American Cities Innovate and Save Money on Efficiency, Thanks to Federal Stimulus Support

Whether it’s efficient street lights, retro-fitted buildings that cost less to heat or cool, or solar panels in the parking lot, cities across the country are gaining huge savings from an almost-forgotten federal investment in energy efficiency.

Congress put $2.7 billion into energy efficiency block grants as part of the economic stimulus package five years ago. That’s a tiny amount of money compared to the $1.5 trillion spent annually by local governments yet it sparked an incredible array of projects ranging from efficient street lights and traffic signals to “solar trees” that provide lighting for parking lots, to installation of software that automatically shuts down the city’s desktop computers at night.

The one-time infusion “is still paying benefits across the country,” said Mayor Shane Bemis of Gresham, Oregon, on Thursday as the U.S. Conference of Mayors released a report on municipal successes with the grants. “Cities have made good use of these funds.” Bemis chairs the mayors’ energy committee.

Some 204 cities, from New Orleans to Minneapolis and from Orlando to Fairbanks, Alaska, reported their results. Some 83 percent said they used Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) funds for energy retro-fitting of city buildings – one city cut electricity use by City Hall by 47 percent. The second-most common use, at 42 percent, was conversion to LED or other forms of energy-efficient street lighting. And 31 percent installed solar energy systems.  Another 16 percent invested in efficient LED traffic signals.

Not surprisingly, given the popularity of efficient lighting across the country, highly efficient LED lighting and other forms of energy-efficient lighting ranked first among energy technologies that have already been deployed by cities, with local and federal resources, most notably EECBG stimulus block grants, providing the primary sources of funding.  More than four in five cities (82%) made LED or other energy-efficient lighting their top choice. 

The cities surveyed also often reported getting significant energy and bill savings from this investment. One city reported a nearly 50 percent reduction in annual electricity costs due to LEDs.  And Carmel, an Indianapolis suburb, calculated it would save $70,000 a year by replacing 800 traditional street lights with highly efficient LED lamps that use less electricity and last longer with less maintenance. “A tremendous return on our investment, just the cost savings, a tremendous rate of return,” said Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard said during a tele-conference with Bemis and Mayor Bill Finch of Bridgeport, Connecticut.

A key element in the success of the program, said Brainard, was flexibility for local officials to decide the best use of the federal money in their hometowns. “It’s a good formula,” he said. “The report shows we are making a difference in our cities.”

Some cities used their funds to weatherize homes; one used its money to help bring a geothermal project on line. A few bought solar-powered garbage containers, one provided interest-free loans to residents who wanted to buy high-efficiency appliances and air conditioners and others paid for consultants to work with manufacturers who wanted to reduce energy waste.

Voters are in sync with investing in energy efficiency if it means saves them money in the end, according to a recent survey. Large majorities say Congress needs to do a better job in addressing energy issues, support the use of energy efficient products, and support use of tax dollars on energy efficiency if it will save consumers money, said a survey of 1,000 likely voters sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers.

Gresham planted two “solar trees,” 18-foot tall structures with a metal trunk that forks into two limbs that each a hold solar panel, in front of its sleek city building and installed solar panels in a parking lot. The Portland suburb will save $600,000 in energy costs over 30 years, Bemis said.

On the East Coast, Bridgeport, the largest city in Connecticut, used block grant funding for a feasibility study that resulted in a 2013 contract with a Canadian company, Anaergia, to build an anaerobic digester that converts wastewater sludge, food scraps and other organic waste into electricity. The plant, with a maximum generating capacity of 1.55 MW, is scheduled to go into operation in 2015.

“We really hope that Congress will see through to do it again,” said Finch, the Bridgeport mayor. “We need to re-up this funding. Do it again. Do it on a continual basis.”

Here at NRDC, we couldn’t agree more.  Congress needs to support energy efficiency.  And in the meantime, we applaud the many American cities across the country that are continuing to lead and innovate on energy efficiency.