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Waukesha, Wisconsin, Uses Green Technology to Conserve Energy and Cut Costs

Energy-efficient lighting and LED traffic signals could generate $2 million in savings for city.

by / January 14, 2008

A domino effect of local government green initiatives is sweeping the nation. The U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) recently announced that more than 700 mayors have signed the USCM's Climate Protection Agreement, committing to pursue numerous green measures. 

In Waukesha, Wis., however, a major green rollout was implemented before the pressure to conform started, and many local governments soon plan to do many of the things Waukesha has already completed.  

Waukesha Mayor Larry Nelson attended his first USCM event in 2006, when the organization first asked mayors to sign the agreement. 

Nelson said he wanted to hold back until he could show an actual Waukesha green initiative. He confidently signed onto the agreement this year.   

"In talking to different mayors, I got the impression that some were really doing a lot," he said, "but some were kind of paying lip service." 

The city tapped Johnson Controls, which specializes in building efficiency and power solutions, to do an energy efficiency audit of Waukesha. The result was a massive greening project that changed the way the city lights buildings and traffic signals, uses water and cools its IT data center. 

The project cost $1.6 million, and $400,000 came from a federal grant to replace all traffic lights with light-emitting diode (LED) technology. The city expects to save $2 million over the next 10 years for its trouble. And if the projected savings prove false, Johnson Controls will reimburse the city for its investment.

Light with Less Energy
Roughly 20 percent of man-made greenhouse gases comes from lighting, making energy-efficient light bulbs an obvious solution for city governments. The mayor's team attached "daylight harvesting" devices to the fluorescent lights in several buildings to gauge existing natural light and adjust how much artificial light the bulbs emit. Light energy usage drops 80 percent during peak sunshine time using these devices.

The city deployed these sensors only in buildings with plentiful access to natural light.

"We put the light sensors in the police department, library, wastewater treatment plant -- which is many facilities within a plant -- and City Hall," said Katie Jelacic, spokeswoman for the Waukesha Department of Public Works.

She said the project put Waukesha ahead of most cities in the Midwest. The city was the first in its county to implement a major green initiative. 

"Sustainable energy will eventually become a required code, at least around the Midwest. They're right on the cutting edge, and I assume we will be using them exclusively in our buildings," Jelacic said. 

Also, skylights are becoming a standard inclusion in new government and private- sector buildings, often mandated by government, said Kip Hirschbach, CEO of Axis Technologies, Waukesha's daylight harvesting provider. Naturally Axis Technologies' business is surging because of it, he said.     

The city also slashed energy usage at traffic lights by converting them to LED technology. LED traffic lights last 10 years, compared with two years for traditional bulbs. This enabled the city to drastically reduce traffic light maintenance, which clogs busy streets. 

Jelacic said the LED conversion would cut the cost of running a single intersection from $1,200 to $450 per year.

Other Efficiencies
Data centers are typically a massive power drain for governments, making green data centers critical power savers. Waukesha deployed a more energy-efficient cooling system in its data center, which at roughly 680 square feet, is larger than the facilities in most nearby cities, said Bret Mantey, IT director of Waukesha.

"It compares to the county data center closely, but not as large as, say, Milwaukee. All other cities in the county are a broom closet in comparison," Mantey said.

The city uses blade servers and server virtualization to reduce the number of servers it powers in the

data center.

The city also implemented new water usage efficiency measures, such as low-flush toilets. The change produced a 77 percent drop in Waukesha City Hall's energy bill alone, Jelacic said. City Hall's water bill averaged $1,650 before Waukesha's green initiative, and now it averages about $300. In addition, City Hall used 323,000 gallons of water per month before the initiative and now uses 74,000 gallons. Heating ventilation and air conditioning offered another conservation opportunity: Waukesha switched to energy-efficient boilers in four buildings.

Beyond Government
Green technology is one of the rare areas where some governments try to influence the private sector to adopt a technology, rather than the opposite. Some local government officials implement major solar panel deployments in part to raise the solar energy's market profile. Nelson is planning a marketing campaign to prospective Waukesha businesses encouraging them to embrace green architecture. He said Wal-Mart already took the lead on green architecture.

"We just made preliminary approval for the first Super Wal-Mart that's going to have [more than] 100 skylights in it," Nelson said. "I have two pages on what Wal-Mart is doing to make their building more green and sustainable. This is something Wal-Mart's top leadership decided two or three years ago.

"They were going to change the way they did business. They realized they could save a ton of money." 

He said the city's planning commission is still establishing the types of green architecture it would mandate, but it had already mandated some construction features. 

"We have a 55-acre infill development that's going to have a Target store as its anchor. Part of the approval for their preliminary plan was to have a connection to a bike and hiking trail with a little park area in the upper northwest corner of the development," Nelson said. "We're having more green space and trees than the normal amount of parking -- where you'd have massive parking and very little green space."

Green and Trendy
Local governments, Hirschbach said, are far ahead of state governments at going green. 

"A lot of cities, especially in California, are embracing green technology to solve their energy woes," he said. 

And bottom lines in government and the private sector are what finally mobilized green technology beyond fringe users, Nelson said. 

"It's not like 10 years ago when people were saying these environmental measures would hurt business and economic development. The opposite is the case. There is recognition that these green sustainable practices are good for business, local governments, homeowners and taxpayers. I think we're at the cutting edge of what's going on here," Nelson said.

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Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.

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