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Thanks to federal stimulus money, a model 45-kilowatt hydroelectric generator that has “been sitting in a barn for 20 years” will finally have the opportunity to prove its mettle under actual working conditions this year.
The hydroelectric project is just one of several projects outlined in South Bend’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy funding, totaling just over $1 million, made possible by stimulus dollars resulting from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
|Gary Gilot, director of the Department of Public Works for the City of South Bend|
It starts with a plan
The City’s strategy for energy efficiency and conservation consists of several components. It begins with funding for strategic planning, the foundation on which the success of every other component depends.
A strategic plan is a good start in engaging people to come up with a strategy to reduce our carbon footprint, says Gary Gilot, director of public works.
“One of the light bulbs that turned on for me was in hiring Energy Director Jonathan Burke,” he says.
Burke joined the City in September 2010, after serving in a similar position in Maryland, where his innovative green solutions achieved a 42 percent reduction in energy usage in as many months.
One of the things Burke suggested here was that the City use technology to increase energy conservation in its buildings.
“Part of what we’re doing as we think ahead is providing systems that will remotely monitor and control our biggest energy-using buildings,” Burke says. “We already do that with our traffic signals and wastewater treatment plant. It makes sense to do that with our buildings.
“We have diverse city departments focused on their primary mission,” he adds. “Energy conservation has not been a top priority. When you add up the combined energy bills from all these departments, it comes out to $6.8 million for the city government in annual energy costs.
“We think we can reduce that dramatically.”
The first step in reducing those energy costs is evaluation of the energy use in all municipal buildings. The City then can determine how to make each building more efficient and smarter.
“It is possible to achieve tremendous energy and cost savings simply by using a central building-management system to monitor what’s going on in all the buildings,” Burke says.
For example, through use of a central computer dashboard, a building manager can control the use of energy during the Midwest’s “shoulder months” — the more temperate spring and autumn seasons when buildings require little, if any, heating or air conditioning. A smart building can use outside air for free air conditioning when the temperature and humidity levels are appropriate.
It also is important to educate building occupants about energy use. “Everyone ‘votes’ each time they walk past a light switch. They vote to be a conserver or a consumer,” Burke says. “It’s a gradual process to re-educate people and help them understand the importance of energy conservation. That’s a major part of my mission.”
In addition to spreading energy awareness, Burke is looking at a number of retrofitting projects that will help save energy.
He hopes to bundle projects together to provide “the best energy savings with a short payback” to make the overall project more appealing. While the specific projects are still under review, some likely components will include new HVAC systems with geothermal capabilities, new lighting systems, and upgrades of insulation and roofing systems.
“A project that pays for itself in 10 years is a good investment,” he says.
Reducing the use of gas
The traffic signals on U.S. Route 31 (Business) through downtown have provided another opportunity to reduce the city’s carbon footprint.
For those who drive at the posted speed limit, it will be possible to enter South Bend from the toll road on one side of town and drive all the way to the other without ever having to stop for a red light.
“We did this so that you have the fewest people idling at stop lights,” Gilot says. “If you apply that to our 100 busiest intersections, you can save one million gallons of fuel per year. At the current cost of gas, that works out to $3.5 million in savings for the traveling public.”
Once again, Burke says, the public’s awareness and buy-in will be essential for it to work.
“We’re putting up signs,” he says. “The opportunity is there for the enlightened driver to save money.”
There are other ways the City can reduce the use of gas, by reducing the use of fuel by its own fleet of vehicles.
“We can install GPS on trash trucks, snow plows, street sweepers and so on to get a real-time report,” Gilot says. “Over time that will allow us to make changes that will improve the efficiency of the route.
“Some of the trucks in our fleet get two miles per gallon,” he explains. “If I can get them up to three by eliminating the need to double back or make left-hand turns, that’s a 50 percent improvement.”
Other ways of improving the energy efficiency of City fleet vehicles include installing devices in police cars that will provide electricity for essential electronic equipment while the engine is turned off.
The City is also evaluating the purchase of hybrids. While their initial costs are high, they are more than offset by the reduced fuel costs over the life of the vehicle.
Alternative energy sources
One project that has gained new life as a result of the federal stimulus money is the installation of a 45-kilowatt generator at the Century Center dam to test the viability of a larger, 1.8-megawatt system.
When it was originally purchased, the generator was intended to demonstrate the ability to control pedestrian lighting and the gates on the East Race. Now, when installed, the turbine will power the facilities in Howard Park, avoiding as much as $25,000 in annual energy costs.
“It’s been sitting in a barn for 20 years,” Gilot remarks, visibly pleased to be able to put the generator to the test. The turbine will pave the way for the installation of the much larger, 1.78-megawatt hydroturbine, which is now under study.
Because it is a very capital-intensive process, City engineers are looking to see whether the generator can be used cost-effectively, with payback coming in less than 20 years.
Burke foresees enormous benefits if the larger hydro project can move forward.
“If it proves successful, the generator could offset the equivalent of more than 10 million kilowatt hours per year of carbon emissions,” Burke says. “It could power most municipal buildings within a half-mile radius of the dam, saving as much as $700,000 in annual utility costs if the City is the direct distributor.”
As with other projects, Burke envisions a learning component for the public, in the form of a learning kiosk that will demonstrate the real-time aspects of the generator’s function, including electricity production and carbon reduction. He also hopes to provide a live window into the fish ladder through the kiosk.
Other green initiatives
While the federal stimulus money is a welcome boost to the City’s green efforts, Gilot is quick to point out that it is a drop in the bucket with respect to the City’s ongoing efforts.
“It’s a nice million dollars worth of ‘shot in the arm,”’ Gilot says. “It gives some energy to our work in supporting economic development and enhancing quality of life. But before this money became available, we have already sought to become more entrepreneurial in our approach.”
One of its most successful projects in recent years has been the recycling of high-speed computer heat to supply heat to the South Bend Conservatory. The solution has proven so successful that a second phase is planned. Additional planned computer capacity could add up to $25,000 in additional natural-gas savings to the Conservatory’s winter heating bill.
The City’s Wastewater Treatment Plant is also saving energy costs by burning the methane gas that is a byproduct of the treatment process for power, and by using such energy-efficiency devices as motion sensors and low-energy light bulbs, says Wastewater Director Al Greek. Variable frequency drives also are being installed on the new high-efficiency motors that provide oxygen to the treatment takes.
“We installed a white roof, which both reflects heat in summer and holds snow for insulating purposes in winter,” Greek says. “We’ve reduced our energy usage by 30 percent since 2005 [the year Greek became director]. That translates to almost $300,000 every year in gas and electricity costs. We have a good team that understands the importance of energy conservation.”
The City also is exploring ways to maximize methane gas production at the treatment plant by using it fully for power generation and process heating.
Transfer the passion
To have that kind of universal understanding, Burke says, is crucial to the success of any initiative.
“Top-down programs are never enough,” he says. “If we are to achieve the carbon-reduction goals of the mayor, we must find ways to engage every resident in some creative way. It’s not enough for me to talk about it. I try to live by what I tell people and to transfer that passion to others. At some point, the whole city must become passionate about environmental stewardship, and we are determined to lead the way.”