OMAHA, Neb. -- What decisions, policies and practices need to be in place to transform regions and cities into sustainable, interconnected communities? Answering this question was the purpose of the Meeting of the Minds, an invitation-only conference held in mid-June in Omaha. Climate change, transportation, renewable energy, structural retrofits and other issues were discussed and debated among attendees from around the world.
The rapid pace of technological advancement provides local governments the opportunity to tackle problems in new and efficient ways, panelists at the event said. Retrofitting buildings throughout a city, for example, could create jobs and reduce energy expenditures.
Ron Dembo, founder and CEO of Toronto-based Zerofootprint, said "re-skinning" everything from houses to skyscrapers could lead to enormous long-term gains in energy efficiency and cost savings.
Dembo said that more than 70 percent of greenhouse gases emitted in large cities come from buildings. By comparison, SUVs contribute only 3 percent of the pollutants that many fear will lead to a hotter planet.
Though it sounds grotesque, re-skinning is merely the process of layering energy-efficient materials over an existing structure. Dembo cited the example of a dilapidated warehouse in San Francisco which, like most structures, performed dreadfully when it came to efficiently storing heat. By simply replacing the windows and overlaying the exterior with perforated, corrugated zinc panels, the building's energy efficiency increased by 60 percent -- and the exterior was made much more attractive.
The building was a winning entry in Zerofootprint's first global re-skinning competition. Dembo said he hopes the contest, which ended in February, will be the foundation for an "X-Prize-like" competition for transforming post-war, pre-1990 buildings into modern, energy-efficient structures through re-skinning. The X-Prize was a $10 million contest launched in 1996 for the first nongovernment organization to put a manned vehicle in space.
The Meeting of the Minds brought together a number of city government officials. Many came bearing the title of sustainability coordinator, environmental manager or the like. For more than a few cities represented, the position was a relatively new one, reflecting the vast disparity in sustainability policies and practices among cities.
Kristi Wamstad-Evans, for example, became Omaha's first sustainability coordinator just last fall. She's helping the city craft a comprehensive energy management plan and administering $4.3 million the city received from the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant, which is funded by $3.2 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Wamstad-Evans said the city is experimenting with two parking garages to determine the return on investment after replacing all of the garages' lighting with light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Omaha has already replaced 60 percent of the bulbs in traffic lights with LEDs. The city also plans to roll any savings it sees from improved energy efficiency into additional retrofitting projects.
Matt Naud, environmental coordinator for Ann Arbor, Mich., has been at his post far longer than most of his peers. For 10 years he has been working with residents and businesses to show them how sustainability doesn't have to be about the environment, but instead about the bottom line.
"Most of our focus is on community energy efficiency," he said. "If your city or business doesn't have an energy coordinator, it has nothing to do with climate change; it's a cost center that just happens to have huge environmental benefits."
Naud cited LEDs in traffic signals as a simple example of the business case for sustainability. The LEDs cost more up front but last years longer than incandescent bulbs and end up paying for themselves.
Naud also said Ann Arbor is encouraging businesses to conduct energy audits, which he says will pay for themselves after they reveal where energy waste is rampant.
He said the city is also looking at how it can offer
residents low-interest loans to pay for energy-efficient retrofits. Such loans would be tied to property assessments. The effort is part of the city's attempt to showcase the economic benefits of energy efficiency.
"You have to find out what works in your community to motivate people," Naud said. "In most instances you can make a very strong business case [for sustainability.]"
For Kay Johnson, environmental initiatives manager in Wichita, Kan., making a strong business case for sustainability is her only option due to the region's politics.
"Due to the politically conservative climate, I don't use the terms global warming or greenhouse gases," she said. "Instead I talk about energy efficiency and can still accomplish the same goals."
One of the city's goals was improving air quality. Two simple solutions have helped toward that end. First, Johnson said, Wichita's traffic signals were notorious for rarely providing two green lights in a row. By reprogramming traffic signal timing so traffic flows more steadily, the city cut down on the number of idling cars. Second, locomotives pulling lengthy loads, which resulted in traffic snarls at railroad crossings, also frequent Wichita. By elevating the tracks, the snarls and the pollutants were reduced.
Leslie Strader, assistant environmental steward of Columbus, Ohio, detailed some of the ambitious sustainability initiatives the city is involved with. First, she said the city built a new Web portal for citizens called Get Green Columbus, allowing people to learn more about the city's sustainability efforts.
"We've set some high goals for ourselves," Strader said. We've made the commitment of 40 percent reduction [of greenhouse gases] by 2030. We're going to start retrofitting all crosswalks with LEDs. We've started an energy efficiency fund where businesses can get low-interest loans to do energy efficiency upgrades."
She added that Columbus is looking at ways to provide residents with free energy audits and have their refrigerators replaced if they don't meet energy standards.
Columbus has also launched what it calls the GreenSpot program in which residents and businesses can sign up to make energy efficiency commitments. When the commitments have been fulfilled, a GreenSpot certification is issued and, for businesses, the certification can be displayed in shop windows or reception areas. The program has nearly 1,700 Columbus-area participants so far.
Photo: Omaha skyline by Chad Vander Veen