omaha, nebraska (402) 681 - 9458 | info@verdisgroup.com

Our home to share our thoughts and host an (e)discussion about the opportunities sustainability presents and how our world will be changing as a result. From savvy strategies for clients to our fleet of Schwinn 10-speeds and everything in between; we invite you to the conversation and hope that we can explore true.green. together.


We are beyond excited to announce that Kim Morrow will be joining our team on May 31, 2016! Originally from California, Kim has worked in the sustainability and climate fields in Nebraska for the past six years. She has experience in sustainability consulting, clean energy advocacy, faith-based climate advocacy, higher education, policy work and fundraising.

Kimberly-Morrow6

Prior to joining us, she served as Executive Director of Nebraska Interfaith Power & Light, a non-profit leading the faith community’s response to climate change. She also served as Climate Change Resource Specialist at the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, partnering with Dr. Don Wilhite to deliver a series of sector-based roundtable discussions on the implications of climate change to Nebraska. In July 2015, she was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” for her efforts on climate change with the faith community.

Kim is passionate about finding smart, compassionate, and community-based solutions to the environmental challenges of our time. She is thrilled to join the team and looks forward to making great things happen in Nebraska and beyond.

Kim currently lives in Lincoln, and we’re excited to report that she’ll eventually be spending roughly half of her time there – consider this a Verdis expansion into the Lincoln market!

Kim lives with her two daughters. When she’s not trying to save the world, she enjoys roller skating, ice skating, biking, walking and jogging. She has recently started playing guitar, and has an unusual delight with her backyard composter.

Comment(1)

Omaha’s waste and recycling programs have been in the spotlight lately as new proposals from Waste Management to reform the current collection methods draw public attention. These changes could not come sooner, with the current state of Omaha’s recycling program lagging behind all neighboring states. A recent World-Herald analysis found that Nebraskans rank fifth in the country in the amount of garbage they send to landfills. Omaha has hovered around a diversion rate (% of total materials recycled) of 11% for many years, which is discouragingly low (the national average is 34%) and well below the EPA’s estimate that 75% of residential trash is recyclable.

We can do better, and it is time for change at all levels of the system.

Waste Management recently submitted proposals to overhaul waste collection in Omaha. Mayor Jean Stothert requested these proposals to address “frequent complaints about the current level of service and plan for the future.” However, overhauling Omaha’s waste and recycling programs is a complicated matter, and the decision our leadership makes must carefully consider many alternatives and criteria.

In our work we see first hand the challenges and opportunities our clients have related to waste and recycling. The reality is that it is far more complicated than most people realize. Residences and businesses alike obtain, use, and need to discard many different types of materials, and most people want a reliable, simple process.

In order to improve Omaha’s recycling rate, there are a few key things that should be considered. First, start at the source. Omahans need to do a better job of considering what they are obtaining at the point of purchase. The best way to limit the volume of outgoing waste is to not obtain those materials in the first place. A major missing piece of both Waste Management proposals is any programming to decrease the amount of waste/recycling/yard waste that is produced. Less waste means less cost to taxpayers to manage the waste. MAPA’s Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan (ISWMP) recommends the City hire or contract out a Source Reduction Specialist to do just this—reduce waste generation.

Yard waste in particular is a material that retains a great amount of value, and Omahans should be encouraged to consider ways to keep yard waste on their property. This can be done in the form of mulching grass clippings, composting leaves and grass clippings at home, and using some landscaping materials for other purposes (art, fencing, walking sticks, nature nooks, etc.). The City’s own policy directs City staff to mulch leaves and grass clippings on City property. Shouldn’t we all do the same?

Next, the addition of larger, lidded recycling containers is good and important. Several studies have shown that such a system will result in higher recycling rates, which is something Omaha desperately needs.

Third, one of the more contentious issues in Waste Management’s proposals relates to the plan to mix all landscaping materials with regular trash and send it all to the landfill, effectively shuttering the City’s Oma-Gro composting operation. Claims have been made that sending landscaping materials to the landfill, which is where some electricity is generated by burning methane gas, is better environmentally than composting. These claims have not been peer-reviewed and the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, MAPA’s ISWMP, and the Environmental Protection Agency share a common waste hierarchy (see below) wherein composting is a better use of organic waste than energy capture. The City does not have enough information to determine which approach is environmentally superior. Further analysis is warranted.

WM_V2

Finally, both Waste Management proposals effectively limit the amount of waste that a household can have picked up on a weekly basis. Such a limit is worthwhile, especially for regular landfill-bound trash, but there will have to be a strong communication and education campaign to help change how much waste Omahans generate. In one proposal option, residents are limited to five bags or cans (32-gallon maximum each) of trash and 4 bags or cans of yard waste for a total of nine containers (288 gallons) each week. This is the same as the current limit on trash containers, and it is too high. Frankly, residents should be pushed a bit to lower the amount of waste they send to the landfill.

In summary, there are some good aspects of the proposals, but there remain some significant questions that must be considered before moving forward. For example, how much sooner will our landfill close with the additional volume of yard waste? What will it cost taxpayers to build a new landfill further from the city? What is the environmental cost with longer driving distances? And what are the clear, calculated environmental impacts of all scenarios?

We hope that the City invests time and money into gathering all the right information before making a decision on a such an important and complex issue.

 

 

Leave a Comment »

OPPD is considering a rate restructuring, which the Board of Directors will discuss November 12th. The proposed change would increase the basic service charge for residential and small business customers from $123/year to $420/year in fixed charges while slightly decreasing consumption costs.

To give this ‘basic service charge’ some context, the Wall Street Journal reported a typical rate of “$5 or so” per month ($60/year), and the ACEEE reported fixed fees of $5-10 per month ($60 – $120/year) as of late 2014 for average residential customers.

The proposed rate structure is bad policy for the following reasons:

  • Low use customers will pay more ($60 – $180 annually) including many low-income residents and fixed income seniors, while high use customers (higher income) will pay less by roughly the same amount;
  • Apartment & small home dwellers who conserve will pay more for the same energy;
  • Reduced incentive to for all customers to be more energy efficient and conserve;
  • Increased wasteful use of energy, adding to air pollution and climate change;
  • Makes investing in renewable energy harder to justify economically.

I urge OPPD to strive to live their new slogan – “Leading the way, we power the future.” Lead our community in its battle against poverty and its goals to care for the natural environment. With the Pope’s recent encyclical in mind, OPPD’s rate restructuring is a real life decision where care for the poor and care for the environment go hand in hand.

The proposal to lower the cost of a kWh, the rate you pay for the electricity that you actually use, is counter to the future power-generation plan OPPD recently approved. Lowering the rate a customer pays for the electricity consumption reduces the incentive to conserve energy. Often, customers and small businesses look at how long a technology investment will take to recover its upfront cost in energy savings – financial payback. Lower rates result in poorer paybacks, which will slow investments in energy efficiency and renewable technologies that are important for our planet’s long-term health.

UNO’s report, “Nebraska Energy Burden Study: 2013 Update” provides the following statistics for Nebraskan’s energy expenses:

  • For households making less than $30,000, the average cost of energy was $1984 per year.
  • For households making more than $40,000, the average cost of energy was $2451 annually.
  • Households making more than $100,000 had an average cost of energy of $2738 per year, more than $750 above households making below $30,000.

This data demonstrates that low-income households pay less for energy than high- income households, as they should. They use less, they should pay less. The new rate structure begins to shift the current, rather equitable distribution of costs so that the poor, elderly, and environmentally conscience pay for large homes or other homes that consume larger portions of the energy load.

I’d like to see a map from OPPD that shows which customers’ bills are going down and which are going up. Real data, real addresses, mapped over the OPPD territory. Board members and OPPD leadership should be asking for this to ensure they fully understand the impacts of this change. Such an exercise will quickly tell who is paying for whom in the community under the new rate restructuring.  I can’t help but think that the map would look something like this one.

As an accountant who cares about both the poor and the environment, here are my thoughts:

  • It doesn’t matter whether a business has fixed costs or variable costs. The customers are not responsible for the costs. Customers pay for the products they purchase. A business’s executive leaders, accountants and finance folks are in charge of managing both fixed and variable costs, and that’s one of the many reasons accounting and finance is sometimes complex. It’s also why it’s great that Nebraska has public power, which shouldn’t feel the same pressures as shareholder-owned utility companies to meet quarterly earnings projections.
  • Customers are not buying a part of a power plant, part of a power line, nor are we asking to take on a week’s salary of an OPPD employee. Customers are buying electricity delivered into their homes. That’s it, nothing more, just kWh.
  • If OPPD has missed budget targets or future purchase forecasts have changed, they should adjust the price of the product being delivered, kWh. If I built a house that’s too big for my budget, I don’t go to my boss and say, well gosh, I’ve got a big fixed mortgage now, I need a raise.

The reality is that OPPD has a pretty significant budget shortfall. So rather than solely poking holes in their proposed plan, I’ll offer three ways for them to narrow that budget gap:

  • Increase kWh rates for all users, which lets everyone share the load equally.
  • Do what you do with your large business customers, charge a demand charge to residential customers and small business customers too. Demand charges continue to incentivize energy efficiency, because consumers can affect the amount charged by reducing consumption.
  • Move to a time-of-use pricing structure, where electricity costs more when it is most expensive to produce, usually during the late afternoon hours of the summer.

OPPD has made great progress in the past few years, with wind power purchases and decisions to retire three coal units in North Omaha. I am truly amazed that our power company will likely be 1/3 wind and 1/3 nuclear by 2018, both very low carbon and affordable power sources.

This is a public power state. We, the people, own our utilities, and we are represented by elected officials that are supposed to represent the consumers by definition.

The OPPD Board will hear from staff and the community at their November board meeting on Thursday, Nov 12th at 10:00 a.m. The public will have an opportunity to make 3 minute statements to the Board or you can email the Board at their website.

Speak up residents and small business customers – speak up and help OPPD lead us in the right direction!

 

For more information:

Meeting tonight with OPPD, Nov 9th

Rocky Mountain Institute – Fixed Charges don’t “Fix” the Problem

News on fixed charge changes – approved in Wisconsin, rejected in Minnesota

Similar rooftop solar fixed fee news

Featured Image courtesy of Watie White.

 

Comments(2)

When you hire exceptional people, you should expect that they’ll be regularly presented with offers for other jobs. It’s something we expect to happen. The alternative – hiring a bunch of monkeys that nobody wants – may mean we don’t need to worry about employee poachers, but it also means we’re not going to perform at a high level.

So when Chris Stratman broke the news that he’ll be leaving the firm, I found myself immensely disappointed but also not surprised. On November 16, Chris will start as the new Executive Director of Keep Omaha Beautiful, a nonprofit organization dedicated to litter reduction, beautification, and education on recycling and solid waste issues. You know that disappointment I mentioned earlier? That quickly faded when I learned about Chris’ new job.

Keep Omaha Beautiful has been around since 1959, and one of its focus areas – waste reduction and recycling – is really important in Omaha, which has a historically poor recycling rate. We have several ideas for how to increase recycling in Omaha, but we’re not particularly well set up to independently move the needle. Chris’ expertise, strengths, focus, and results-focused approach will undoubtedly have a positive impact not only on the city’s recycling rate, but on the city’s overall success as well. He’s really well-suited to the job, and he’s going to knock it out of the park.

Chris has been with us since early 2010 and has played a major role in nearly every one of our projects. Most notably, he has been our project lead with UNMC and Nebraska Medicine for the last few years consistently providing great leadership to our project team and impeccable service to our friends at the Med Center.

We will miss Chris. I will miss Chris. I’ve spent the last five years sitting about four feet from him. He’s an exceptional human being and our success as a firm is due in large part to his dedication to our purpose.

As they say, change is the only constant. Mr. Stratman’s (he asked that I start calling him that now) last day is slated for October 23. We wish Chris nothing but the best, and I look forward to working with him in a new capacity to make Omaha a thriving, green city.

Onward and upward.

Leave a Comment »

We are thrilled to announce a new partnership with Methodist Health System and its three hospitals!

MHS-OMA-color

 

 

 

 

 

The project includes

  • Identifying sustainability strengths, successes, and achievements
  • Developing a sustainability vision to inspire and motivate change
  • Benchmarking and analyzing sustainability performance as it relates to emissions, energy, water, waste, mobility/transportation, and engagement
  • Developing measurable and strategic sustainability goals
  • Recommending a short-term course of action

Within the next few weeks, we will begin analyzing data, surveying students/employees, and meeting with key personnel and stakeholder groups.

We can’t wait to help Methodist Health System develop and formalize its sustainability plans!

If you have questions or thoughts about this project, please contact brent@verdisgroup.com.

 

Comments(2)

I’ve been a member of Omaha’s Business Ethics Alliance for over five years and was quite excited when we agreed to be a sponsor of the BEA’s most recent Executive Breakfast.

The breakfast featured a conversation with Coca-Cola’s water sustainability program manager Jonathan Radtke with a special appearance by Mace Hack, the Nebraska state director of The Nature Conservancy. The two entities are partnering on an interesting project promoting new technology that helps Nebraska farmers along the South Platte River irrigate with less water.

The conversation took a number of twists and turns, and thanks to the always exceptional moderation of the BEA’s director, Beverly Kracher, an exceptional conversation unfolded.

Coke is doing some exceptional things as it relates to water conservation and replenishment of waterways. They are well ahead of schedule in working to achieve their 2020 100% water replenishment goal.

My favorite quote from Jon was his reference to Coke’s internal view that their sustainability initiatives really leverage “the power of ‘and’ ” which is to say there are multiple benefits to everything they’re doing. They save money and help the environment and attract customers and engage employees and…you get the point.

There was a great discussion that included attendees that centered on what motivates organizations to be more sustainable. Responses were a bit across the board, with references to the Pope’s recent encyclical, our collective moral obligations to future generations, and the fact that it’s ultimately good for businesses.

Interestingly, Coke is now more than happy to pay more for the water they use so long as it leads toward a more sustainable water system and all water users pay their fair share. Publicly articulating that you’re willing to take on bigger costs is pretty unheard of, but Coke understands that it’s necessary in order for them to succeed longer term.

Radtke suggested that companies need to look beyond their quarterly income statements and should consider the long view with a reference to the 7th generation principle taught by Native Americans that says every decision should consider how it will affect descendants seven generations into the future. Not many other corporations are thinking out that far.

In talking with several other attendees over the last few days, many were challenged by the tension between Coke’s great sustainability practices and the fact that they primarily sell products that result in health challenges for consumers. I get it, but I don’t put that on Coca-Cola. In my view, it’s on consumers to change their behaviors. If society wants healthier beverages, then start drinking them. Until then, I’ll see you at the vending machine – let’s split a Coke.

Onward and upward.

Leave a Comment »

Recycling is getting a lot of attention in Omaha these days. The Omaha World Herald ran an extensive story (Why is Nebraska Recycling in the Dumps?) in the Sunday, July 12 edition that summarized the challenges Omaha and Nebraska more broadly speaking have had with recycling. The key indicator is the recycling rate, which has hovered around 11% in Omaha since 2006, a figure that’s well below the national average (34%) and lagging that of the surrounding states.

Let’s not kid ourselves, managing waste streams is more difficult than most people imagine, even at the residential level. I just took my family’s trash and recycling to the curb tonight, and while doing so pondered all the different streams that leave our house in a given week (landfill, mixed recycling, glass, plastic bags, reuse items, my daughter’s to-go applesauce containers (I think she’s addicted), and compostable waste). Each one of them requires a separate staging area in our house and/or garage. It’s no wonder that I conduct a monthly educational campaign at home to ensure we’re all on the same page.

IMG_8702

Moody family outgoing trash and recycling. The volume in those two (yes, we have two…ssshh) green bins is more than what’s in the black trash container. I suspect if most Omahans had the opportunity and were properly educated, the same would hold true. The EPA estimates that 75% of residential trash is recyclable.

There are unquestionably advantages to recycling more, and the good news is that there are benefits that excite both fiscal conservatives and tree-hugging liberals alike. The financial savings alone are noteworthy; if Omaha improved to a mere 26% recycling rate (a very achievable figure), the city would be saving roughly $1 million per year. Certainly not chump change.

So how can Omaha improve its recycling rate? The Verdis Team spent an hour kicking around a few ideas, some of which are offered below. First, a caveat: we have not studied the situation (but would love to!). The recommendations below are based on 1) our materials management work with all of our clients, 2) our experiences as Omaha citizens, and 3) the knowledge and information we’ve gained through community involvement with efforts such as Environment Omaha. When we’re given the opportunity (the power of positive thought, right?) to really study the issue, we would most certainly refine and add to these recommendations. OK, with caveat in place, let’s get to it.

  1. Deploy larger bins with lids. Everyone acknowledges that this would have an immediate impact. Let’s make it happen. (See the July 13 OWH story for more details.) And, yes, the up-front cost ($6 million) is a bit much, but as the OWH reported on July 19, there are funding alternatives such as the Closed Loop Fund. The City should also consider the Nebraska Environmental Trust and the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality grant programs as sources of funding.
  1. Overhaul branding and communication. There are multiple layers to this one, so let’s bullet them out:
    • Develop a sophisticated brand around Omaha’s recycling program
    • Reboot the website
    • Develop a one-page summary that’s easy for residents to review, pass around, print and post at home
    • Offer several materials in other languages, especially Spanish (the recycling rate per capita was worst in Southeast Omaha)
    • Rename and redesign the Wasteline publication that’s mailed to residences regularly
    • Do NOT over-emphasize the 11% rate. Doing so conveys a subtle social norm that only 11% of waste can be recycled and/or only 11% of people do recycle. Rather, focus on the fact that the majority of Omahans support recycling.
    • Messaging also needs to tap into multiple motivating factors – catching everyone from liberals to conservatives
    • Ramp up the social media platform (Verdis has more “likes” on Facebook, and we generally stink at social media)
    • Invest in other awareness and media efforts such as billboards, radio, and so on
  1. Start delivering bins again. Assuming that we really do need to wait five years before the large bins with lids are deployed, the City should reinstitute the program where the current curbside bins would actually be delivered to households that request them, which was in place several years ago. (Today, citizens must go to one of six locations to pick one up.) Partnerships could be explored with neighborhood associations, schools, a nonprofit such as Keep Omaha Beautiful, and maybe even churches to facilitate the distribution process.
  1. Connecting with the binless. We kicked around a handful of ideas to engage those households that don’t have a bin today. Here are a few:
    • Employe and send SummerWorks Omaha employees door to door on trash/recycling day. Have them contact (leave flyers or little yard signs) at every residence that does not have a recycling container out. Heck, give them a truck full of bins so they can distribute as the come across households that want one.
    • Automatically provide bins to all of Omaha with an opt-out alternative. With proper notice and an effective opt-out alternative, this could work.
  1. Ramp up recycling in public spaces. The City needs to walk the talk and deploy recycling containers in public areas with a goal to achieve a 1:1 waste to recycling container ratio in the city.
  1. Make recycling mandatory. Yes, I know this is a stretch and not likely to happen, but it still would be one of the single most effective means by which to increase recycling rates. In essence, recyclables would be banned from going into the landfill.
  1. Explore pay as you throw. A strong motivator for recycling more is charging fees for trash (known as a pay-as-you-throw system). Yes, there’s some concern about it being a regressive tax, but those issues can be overcome with a more sophisticated system design.
  1. Launch a composting facility. If the ultimate goal is reduce landfill tipping fees, then diverting food waste to a large-scale composting facility will have a huge impact. This is extremely complicated, and there’s a team exploring options now, as we understand it. But the implementation of as much would make a huge difference, especially for commercial customers.
  1. Address the gap in services to apartments. Renters like to recycle too, maybe more than homeowners. It would be great to address this gap in some way.

Team Verdis had close to a dozen more ideas that I’ll leave on the shelf for now. Suffice it to say there are undoubtedly ways to improve recycling in Omaha, and we’re anxious to play a role in making that happen. Because, and let’s be honest here, it’s a little embarrassing that the city has hovered around 11% for ten years. Let’s right that ship, shall we?

Onward and upward.

Comments(6)

The mission statements of UNMC, Nebraska Medicine, and Clarkson College focus on patient care, healthcare education, research, and community outreach. Transportation—moving people around—is not a part of any of their respective missions. However, to achieve those missions, their people (employees, students, visitors, and faculty) must be able to move from one location (e.g. home) to another (42nd and Dewey campus). Thus, as the institutions continue to grow their positive community impact and add new buildings, the demand for transportation increases. Typically, this means more cars.

So what are these institutions going to do about the increased transportation demand?

They basically have three options (the first one doesn’t count):

  • Don’t grow. Not an option for a national healthcare leader.
  • Build out. Build more surface parking, which requires tearing down buildings and creates sprawl.
  • Build up. Build more parking garages at over $20,000 per parking stall.
  • Get creative. Find ways to get people to campus without using their cars every day.

If transportation is approached with the assumption that everyone will drive, parking becomes the obvious solution (Option #2 or #3). But when an organization sees transportation as fundamentally about moving people, driving a car and the parking that is required as a result becomes just a solution of many (and an expensive one at that as reported in Parking Problems? Transit Programs As a Cost-Effective Solution). When this comprehensive view of moving people is combined with an increased emphasis on wellness, millennials driving less, and a new Dodge St. BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), there is an opportunity to expand their positive impact without the burden of providing as much parking.

True to form in their leadership and innovation, UNMC, Nebraska Medicine, and Clarkson College got creative. We partnered with key stakeholders from all three institutions to design their new TravelSmart program, which was launched in June. TravelSmart is available to all employees and students at Screenshot 2015-06-24 12.24.26UNMC, Nebraska Medicine, and Clarkson College. The program promotes transportation options that will decrease parking demand, including activities such as walking, biking, carpooling, and taking the bus.

We helped design and implement a comprehensive employee input and engagement process to ensure the TravelSmart program met the real needs of the their employees and students. It included surveys, focus groups, forums, and more to select and refine the right components of the program.

One key finding from this process was that active transportation isn’t for everyone, and that’s OK. Some employees or students have limitations on how they get to work based on where they live or their schedule. However, there are enough people willing to shift their travel mode to active transportation when the infrastructure and programmatic support is in place. This group is large enough to reduce the need to build more parking.

As a result, there are several ways the TravelSmart program makes it easy for people to use active transportation options:

  • Free online service to help connect carpool partnersScreenshot 2015-06-30 12.00.51
  • Free carpool parking passes
  • Free Omaha Metro bus passes
  • Free secure, indoor bike parking and access to lockers and shower facilities
  • Free guaranteed rides home in emergency situations
  • Daily-rate flexible parking for the days a participant needs to drive alone to campus

Already, employees are choosing to become TravelSmart participants and leave their cars at home.

TravelSmart saves money for employees and the institutions, improves employee attraction and retention, supports a culture of active living, and improves air quality in the city. There are great benefits for employees and students that participate –  a healthier lifestyle, less stress, fewer costs associated with driving and parking, and improved environmental conditions. Employees and students are not the only winners: patients, families, and community members also benefit when these institutions use their property to carry out their core missions, rather than for parking lots.

 

 

 

 

Comment(1)