Sustainability is an emerging topic as governments large and small struggle to handle the impact of shrinking resources, global warming and increased energy costs.

In New Bedford, a mid-sized city along Massachusetts’ southern coast, we are taking aggressive steps to reduce our carbon footprint while increasing energy efficiency — steps that could easily be duplicated in towns and municipalities across the country. Our goal is to reduce our government’s energy use by 20 percent within the next five years.

Using a blueprint developed by a Sustainability Task Force we created four years ago, New Bedford is moving forward with a far-sighted plan that will lower our use of fossil fuels, reduce costs and help make our city and our planet a better place for our children and grandchildren. The plan includes building solar systems on city-owned sites, buying fuel-efficient vehicles for our municipal fleet, installing electric charging stations for fishing vessels that dock in our port, encouraging the private sector to install solar systems, converting oil-heated buildings to natural gas, promoting business and residential weatherization, and installing super-efficient LED lighting at our fishing piers.

Our energy sustainability program has four clear goals:

  • lower energy costs for government, residents and local businesses;
  • create jobs;
  • reduce carbon emissions; and
  • help build our community.

In some ways, New Bedford owes its existence to the last great global warming event in earth history. The retreat of the glaciers at the end of the ice age 12,000 years ago helped create the deepwater port and plentiful supplies of water that are the foundation of the modern New Bedford economy.

By the 1800s, we were the home of the country’s whaling industry — Herman Melville left from New Bedford on his way to sea to write Moby Dick. Today we remain the No. 1 commercial fishing port in the United States. New Bedford’s dependence on water and the earth’s natural resources makes us extra sensitive to the impact that our city — both our government and our citizens — have on the environment every day.

That is why we were very proud to announce last month that New Bedford, in cooperation with Consolidated Edison Solutions Inc. and BlueWave Capital LLC, will build solar panels on city-owned sites with the goal of producing 10 megawatts of clean and renewable energy. That is enough to power 1,500 homes.

This program will add value to our city’s facilities and underutilized space and, we hope, encourage local businesses to follow our lead and install solar panels on their properties. The program was funded, in part, with an $80,000 federal grant authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The rooftop and ground-based photovoltaic units will be installed on buildings, schools and other municipal land parcels and will be operational by 2013. By decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels, our solar panels could produce up to 25 percent of the electricity consumed by city-owned facilities and could generate savings as high as $10 million by 2033.

ConEdison Solutions will own the solar installations and enter into long-term power purchase agreements with New Bedford. The firm will also be responsible for installation, ongoing operations and maintenance — and provide financing for the projects.

ConEdison Solutions is already a partner with the city in controlling its energy costs. We buy our energy through the SouthCoast Electric Power Group, which purchases its energy from ConEdison Solutions.

Our solar initiative will not only save on energy costs, but also boost our local economy. BlueWave will work with us to bring solar energy to local businesses and residences, creating job and apprenticeship opportunities. And ConEdison Solutions has agreed to maximize its use of local construction contractors as it builds its solar installations.

Our solar initiative is only the most recent innovative program in New Bedford’s drive to become a national leader in energy efficiency and renewable energy. Our energy program targets municipal, commercial, residential, transportation and port-related end-users.

At New Bedford’s Harbor’s Wharves, we have begun an initiative, funded by the commonwealth of Massachusetts and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to reduce emissions along the waterfront. We are installing 42 dockside electric pedestals — each with four outlets — so boats using our port can replace their fossil fuel with electricity. That means our port will use 310,000 fewer gallons of diesel fuel every year. This effort is crucial to maintaining the port as a vital element of our local economy. The port currently generates more than $1 billion a year in economic activity and is used by some 500 fishing boats.

We are also moving to make our government operations more energy efficient. In addition to installing solar panels at government-owned sites, we will switch 5 percent of our municipal vehicle fleet to highly efficient vehicles within five years, convert our oil-heated buildings to natural gas, and investigate the feasibility of biomass conversion for one of our oil-heated buildings. Other facets of our energy sustainability program include:

  • Installing new, highly efficient LED lighting at our commercial fishing piers and other public places.
  • Encouraging commercial businesses to implement a variety of energy-saving techniques and strategies.
  • Initiating a community retrofit program to encourage businesses and residents to weatherize their property — which could be a key source of energy savings given our sometimes harsh winters. In partnership with local energy nonprofit organizations, we are reaching out to businesses and residents and hope to weatherize 5,000 homes and businesses by 2015.

I believe that local governments must be proactive in responding to climate change to protect our natural resources and conserve energy. New Bedford’s energy program creates a floor upon which future generations can build more far-reaching initiatives that will protect the planet, grow our economy and sustain our community far into the future.

Scott W. Lang is the mayor of New Bedford, Mass.

Scott W. Lang  |  Mayor of New Bedford, Mass.