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2012 Green Team: Sustainable Milwaukee

Sustainability is a word familiar to most Riverwest residents.  Whether it’s installing a rain barrel, better roof insulation or solar panels, recycling to the max, buying locally whenever possible, or even keeping bees, our neighbors likely are at the top of their game when it comes to living in Earth-friendly ways.  But that’s on a neighborhood level.  Is it possible for the city of Milwaukee as a whole to take up the sustainability challenge?

Led by Matt Howard, Environmental Sustainability Director, the new Green Team will build on the work that’s already been done since Barrett took office in 2004.

But before looking at the team’s directives, it’s important to understand their motivation.

What is Sustainability?

Put very basically, sustainability means living in ways today that meet our present needs without endangering the ability of our descendents to meet their needs decades, or even centuries, from now.  To move toward a sustainable future, it can help to look backward, if only briefly.  It’s important to realize how much of our daily lifestyles we’ve taken for granted.

Whether it’s safe and plentiful drinking water, light and heat for our homes or affordable transportation, on a world-wide level but especially in the US, we’ve gone about our lives as though all those supplies were endless.  We now know that’s definitely not true.

The City’s Green Team will embrace and build on those truths as it works to develop its plan going forward.

Mayor Barrett actually named his first Green Team shortly after his election in 2004.  That group, roughly 75 stakeholders in helping the city ensure a healthy, environmentally friendly future, looked at specific actions that could be taken on a number of general topics including energy efficiency, clean energy production, storm water management and alternative fuels.

The first Green Team was charged with making recommendations in three basic, programmatic areas: (1) a smarter energy policy for city government and the city as a whole, (2) ways to better manage storm water, and (3) an all-encompassing category of methods to promote or stimulate green economic activity.

Eighty-five percent of the nearly 40 recommendations that resulted, which were published in a 2005 report, have been realized.  The over-arching directive of the team, according to Howard, was to create an office of environmental sustainability in the city.

The first director for that office was appointed in 2006; Howard came on board in 2010.

“My job now is to continue implementing the first Green Team’s recommendations, as well as get a little bit more strategic overall about what we’re doing,” Howard says.

Howard is proud of the fact that those first realized recommendations have resulted in significant cost savings for the city.

“We’ve seen a lot of really solid, quite frankly, bottom-line results from implementing those recommendations,” Howard says.

These initial successes have helped give the 2012 Green Team an impetus to achieve their goal:  to develop a sustainability plan and identify a strategic vision, along with a comprehensive set of goals and strategies to be used to achieve that vision.  The plan will focus on improving environmental quality, economic strength and social equity within the city of Milwaukee.

The OES will also work cooperatively with local partners, including Milwaukee County, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District and the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, on issues such as transportation that cross city and county borders.

The Green Team, working with OES, expects to complete the planning process in a little over one year.  The process will include a series of public meetings, the first of which is anticipated in the next few months.

Howard stresses the importance of community input in developing the sustainability plan.

“We want the community to be involved, we want their priorities reflected in the planning process,” Howard says.  He expects that the public input part of the overall process will be fairly lengthy, perhaps four or five months.

Energy Reduction Challenge

Mayor Barrett issued one of his first challenges in the area of sustainability in 2005, when he charged city government to reduce its total energy use by 15%.

“That has been one of the driving forces so far in sustainability planning,” Howard says. “We’ve really engaged on a multi-faceted approach to reducing our energy use overall, including energy use in buildings and our vehicle fleet, with alternative vehicles and fuels.”

One of those bottom-line results that might be especially popular with city taxpayers has been a nearly $1 million savings on the city’s energy bill since 2005, when the mayor issued his challenge.

Despite having facilities spread across the city, with more than 200 buildings, and 1,500 separate bills from We Energies, the OES has been able to meet and actually exceed the 15% reduction goal in a core group of 60 to 90 buildings in the city, Howard says.

“It’s not something that’s just ethereal,” he says.  “Energy efficiency truly pays off.”  Those energy-saving actions also reduced air emissions and improved environmental quality.

One very visible cost-saving move was to convert all of the city’s traffic control signals to LED lights.  More than half of the reduction in energy use on traffic lights was achieved with the move to LEDs, Howard says.

 

“Smart Energy Pays”

Home insulation and energy use are a big part of the solution

Homeowners should be aware they can play a major role in the city’s move to sustainability.  The Me2 program, which stands for Milwaukee Energy Efficiency, is operated through the OES.  Me2 offers homeowners low-cost energy audits and then backs up the results of the audit with low-interest financing for making the recommended energy use improvements.  Such factors as insulation, ventilation and air sealing all can contribute to too-high energy bills.

The audits, normally running about $400, will cost Me2 program participants just $100.  And, if they implement the audit recommendations, they’ll be reimbursed for the $100 expense.

The Me2 program’s slogan, “Smart energy pays,” gets to the crux of the issue.  As Howard says, sustainability is not just a whimsical theory bandied about by academics.  It’s a living reality for each and every resident of our planet.  The better and quicker we all realize that and join in the effort to improve things, the more we all will benefit, on a number of levels.

A similar program to Me2, focusing on commercial properties, recently was rolled out by OES.  That will help building owners afford the upfront costs of making energy improvements.

A third program, called Me3, will work with small and medium manufacturers.

“Me3 goes beyond energy use to helping manufacturers reduce the often high costs of material and resource use in their manufacturing processes,” Howard explains.  Experts will do walk-throughs at the participating manufacturing plants and make recommendations on more efficient, less costly and more environmentally friendly manufacturing processes.

A fourth component of the OES is Milwaukee Shines.  This is a program designed to increase the utilization of solar power, both by homeowners and city facilities.  Milwaukee is one of only 25 cities in the US that’s been designated by the Department of Energy as a Solar America City.

One very practical and cost-saving application in the Milwaukee Shines program so far has been the installation of six thermal installs on Milwaukee Fire Department stations.  Because of the nature of the firefighters’ schedules, hot water is used virtually 24 hours a day in the fire stations.  Howard says the Fire Department is satisfied with the results so far.

Milwaukee Shines also is just beginning a residential loan program, the first of its kind in the US.  Two million dollars will be available in capital for homeowners to take out loans to allow them to install solar elements in their homes.

Visit the Office of Environmental Sustainability’s website for more information on all of these programs, as well as updates on the Sustainability Plan:  city.milwaukee.gov/sustainability.