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How 100 Local Governments Will Work Together to Speed up Sustainability

The U.S. Department of Energy's Better Communities Alliance is aiming to get energy-related programs at the local level off the ground, faster and smarter.

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote: “When in difficult country, do not encamp. In country where high roads intersect, join hands with your allies. Do not linger in dangerously isolated positions.”

The famed strategist was talking about spear-waving warriors, not pen-scribbling energy officials. Nonetheless, it’s the sentiment behind a new approach to sustainable energy launching nationwide Sept. 26.

Enter the Better Communities Alliance (BCA). The project, springing from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), is bringing together federal officials with 31 city and county governments — they hope to expand to 100 by year’s end — along with national laboratory technical experts and industry partners. The idea is to help the local governments accelerate energy efficiency, sustainable transportation and renewable energy efforts.

And, finding themselves in difficult territory, DOE Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency Kathleen Hogan thinks it’s best that the allies join hands to get it done.

Not that government sustainability programs are war, exactly — but as pressure mounts globally to build a more sustainable society, and as the public sector eternally wrangles with limited funding, they are certainly a struggle.

Say a city wants to improve its buildings’ energy efficiency. First it will need data about how much energy buildings use in order to target its outreach. That can be difficult in, for example, multi-tenant office buildings where different users all use energy their own way. Some local governments have made big strides in overcoming those obstacles; others haven’t.

“I think cities are probably facing issues like that in many different areas,” Hogan said.

By building a network of local governments to get things done, Hogan is betting that the public-sector partners will be able to talk about problems and offer solutions they’ve already discovered. The list of cities and counties on board is diverse — from New York City to Dubuque, Iowa — to help ensure that people with questions can find similarly situated government officials to help. If they have technical questions, they can take them to the DOE, who can take them to its many national laboratories for expertise if necessary. Meanwhile, industry and nonprofit partners ranging from Arup to Philips Lighting, can offer solutions to the governments’ specific needs.

“It gives us an opportunity to pull forth a lot of the things we’re doing in communities, put them in one place and do a lot of things in a streamlined fashion — not just for the communities that we’re working with, but for all communities,” Hogan said.

On top of it all, she said, the DOE is hoping to get something out of the initiative as well. The network will serve as something like a database of problems that will keep the department plugged into what local government is struggling with every day. So as it moves to solve problems, it will get a good idea of where it can focus broader efforts in the future.

And the efforts are many. Several of the communities involved so far are focused on bringing renewable energy into low-income communities. Others are looking to help buildings become more energy efficient. Some are hoping to save money and set an example by getting more electric and alternative-fuel vehicles into their fleets to save on gas and maintenance.

Other problems are more specific, such as the growing movement to establish resilient energy systems on the East Coast. After Hurricane Sandy caused long blackouts at critical facilities in 2012, many governments began to look into the idea of the “microgrid,” where targeted buildings get renewable energy that can provide localized power throughout an emergency event where it’s needed most. That requires a lot of moving pieces, and it’s a new enough concept that many local governments are testing solutions rather than deploying them at scale.

And because many of the cities and counties involved in the BCA have already taken on projects like these, their experience can serve as a foundation for other local governments to base their work on. Hogan knows — to recruit governments for the alliance, the DOE looked first at the ones who had participated in its leadership and accelerator programs. That includes initiatives to cut red tape standing in the way of solar power deployment, lighting efficiency programs and wastewater treatment sustainability, to name a few.

“They really are working to solve these complex issues surrounding clean energy solutions in their community,” Hogan said.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.

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