minimums. Each hearing starts at 6pm at 441 4th Street NW, near Judiciary Square. To sign up to testify or show your support for the zoning update, visit the Coalition for Smarter Growth's website.

What do you think about my testimony? Please let me know in the comments. I hope to see you at one of the hearings!


Divestment helps local governments fight climate change

Climate change is real and happening faster than scientists ever predicted, posing devastating impacts for our low-lying and vulnerable region. So how are local governments responding to the crisis?

A simulation of extreme flooding from 1936 Potomac flood. Screenshot from Vimeo.

Activists want DC to divest, or take its money out of fossil fuel stocks as one way to demonstrate its commitment to urgent action. Tomorrow, DC Divest will hold an event to educate people about local climate impacts and the local movement for divestment.

The scientific consensus around climate change has been strengthening over the past two decades, while forecasts have only worsened. For the DC region, a 2008 report from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments predicts sea-level rise up to a foot by 2030 and over three feet by 2095.

As if our summers weren't hot enough for local farmers or our already-struggling Metro infrastructure, scientists predict temperatures will continue to rise up to 9.5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2095. While we narrowly missed the worst of the path of Superstorm Sandy, various studies indicate more extreme weather events like last summer's derecho storm will only become more frequent and intense.

In addition, a recent report from the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin predicts climate change could cut water flows in the river by 35% by 2040. The Potomac currently supplies 75% of the region's drinking water.

Summary of climate impacts for the DC region from MWCOG 2008 report.
Summary of climate impacts in the DC region from MWCOG's 2008 report.

Needless to say, climate change poses a major threat to our region's ability to provide very basic necessities like fresh drinking water, protection from flooding and disasters, and access to fresh, local food. Despite the scientific community's certainty and frightening predictions, a mixture of climate denialism, vested special interests, and inertia have combined to stall practically any action on Capitol Hill thus far.

However, the story at the local and regional level tends to be brighter. Local governments, which face less pressure from the fossil fuel lobby, are making some important steps towards lowering emissions from their energy, transportation, and land use sectors. DC recently completed its Sustainable DC Plan, with a goal of making DC the healthiest, greenest, and most livable city in the United States.

Earlier this year, the District got started by signing a contract to use wind power for 100 percent of the city's electricity needs. Meanwhile, Governor O'Malley recently announced several ambitious goals for Maryland, including reducing emissions 25% by the year 2020.

Across the river in Virginia, action has been slower. But just a few days ago, mayors fed up with their gubernatorial candidates debating the very existence of climate change gathered to tell them to stop debating and start taking action to protect the state's many low-lying communities. "The fact of the matter is, we've got rising waters," said Republican state senator John Watkins. "We've got recurrent flooding. There are more 100-year storms in the last 15 years than we've ever seen."

While local activists applaud local and state jurisdictions' climate plans, it's clear that we are still doing too little, too slowly to truly address a crisis of this magnitude. So in addition to the very practical and important solutions proposed thus far, local activists have begun encouraging local elected officials and institutions to take a moral stand and "put their money where their mouth is" by taking their investments out of any holdings in fossil fuel companies.

The strategy harkens back to the successful campaigns to end apartheid in South Africa and to urge universities and institutions to divest from the tobacco industry when it became clear smoking was killing people.

Fossil fuel divestment advocates around the nation argue we shouldn't be investing in companies with business plans that rely on wrecking our planet, and that divestment sends a signal that if fossil fuel companies won't get serious about climate change, it's time to leave the industry behind. Here in our region, advocates in DC and Montgomery County have recently started serious campaigns to encourage their elected officials to divest.

Activists in the District are still working to get full disclosure on the amount of the city's retirement funds, General Fund, and Health and Annuity Trust invested in fossil fuel companies. They already know that about 3.3% of the Health and Annuity Trust is invested in fossil fuels. Research shows that that moving the District's modest investments in fossil fuel companies to more socially responsible funds is a very low-risk proposition, and could actually be more profitable.

So far, several DC councilmembers have given DC Divest organizers a warm response. Just a few days ago, Phil Mendelson introduced the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act of 2013 with several co-sponsors.

We need to move swiftly to cut emissions locally if we want a chance at maintaining a livable and competitive region. This includes shifting to wind and solar, and energy efficient buildings. It also includes many of the ideas frequently discussed in this blog, including investing in transit, not more highways, and in the compact, walkable, bikeable, and transit-oriented neighborhoods that all contribute to reducing transportation emissions.

If local governments have already committed to these principles and to action on climate change, investing in fossil fuels runs directly counter to their stated goals. Given the negligible fiscal impact, divestment ought to be a no-brainer for local governments and institutions eager to preserve a hospitable region for future generations.

To learn more about climate change's impact to our region, and the movement to divest from fossil fuels, visit DC Divest and attend their upcoming "Draw the Line DC" event tomorrow at 2pm at Lincoln Park in Capitol Hill. Organizers will have displays illustrating future sea-level rise along the DC waterfront and other impacts we will face if we fail to act.

Kelly Blynn was a co-founder of and is currently the Next Generation of Transit Campaign Manager for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. However, the views expressed here are her own.


Sustainable Energy Utility needs more than good intentions

Malcolm Kenton wrote last week about the DC Sustainable Energy Utility's progress toward helping DC residents and businesses save energy. Here is a less sanguine view.

The DC Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU) was created with the best of intentions and much fanfare. Unfortunately, after more than $30 million dollars and nearly 3 years, DC SEU has had trouble even changing light bulbs effectively, and is lagging behind successful programs in other states.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Energy-efficiency programs around the country have successfully demonstrated ways to assure that communities invest in saving energy, but DC ranked only 29th among states in energy-efficiency programs in 2012, according to one recent analysis.

That's not great, since many states in the South and Great Plains have terrible records. The District should be a leader, or at least emulate the best programs from around the nation.

For example, in Massachusetts, utilities work with local banks to provide 0% interest loans for homeowners and businesses for energy efficiency. This addresses a common and fundamental impediment to efficiency investments at scale: poor access to capital. The public sector's upfront incentives to the banks make the 0% loans possible, which then leverages significant investment capital from the private sector.

Virginia offers basic and straightforward rebates for commercial building energy audits. These audits identify where a building is inefficient (from HVAC to lighting to operations) and catalyze efficiency investments. Once a commercial building owner sees a facility's inefficiencies, and has information about what investments could pay for themselves in savings, they often make sustainable improvements without further incentives.

SEU isn't meeting its goals

DC residents and businesses pay a small percentage of their electric and gas bills to support DC SEU. As a result, DC SEU raised $17.5 million this year and will raise $20 million next year.

The Vermont Energy Investment Cooperation, or VEIC, won a competitive bid from the District to operate DC SEU. Their contract has been renewed each year, but so far, VEIC is struggling.

In fiscal year 2012, DC SEU met just 2 of 6 performance benchmarks the District set for things like reducing energy or increasing renewable energy generation. Their goal was to reduce citywide electricity use by 45,000 megawatt-hours, but they only saved 21,000.

DC SEU even fell behind on creating green jobs, which is one of its main goals. The organization hired just 41 people in 2012, well below their goal of 53.

DC SEU claims that it saved DC residents and businesses $2.8 million in annualized energy costs, but it received $14 million in funding last year. For a group intended to be a "market catalyst," this return on investment is disappointing.

It also counts spillover effects from its work, like customers who don't participate in their programs but are still working to reduce their energy use. This method of measurement may be an industry standard, but it doesn't really reflect DC SEU's effectiveness.

Is the SEU trying to do what it takes?

Nor does the organization's FY 2013 First Quarter report acknowledge any of DC SEU's past shortcomings or the need for any improvements. While the report calls for "strategic enhancements to [their] programming," there's little description of anything other DC SEU's existing efforts, like their programs to replace light bulbs and seal heating ducts.

If this is all the District wanted to do to improve energy efficiency, there was no need to create a new organization. It could have given the job to PEPCO and Washington Gas, which are perfectly capable of doing this kind of work. Meanwhile, DC SEU admits that natural gas consumption has actually increased due to their focus on replacing incandescent light bulbs with high-efficiency bulbs. The new bulbs give off less heat, which means that in the colder months, customers actually use more heating gas to hear their homes and businesses (but save energy in the summer on cooling.)

DC SEU wasn't even trying to balance the modest impact of the lighting upgrades with other programs to reduce heating loads. They spent just $700,000 of the $2 million allocated for natural gas-related programs. Whether this is simply poor management, misplaced priorities, or both, this is clearly not a good sign.

What can be done?

DC SEU needs help. They aren't meeting their goals and they aren't fulfilling their legal obligation to District ratepayers. Meanwhile, the District Department of the Environment (DDOE), which manages the organization, has done little oversight. A lot of the relevant staff has turned over at DDOE. Plus, that agency's main expertise is not in "big data" or the economics of financial leverage in the ways necessary to push the SEU toward bolder thinking and better results.

There's already a strong market for compact fluorescents (and an emerging one for the the even newer LED bulbs). The amount of savings from bulbs is small compared to commercial space, which uses a vastly disproportionate share of energy. With incentives to focus on the greatest possible value, the SEU could do more with, for instance, energy audits for commercial space.

Mayor Gray's sustainability plan puts forward an exciting and laudable vision for the District. It would be a shame if DC SEU doesn't play a key role in making it a reality.


DC Sustainable Energy Utility saves energy and creates jobs

Five years ago, the DC Council created the DC Sustainable Energy Utility to help the city's growing population use less energy. While it hasn't been perfect, DC SEU can help achieve Mayor Gray's goal of cutting the District's energy use in half by 2032.

Photo by Dept of Energy Solar Decathlon on Flickr.

Created by the Clean and Affordable Energy Act of 2008 and housed within the District Department of the Environment, DC SEU is dedicated to reducing the District's energy footprint. Residents and business owners directly support DC SEU through a surcharge on their electricity and natural gas bills.

In return. DC SEU will give residents reduced-price compact fluorescent light bulbs, rebates for energy-efficient appliances, or even install better insulation and duct sealing in homes. For commercial and industrial properties, which are the District's largest energy users, DC SEU provides incentives and technical assistance for large-scale commercial properties and offers rebates for energy-efficient commercial equipment and lighting.

While states like Vermont, Ohio, and Delaware have sustainable energy utilities, DC SEU is the only one that measures success in terms of both energy savings and economic development. In 2012, DC SEU served 18,795 households in 2012, 60% of which are low-income, and spent $5.2 million with locally-owned Certified Business Enterprises, or CBEs. DC SEU claims that its customers save almost $3 million annually in energy costs, while its efficiency measures produce lifetime economic benefits of almost $24 million.

However, not everyone is convinced of DC SEU's effectiveness. Employees of the utility's vaunted green jobs program, which was supposed to create 100 new jobs every year, say their work was unproductive and "meaningless." Perhaps more can be done to strengthen the training and future job placement aspects of the jobs offered through DC SEU, but one lone program can't be expected to squelch the District's persistent plague of unemployment.

Meanwhile, critics argue that DC SEU has accomplished little other than self-promotion. There certainly seems to be room for better cooperation between DC SEU and pre-existing community organizations promoting solar power installation. But there's always a learning curve when government takes over tasks previously in the purview of the private sector, no matter how poorly Pepco did at promoting efficiency, especially when Pepco owns the power lines and metering systems.

We'll be able to get a better understanding of what DC SEU has accomplished with newly available data on how much electricity, water, and gas buildings in the District consume. DC has assessed the energy and water use and carbon emissions of every District-owned building every year since 2009, but this is the first year that private owners of commercial buildings larger than 100,000 square feet are required to report their energy and water use to DDOE in compliance with new benchmarking regulation. Next year, the requirement will extend to all commercial and multifamily residential buildings larger than 50,000 square feet.

For the past two years, the DC SEU has provided a Benchmarking Help Center assist owners of large buildings assess and report energy and water use. They have fielded more questions about medical offices and small retail outlets in multifamily apartment buildings and condominiums than expected.

"We walk by these buildings every day, but we don't think about how they operate, how much energy or water they use or what's inside," says Help Center spokesperson John Andreoni. "Through the release of benchmarked and reported data, we'll gain access to this information."

This wealth of public data will increase transparency in the market and provide a more complete picture of DC buildings' energy, water, and carbon footprints than has ever been produced. As more efficiency measures are implemented, we'll be able to see how effective DC SEU actually is.

In most industries, it costs less per unit to produce greater quantities of a product. But with energy, the reverse is true. That's why investing in conservation at the consumer level is the most prudent way for governments to reduce energy use and save users money. Not only is efficiency more effective for ratepayers and taxpayers than building new power plants, even ones using renewable sources, it's also better for the environment.

Armed with more public data, DC SEU will have more information at hand to shrink the District's resource consumption and encourage building owners and managers to embrace energy efficiency. If it achieves measurable success, it will not only trim the city's environmental footprint, but keep costs low for all District ratepayers.

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