Omaha, Nebraska

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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.


It’s budget season for the City of Omaha, and the 2014 budget for the Planning Department excludes funding for the City’s Office of Sustainable Development, also known as ECO-Omaha. It’s a short-sighted move, to say the least, and we’re incredibly disappointed.

First, a little history.

ECO-Omaha was formed in 2009 with a grant from the Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant. Its primary purpose is to strategically implement the Environmental Element, a planning tool created in 2008 that establishes a comprehensive new environmental vision for the city. (Daniel and I were both involved in the creation of the Environmental Element; it was a lot of work, involved stakeholders from across the community, and maps an excellent path forward for the City.)

Since its formation in 2009, ECO-Omaha has been working on and achieved the following (list not all-inclusive):

  • Implementation of several energy efficiency projects, which reduced municipal energy consumption by 16% (from 2009–2012) and resulted in roughly $775,000 per year in avoided costs. These projects also reduced the City’s municipal greenhouse gas emissions by 13%, equivalent to removing 3,125 cars from the road.
  • Earned and implemented a Department of Energy grant to build an energy upgrade market in Omaha through a program called reEnergize*. The result: over 1,300 energy upgrades for Omaha residents, which should result in collective savings approaching $1 million. Yup, you read that right…$1 million.
  • Led the completion of the City’s first Comprehensive Energy Management Plan**, which provides the framework and implementation strategy for effectively managing the City’s use and supply of energy.

So, what’s next.

The office has been grant-funded since it was created. Grant funding is expiring at the end of this year, which means it’s time for the City to chip in. Unfortunately times are tough (aren’t they always?), and cuts are being made across all City departments. ECO-Omaha falls under the purview of the Planning Department, which is an early focus for reform by the Stothert administration, and the Planning Department’s budget cuts will result in the complete elimination of the ECO-Omaha office. Not good.

Does it matter?

Yes, it does. the case for retaining the Office of Sustainable Development is very strong. Ready for more bullets? No? Alright, let’s use numbers this time.
  1. In a 2011 City Practice Brief, the National League of Cities highlighted four cities that have leveraged sustainability into economic development. The first sentence of the brief read, “Sustainability is a fundamental component of building a strong community, not only in terms of the physical environment, but also for economic prosperity.” Does anyone know a politician that doesn’t like economic prosperity?
  2. Investments in these kinds of positions pay for themselves. To date, Omaha’s team has brought in $15 million in grants. As mentioned earlier, annual avoided costs are in the $750,000 range, and Omahans across the city are benefitting from recent upgrades through reEnergize. Seems like a reasonable Return on Investment to me.
  3. The City of Omaha’s budget and operations are huge (2014 budget = $800 million in revenue), and far smaller businesses have dedicated – no, invested – in sustainability FTEs. Greenhouse gas emissions associated with Omaha’s municipal operations are nearly 100,000 metric tons of CO2e. That’s the equivalent to the annual emissions of 20,800 passenger vehicles. There is simply a lot to manage, and if an entity as big as the City doesn’t have someone dedicated to limiting its environmental impact in a strategic way, that spells trouble.
  4. The vast majority of Fortune 500 firms invest resources (time, money and people) into sustainability programs. These firms typically don’t make hasty decisions. Sustainability is good for business. Could it be the case that it’s also good for cities?
  5. Sticking with the “everyone else is doing it” theme; a quick survey of Omaha’s peer cities shows that most do have sustainability coordinators of some sort, although we were unable to determine how many are grant funded versus paid for via general fund dollars.
  6. If the Office is successful, emissions go down. When emissions go down, the air is cleaner. When people breathe cleaner air, they’re healthier. Omaha is currently ranked 142nd out of 182 on a healthy city index; a little clean air couldn’t hurt.

We might also be a bit myopic in thinking that the only way to fund the office is via grant funding or through the general fund. There are plenty of other cities that have tied their sustainability office’s existence to the savings they produce. Cleveland set up such a program and has fared quite well. Such an arrangement holds the Office accountable for its achievements, something not often seen today in City Hall, and has a nice little “out clause” if things don’t work out. Voila!

Do people care? 

One question a nay-sayer might ask is whether Omahan’s are supportive of sustainable energy in general. A fair question. Fortunately in February 2011, a statistically significant survey was conducted to ascertain Omahan’s views on energy. The findings clearly show widespread support for renewables and energy efficiency programs. Here are the highlights:
  • Omahans prefer increasing energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy
  • In ten years, Omahans say the most significant sources of energy should be natural gas, wind power and solar energy
  • There is broad agreement that increasing the use of renewable sources and measures to conserve energy will create jobs
  • More than nine-in-ten are willing to pay higher energy prices per month to increase the amount of energy needs met by renewables

Action Jackson

We recently submitted a letter to the Mayor and City Council Members supporting the retention of the office, and I’m hoping to get to the public hearing on the City’s Recommended Budget for 2014, which is scheduled for Tuesday, August 13, at 7:00 pm in the City’s Legislative Chambers (just in case you looooove public meetings like I do). And if you’re inclined to send a note to your representatives, here’s a little contact information:

  • Mayor Jean Stothert, jean.stothert@@ci.omaha.ne.us and 402-444-5000
  • District 1: Pete Festersen, pete.festersen@ci.omaha.ne.us and 402-444-5527
  • District 2: Ben Gray ben.gray@ci.omaha.ne.us and 402-444-5524
  • District 3: Chris Jerram, chris.jerram@ci.omaha.ne.us and 402-444-5525
  • District 4: Garry Gernandt, garry.gernandt@ci.omaha.ne.us and 402-444-5522
  • District 5: Rich Pahls, rich.pahls@ci.omaha.ne.us and 402-444-5528
  • District 6: Franklin Thompson, franklin.thompson@ci.omaha.ne.us and 402-444-5523
  • District 7: Aimee Melton, aimee.melton@ci.omaha.ne.us and 402-444-5526

Omaha: Soon to be Without a Sustainability Coordinator?

Onward and upward.

C

* Disclaimer #1: I participated in the reEnergize program, both as a resident and as a business owner. Both were mostly good experiences.

** Disclaimer #2: We partnered with the Rocky Mountain Institute to bid on the CEMP work. We didn’t get it, and I still hold a little grudge for squashing my dream of working with RMI.  

Comment(1)

As an advocate for increasing the use of renewable energy as one action to slow climate change, I am disappointed by the news that the South Shore Heights Homeowners Association has forced one of the neighborhood residents to remove solar panels from the roof of his house.

Over the weekend the Omaha World Herald published a story summarizing the struggle and conclusion of one South Shore Heights (SSH) resident’s attempt to have solar panels on his home. Resident Tim Adams installed the panels on his roof in 2010 and has been battling the SSH Homeowners Association (HOA) ever since. The two sides recently settled a lawsuit (prompting the OWH story) and Adams agreed to remove the panels by July 1. I want to summarize the arguments on both sides and then add my own two cents.

Tim Adams’ Argument

Mr. Adams created a website to tell his side of the story and to “educate Omaha homeowners about solar power and the lawsuit” with SSH. His primary argument is that solar panels are not prohibited by any language in the SSH covenants. Moreover, Mr. Adams argues the HOA board has for years failed to follow protocols in the covenants for approval of external improvements and has been inconsistent in approving certain improvements.

A view of the rear of Mr. Adams house in South Shore Heights.

The HOA’s Argument

In challenging Mr. Adams’ solar panels, the HOA board relied upon covenant language requiring external improvements to conform to the “look, feel and style” of the neighborhood. The board argued that allowing solar panels on Mr. Adams’ house would reduce property values and make it more difficult to sell the home, in addition to being ugly.

My Perspective

Even though the HOA was on the winning side, I think the HOA was on the wrong side.  The evidence that global warming is already happening is growing, and even though Nebraska won’t disappear due to sea level rise—unlike many island nations—Nebraskans should start preparing for more frequent and severe drought, more wildfires, and changes to wildlife and insect inhabitants as climate change impacts the midwest. (What do you think these impacts will do to our agricultural economy?) Our past burning of fossil fuels and the associated emissions are starting to catch up with us. The future costs of the impact of climate change are going to make the supposed aesthetic concerns of the SSH HOA insignificant. The SSH HOA seems out of touch with the causes and effects of climate change.*

Climate change is likely to increase the frequency and severity of drought in the midwest, meaning that reservoir lakes such as Lake Zorinsky near South Shore Heights, will eventually disappear as water supplies decrease.

Although I do not know if the SSH HOA has challenged other exterior improvements in the neighborhood, other HOAs around the country have fought with homeowners over such frivolous items as holiday decorations, yard signs, types of pets, use of clotheslines for drying clothes, and allowable flora and fauna. There have also been other HOA challenges related to more significant items like the on-site use of renewable energy for a home. As a society we need to get past the point where aesthetics and short-term economic concerns prevent one individual from making a decision to reduce his family’s contribution to climate change by investing in solar energy.

I suspect that Mr. Adams thoroughly educated his neighbors on the financial case for on-site renewable energy and the environmental benefits of preventing climate change. However, I wonder if he mentioned the more immediate impacts of pollution from OPPD’s coal- and natural gas-based electricity generation, and the immediate health benefits to everyone in the Omaha region from reducing the emissions from nearby power plants. These emissions are directly tied to respiratory irritation across the population but especially in the very young and very old, linked to asthma and bronchitis, send mercury into the atmosphere and environment, and emit gases that lead to acid rain.

Selection Bias In Action

Regardless of the SSH HOA’s right to exercise its authority pertaining to the “look, feel and style” of the neighborhood, I think that Mr. Adams was right not to back down right away. The HOA may not have fully considered the practical value—as opposed to any aesthetic value—of the panels, because it appears the board members were likely making decisions using selective bias. Selective bias is a human tendency to perceive information that reinforces preexisting beliefs while ignoring information that challenges existing beliefs. In such cases, convincing others to act on information alone is quite difficult. Instead, those individuals need to come to the conclusion on their own either through their own experience or over time. It seems the SSH HOA already has a bias against renewable energy regardless of its practical value, and did not truly consider or weigh that value against any preexisting biases.

The settlement between the parties reinforces the apparent presence of selective bias. In addition to restricting Mr. Adams from taking future legal action or filing complaints against the HOA, the settlement does not allow him to make any future public comments about the case or the HOA and its members, whether on Facebook, his website, or other media. Although I don’t agree, I can understand the settlement requiring removal of the panels and preventing future legal action, but the restraint on Mr. Adams’ speech seems only to underscore the HOA’s bias in this situation. The HOA was able to block Mr. Adams from using renewable energy on his home, but why should he also be restricted from making future comments about the case? The answer is that it reinforces the HOA’s apparent bias against on-site renewables: The HOA had an opportunity to remove a voice from the table that it didn’t agree with by imposing this bias on Mr. Adams’ would-be audience. In other words, the HOA appears to have shifted from the internal bias of “I don’t care what you have to say and I’m not listening,” to the external “Because I don’t want to hear what you have to say, I won’t allow you to say it to anyone else either.”

Conclusion

By filing for a court injunction to force Mr. Adams to remove his panels, the SSH HOA could have set a very damaging precedent to the future use of private renewable energy generation in the Omaha area. Even though it is disappointing that the HOA ultimately achieved its objective to remove the panels, it is better that it occurred through a private settlement rather than a court decision. The next time an HOA threatens renewable energy on a private home in Omaha, I hope Omaha residents can galvanize support for city-wide changes that ensure any homeowner can take action to his or her carbon footprint by investing in private, on-site renewable energy generation. Nebraska’s net metering statutes presumes that residents have the ability take such action, and allowing distributed generation increases the security and reliability of our electricity grid by spreading out the generation and reducing the need for transmission, in addition to mitigating climate change.

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*The South Shore Heights website “about” page states that SSH is “situated within a quarter mile” of Lake Zorinsky, and features a panoramic image of the lake. The implication is that the neighborhood derives value from its proximity to a natural place, and I am sure that is true. However, there is a disconnect because Mr. Adams solar panels would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which is an action that mitigates climate change, and thereby helps preserve natural places as we now know them. Without greater action to mitigate climate change, scientists predict more frequent and severe drought in the midwest, which has the potential to perpetually dry up reservoir lakes such as Lake Zorinsky as water resources become more scarce.

 

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Phew! The world did not end on 12/21/12 as many deduced it would based on the rollover of the Mayan calendar. That is great news. Now we only have to wait for global warming to become as alarming and “interesting” as the possible end of the world.*

As more people are concerned by global warming, more people will want to act to prevent global warming and be willing to contribute to the effort. Those contributions will have to be both action-oriented and financial, but many Americans are weary of making that financial commitment in a recession when they aren’t sure climate change is even linked to human activity.**

The United States was long the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions, but China has recently surpassed the U.S. In spite of the recession, the U.S. remains the second-largest emitter in the world (producing nearly 20% of worldwide emissions) because of the availability of energy. When I say availability, I mean that energy is both easy to use (accessible) and cheap to buy in the U.S.

Cheap?… Cheap! Cheep!

When many Americans hear politicians advocate for cheap energy, they often respond like baby chicks with an enthusiastic, supportive, and approving “Cheap? Cheep!” without much concern for where that energy comes from or the actual cost of supplying that energy. And realistically speaking, who doesn’t want energy to be as low-cost as possible? The problem is that when you only talk about energy being cheap in terms of the dollar cost to the consumer, you miss a lot of the hidden costs associated with fossil fuel energy.

But why is fossil fuel energy so cheap in the U.S. (Cheap? Cheep!)? I’m not an economic guru, but can share a couple of fundamental factors of which I am aware. One reason energy is cheap in the U.S. is that the extraction and production of fossil fuels is heavily subsidized by the federal government. In fact, the federal government subsidizes fossil fuels with about 5 times as much money as renewable energy in the form of tax breaks and direct spending. For example, from 2002 to 2008, the government provided $70 billion to fossil fuels and only $12 billion to renewable energy.

Secondarily, the presence of these subsidies on fossil fuels incentivize the effort to search for and extract fossil fuels. This increases the supply of these sources beyond what a free, unsubsidized market would support. According to the economic “laws” of supply and demand, a greater supply leads to lower relative demand and lower prices. We know the impact of large subsidies on fossil fuel extraction is real because even the relatively small production and investment tax credits from the U.S. government for wind energy have created a tremendous wind energy boom in the past five years. The policy problem with putting our chips behind fossil fuels now is 1) that fossil fuels eventually run out, and 2) while we burn fossil fuels at a rate far greater than our ecosystem can safely absorb the associated emissions (and pollution) we are changing the atmosphere and environment. These changes are starting to warm the planet and create foreseen and unforeseen consequences. There is no way to accurately predict the financial cost of these changes, but they are estimated to be very large.

Taxes, Fees, and Caps

In order to level this playing field, and provide price signals to consumers about the actual known and unknown/unquantifiable cost of burning fossil fuels and releasing greenhouse gases into the environment, experts, citizens, and Congress have explored various methods to create pricing signals.

Taxes on emissions are often generically referred to as “carbon taxes” because the element carbon is one of two elements present in carbon dioxide, the most prolific and infamous greenhouse gas. These taxes could work similarly to traditional taxes on specific items like gasoline, cigarettes, or alcohol, and would apply to fuels that produce carbon dioxide through combustion. The government would collect these taxes and in theory use them to support programs and projects that mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Other experts have advocated for carbon fees. Generally, carbon fees would be collected similarly to taxes but distributed directly back to citizens rather than being doled out by the government. The benefit of fees is that they would directly help citizens purchase energy or efficiency measures and thereby help them with the increased cost of goods and services.

Finally, cap-and-trade is a notorious proposed solution to reduce emissions in the U.S. Cap-and-trade basically involves setting a limit on an entity’s emissions (a cap) and then allowing that entity to either use less energy (by reductions or efficiencies) or obtain emissions offsets from other entities that produce fewer emissions than their limit who sell credits for those reductions. This scheme affects the price of carbon by creating an economic market for the capacity to produce greenhouse gas emissions.

What Have We Now?

I think many Americans are opposed to all of the above options because they would inevitably increase the cost of energy, which would increase the costs of goods and services that use energy for production and transportation. However, as demonstrated by the lesson of Omaha’s $1.6 billion combined sewer project, if we aren’t willing to pay a little bit today and over time, we are going to have a very large invoice from mother nature before the end of the century, and it will probably make the cost of hurricanes Katrina and Sandy look like my allowance in first grade.

But here is the thing, your cost of energy already tracks the related emissions. The only difference between what we have now and the above options is that, in many cases, no percentage of the current cost is specifically designated as being tied to emissions. As an example, take a look at the graph below showing the average annual total greenhouse gas emissions and average annual total energy cost for 83 OPS schools over the past 24+ months. The two lines are nearly identical in shape! What does that mean? Simply put, it means that you can figure out emissions simply based on energy spending, and therefore that the cost of energy somewhat incorporates the related emissions. But we are not yet calling a component of that cost a carbon tax or fee.

Graph comparing the average total annual emissions (previous 12-month period) with the average total annual energy expenses (previous 12-month period) for 83 OPS schools.

Download a .pdf of the above graph by clicking this link: OPS Emissions v Expenses.

The pricing schemes mentioned above would simply shift the cost line up slightly while retaining the same overall shape. Yes, it would probably increase the monthly energy bill by a certain amount, but if we apply the additional marginal revenue toward energy efficiency, clean energy, and renewable energy, we will over time be investing in measures that prevent a future lump-sum bill that is likely to exceed anything we can imagine. For example, one expert has calculated that for every $1 New York City spends today to prepare for and prevent climate change it will save $4 in future repairs.

Conclusion

My personal conclusion is that there is no reason to fear a slight increase on your energy bill today (assuming the increase leads directly to climate change mitigation and adaptation) when there are clear indications that the cost of not making that investment will be, for lack of a better word, huge. Cheap energy might seem desirable, but if we aren’t careful to think about what it really means to have cheap energy we might all be shouting “Cheep? Cheap!” while civilization as we now know it risks the same fate as the infamous dodo bird.

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* Climate experts are predicting that future warming due to past emissions already has the potential to change many aspects of civilization as we now know it.

** Climate experts are certain that the current changes to earth’s climate are the result of human activity.

Comment(1)

I see a parallel between Omaha’s $1.66 billion combined sewer overhaul project, the decisions and behaviors that led to the sewer system problem, and climate change. Anyone else?

First, what the heck is Omaha’s sewer project for? A combined sewer provides a route for both stormwater and “sanitary” sewage (basically, anything that goes down a drain in your home, including the toilet). About 43 square miles of eastern Omaha—primarily built before 1960—is serviced by 510 miles of combined sewers.

Map showing the portion of Omaha with a combined sewer system.

With as little as 0.1″ of rainfall, the stormwater combines with the sewage and causes the untreated, raw sewage to discharge directly into both the Missouri River and Papillion Creek (which feeds into the Missouri River)—known as a Combined Sewer Overflow, or “CSO.” If you don’t want to have crap, urine, and other chemicals from homes in your waterways, then you should like the idea of fixing the combined sewers to reduce the number of annual CSO events in Omaha from 52 per year to four or less per year.

Graphic schematic of a combined sewer.

If you aren’t sure if having crap, urine, and household chemicals in your waterways is a bad thing, consider that raw sewage can be a source for disease-causing organisms (in addition to being smelly and unsightly) and chemical pollutants that cause problems for fish and other aquatic wildlife (i.e., birds, amphibians, reptiles). By the way, much of Omaha’s drinking water comes from the Missouri River, and even though it is treated first, wouldn’t you rather know it started off a little bit cleaner?)

 
Second, how did we get to the point where this sewer project needs to happen? Well, it is a combination of two things. One thing is real and the other is artificial. The artificial thing is regulation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Basically, the EPA has effectively set a limit on the number of CSO events a community’s combined sewer can cause per year. The Federal Government has found that more than 770 communities across the country have a CSO problem, so Omaha is not alone here.

Map showing locations of other communities subject to EPA's CSO regulations.

The real thing that has created the need for this work is the storm water management paradigm in Omaha. A 0.1″ rainfall event may not seem like much, but consider what happens to that water. All the water from a rooftop is concentrated into a gutter, which then combines the flow with other gutters and the flow from impervious surfaces like asphalt, concrete, and packed dirt and takes that to the storm drain, which in a combined sewer system overloads the “sanitary” sewer leading to CSO events where all that waste and chemicals goes directly into our waterways. Over watering and over-fertilizing your lawn can contribute to harmful runoff as well. If, over time, Omaha and its residents had been investing in more diverse and dynamic storm water management in the form of storm water retention ponds, rain gardens, bioswales, porous pavements, green roofs, and rainwater capture systems like rain barrels, it is possible the combined system would have created fewer CSO events, maybe even few enough to avoid EPA’s regulations.

 
Now, in order to fix the problem of CSO events in Omaha, we need to collectively spend $1.66 billion dollars within 15 years rather than investing a little bit over the past 150 years to prevent overburdening our combined system today. And finally, ladies and gentlemen, is the three-step analogy to climate change!
 

  1. In the combined sewer system, the problem input is too much combined storm water and sewage. In climate change, the problem input is greenhouse gases.
  2. In the combined sewer system, the sewer has only so much capacity for sewage and rainwater before it overflows and causes a CSO event. In climate change, our atmosphere and planet has only so much capacity to deal with greenhouse gases while maintaining the equilibrium with which every living human and current ecosystem on earth is familiar.
  3. In the combined sewer system, the undesirable outcome is a CSO event, directly caused by the system inputs overwhelming the system’s capacity. In climate change, the undesirable events are many: rising sea levels, rising temperatures, and stronger weather events, all of which are the result of the system input overwhelming the system’s safe capacity.

Why is this analogy even worth writing about other than connecting seemingly unconnected ideas? I see a clear lesson here. In the case of the sewer system, the cost to fix the problem (mitigation) rises over time until—when there is no choice but to adapt—it is extremely, painfully costly and no one wants to pay for it all at once. Climate change is the same way. Experts estimate that every year that passes in which we do not apply serious climate change mitigation measures, the cost of adapting to it later increases by $500 billion. Yes. $500 billion every year we delay.

 
We missed the chance to use smart, diverse, storm water management solutions in eastern Omaha so as to avoid the lump-sum cost of fixing the combined sewer all at once now. But the good news is that we can still avoid the huge price tag of adapting to climate change in the future by investing our financial, social, and political resources in serious mitigation today.

Whether you understand that climate change is caused by human activity or you choose to believe something else, you can’t refute the evidence that our planet is getting warmer. And if you agree that our planet is getting warmer (regardless of the reason), you should agree that the smartest financial move, the fiscally responsible and conservative move, is to spend our resources now to avoid having to lay out unforeseen amounts of money at some critical point in the future.

The math of climate change is very simple. The consequences of climate change are very serious. Now that we have the cost and headache examples of what happens when a combined sewer runs amok, and can see how climate change is like sewer crap, it should be clear to see how bold action today to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can save even more money and bigger headaches down the road.

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The Business Ethics Alliance hosted another discussion in its Mind Candy series on Tuesday. The topic: business and politics and how they mix. As a member of the Business Ethics Alliance Board of Trustees, I was really happy that such a potentially toxic topic was being explored. It’s not only timely, it’s one that can be tough to talk about without hurting feelings. The polarization that exists today, especially at the federal level, clearly trickles down into many political conversations. Oh, how I pine for a good, healthy conversation, which occurred on Tuesday.

Personally, I’m politically engaged and my views have strengthened over the last few years; the latter largely a function of digging deeper into the issues and actually talking with our elected officials. I love talking politics and am working with a few teams of people on select local issues. Team Verdis has infrequent informal political discussions, but we’ve never really explored the ins and outs of one another’s views in a meaningful way. I think we largely agree on most issues, but not all. And only on one occasion have we put the Verdis name out there in support of a cause.

Tuesday’s Business Ethics Alliance discussion provided a great opportunity for the panel and the audience to explore two central topics: 1) to what extent it’s appropriate for businesses to allow (or encourage) political discussions to occur in the workforce, and 2) whether it’s appropriate for businesses to publicly advocate for candidates or policies. The former was deeply explored; we only skimmed the surface of the latter.

A couple of key takeaways and learnings for how businesses should handle internal conversations:

  • Do what’s best for your business and its culture. In some cases, political discussions can build stronger teams, inspire people to work harder, and actually produce more effective employees. In others it’s totally toxic and causes nothing but problems. There’s not a single right way that everyone should handle it.
  • Leaders must be careful not to push their views on employees, either purposefully or unintentionally. Doing so can alienate those that disagree, especially if  you’re not creating a culture that fosters and allows these conversations to occur productively. It’s a delicate balance, and I was impressed with how Rex Fisher handles it at HDR.
  • Generally speaking, society is not very good about handling conflict, and political discussions are no different. Don’t expect everything to be peachy.
  • For employees, some of the best advice I heard was to give them the latitude to have discussions and share their views while making it clear that there are consequences if they cross the line. Most adults have a good sense for where that line is and when they’ve crossed it. Or at least I hope they do.
  • No electioneering. Right on, Hal Daub.

While I found myself nodding my head to much of what everyone was saying, there are a few questions that popped into my head that remained unanswered. In pretty much every case, these questions arose because we didn’t get to explore whether businesses should take political positions and be politically active. I really wish we could have talked about it further. It’s where everything gets pretty dicey, in my opinion. I can handle how we navigate political discussions at work, but I could really have used some insight from the panelists or other attendees on whether or not we should be putting the Verdis name on anything.

Just to offer an example, Verdis formally supported the Equal Employment Ordinance that passed City Council in March 2012. We felt that discriminating against someone just because they are GLBT is wrong. By adding our name to the list of supporters, which was 100+ organizations long and included a few local large corporations, we took a risk. A business owner that disagrees with our views may have looked at that and decided not to call us. Or they may not return a call when I’m hoping to make a pitch. Was it in our best interest as a business to formally support the EEO? In our minds, the answer was yes because we viewed it as a simple issue of fairness.

This leads me to what I think was an unspoken and incorrect assumption from the morning: I think everyone in the audience was operating under the premise that the primary motivation for a business and its leadership is to increase profits. A motivation that likely drives what positions a business will hold when it pertains to regulations that could potentially hinder their ability to be more profitable (e.g., banking regulations. And a motivation that would prevent said business from taking a position on a social issue that they might believe in but doesn’t necessarily directly impact their business (e.g., gay rights).

I don’t think that’s unilaterally true anymore. There are so many business leaders on both sides of the aisle that are willing to sacrifice a little from the bottom line in order to build a better community. This wasn’t discussed, but it could have made for an interesting dialogue.

Social entrepreneurs are often creating businesses out of a desire to solve a social problem, not because they see a chance to build their own wealth. In some cases, the two go hand-in-hand, which is beautiful. I think Verdis falls into this category primarily because our motivation from day one was to have a big impact on protecting the planet. Fortunately for us there’s a very strong business case for sustainability, and when we talk to potential clients, we focus on the business case, not on specific environmental issues like climate change.

You won’t find the term ‘climate change’ in any of our marketing materials for a very specific reason: it’s a polarizing, politically-charged issue. Indirectly we know that if we are able to help an organization take great green leaps, they’re going to minimize their environmental footprint while making more money. That’s what motivates us. So when it comes to deciding whether or not we get publicly in front of a proposed law aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we tend to be quiet because we feel like we can do more good by helping businesses make change at their own pace. It’s a bit of a struggle, for me in particular, but for now it’s the right balance. We’ll see where we are in five years.

Onward and upward.

 

 

Comments(2)

Trees, and the value they add to our community, have been on my mind lately. I’m extremely fortunate to live in a neighborhood where mature trees are the norm and my neighbors sincerely appreciate and adore their trees. As evidence of this love, see exhibit A below.

Exhibit A: This sign appeared a few weeks before a 70+ year old pine was removed from a neighbor's yard.

An adoration and appreciate for beautiful trees isn’t a new thing. Nor is the realization that trees add value to our lives. I’ve heard so many stories of people receiving fulfillment through the presence and beauty of their favorite oak tree. Similarly, there are plenty of stories of heartbreak due to the loss of a tree; it’s not quite the loss of a pet, but it can be comparable.

The fact that trees improve property values is also not a new concept. This 1980 study summarized in the Journal of Arboriculture  showed that in the area studied (Manchester, CT), if a house had good tree cover, as much as six to nine percent of the total sales price of that home can be attributed to good tree cover. A more recent broader study on the value of nature from the University of Washington’s Green Cities: Good Health program found that the presence of larger trees adds value to residential values, directly relates to higher commercial rental rates, and could cause shoppers to spend more. There are several more studies with similar findings on property value and the like. The case is pretty clear.

Similarly, we’re now starting to see evidence that there’s a correlation between income levels and tree cover. Tim DeChat, who blogs at Per Square Mile, recently highlighted a two-year-old study that found a strong relationship between higher tree cover and higher income. In essence, the better the tree cover in your neighborhood, the more likely it is that incomes are higher.

The explanation, posit the authors, is that wealthier property owners and city governments can afford to plant more trees. Makes good, logical sense to me. I don’t foresee a causal relationship between tree cover and income (you’re not going to start earning more simply because you moved to a dense forest). Nevertheless, I think it’s immensely important that cities look for ways to increase tree cover. There are several benefits trees provide, above and beyond what value they add to our property or income levels. Just a few include:

  • Provide shade from the boiling hot summer sun (duh)
  • Clean the air and sequester carbon
  • Serve as a traffic calming devices
  • Reduce stress
  • Fight crime
  • Provide an in-your-backyard opportunity to learn about nature (I’ve been taking “nature walks” with my daughter since she was only a few months old)
  • Trees were the original jungle gym

DeChant took the study’s results a step further and grabbed two Google Earth images from a few cities to do a little unscientific compare and contrast of their higher income neighborhoods versus lower income neighborhoods to see if he could tell the difference just from the images. The results were pretty clear, which got me thinking about the same exercise in Omaha. I compared my neighborhood (Midtown) to what is largely considered to be the poorest section of town, North Omaha. The images are below. Can you tell which is which?

Option One: Midtown or North Omaha?

 Or…

Option Two: Midtown or North Omaha?

The answer: the top image is from North Omaha; bottom image from Midtown.

A couple things jump out at me. First, it’s difficult to measure tree cover when the images were taken in winter. The leaves are gone and you don’t get a good sense for the true tree cover. (If anyone has a better mapping system with spring, summer or fall images, please share.) Secondly, the noticeable difference between the two areas was the number of vacant lots in North Omaha. That’s another topic for another day, although there are some pretty interesting things you can do with vacant lots to ensure that they’re adding value to a community, rather than detracting from it.

Needless to say, we love trees. I love trees. I used to live in West Omaha in a brand new home with only one little ash tree in the front yard. I now live in a 1920s home surrounded by a cornucopia of tall, beautiful trees. I’m lucky to live where I do, but I also hope that we can find a way to continue giving the gift of trees throughout Omaha.

Tonight is a particularly good night to start discussing the topic when I’ll be attending another great event hosted by our friends at Emerging Terrain. It is the first in their ET Talks series and the topic is Public Space and what it means in Omaha. It promises to be a fascinating discussion, and I hope, at least once or twice, we talk about how important trees and the natural environment are. If I have anything to do with it, we certainly will.

Onward and upward.

 

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[NOTE: this is being cross posted from modeshiftomaha.org. A version of this was submitted to the Omaha World Herald on 9/4/12]

The recent policy report from the Platte Institute for Economic Research on public transit featured in the Omaha World Herald (Think tank: Raise bus fares, privatize system) on Aug. 25, 2012, is based on several erroneous assumptions about transportation demand and funding.

Travel demand patterns are changing. Nationally, younger generations have substantially reduced their average annual number of vehicle miles traveled while increasing their use of public transit. A report by the Frontier Group (Transportation and the New Generation) shows that from 2001 to 2009, the average annual number of vehicle miles traveled by 16 to 34-year-olds on public transit increased by 40% while vehicle miles traveled decreased by 23%. Locally, surveys done by the Greater Omaha Chamber’s Young Professionals have found that YPs consistently call for better public transportation options. Furthermore, half of households in Northeast Omaha do not have access to reliable transportation to get to school and work so need public transit options. There will soon be a pressing need from aging baby boomers for public transit when they are not able to drive.

The report also does not seem to take into account the fact that everything in our transportation system is subsidized by tax dollars, the issue is how we choose to distribute these subsidies. Today’s transportation policies focus on moving and parking cars not on supporting transit, which means most of us have little choice but to drive a private vehicle for transportation, the cost of which is an average of $8,776 per year according to AAA (a de facto tax because we are forced to purchase and maintain a vehicle in order to participate in the community).

It is a good idea to look for ways to improve efficiencies in public transit so that market demand is maximized, but not at the expense of the broader social goals of giving more people better access to employment and other opportunities. Public transit provides many benefits to the community, including increased mobility and improved quality of life for citizens, creating jobs and economic opportunities, saving individuals money, and reducing congestion and energy consumption. It also reduces the need to build evermore parking lots, highways and interstate exchanges, which come with exorbitant price tags (new highway lanes are estimated at $1 million per lane mile).

In 2008 Metro’s funding was $29.52 per capita of Douglas County residents, ranking our metro area 238th out of the 280 largest metro areas’ transit systems in the nation (Environment Omaha, Sustainability Makes Dollars and Sense). We can and should do more, not less, to invest in public transit. Investing in public transit is investing in Omaha’s future growth, economic development and well-being.

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The Omaha World Herald ran a story on the front page of Sunday’s paper highlighting the status of the reEnergize Program, a City of Omaha and City of Lincoln, Department of Energy-funded program intended to build the energy retrofit market in those two cities. It’s a program that I’m quite familiar with, particularly as it relates to the commercial sector, and I felt the writers did a fair, albeit not perfect, job of characterizing some of the program’s trials and tribulations.

As with pretty much every news article, only a portion of the full story was told, and it’s unfortunate that the authors didn’t fill in—or weren’t given the space to fill in—all the gaps. Thus, I’ll step in and play journalist for a day (no offense to all the real journalists out there).

There’s a Commercial Program, Too.

The OWH story highlighted only the portion of the program aimed at the residential market. There’s also a commercial component for businesses and nonprofits that are interested in reducing their costs for energy and other resources. Full disclosure: Verdis is one of only a few “Advisors” on the commercial side that help participating businesses take the results of an energy evaluation (conducted by a qualified engineering company) and figure out how to move forward.

The process model for the commercial and non-profit portion of the reEnergize program, which simply consists of 1) enrollment, 2) an evaluation, and 3) advising.

It’s a simple process, really, and the benefits are many. First, enroll in program, which has been super-streamlined recently. Next, you’ll be contacted by the engineering firm doing the evaluation. They will ask for a little information about your building and will then do an onsite evaluation. I recently shadowed one such evaluation, and it took less than a few hours. The evaluator will put together a report that outlines a handful of projects for the building owner to consider, specifically noting costs, paybacks and other key decision-making criteria. Once that report is completed, the baton is handed off to an advisor (such as Verdis). We help make sense of it all and work with the owner to determine a plan of action.

The cost for all of the aforementioned: Nada. Zilch. Zippo. Nothing. Zero. Yet the market value for these services can range between $10,000–20,000. It is only time for the building owner to open their wallet when they get busy implementing. But here’s the thing: there are almost always simple changes that the owner can make that don’t cost them a dime. The kicker is that there’s no obligation to implement anything. With that said, most owners would be silly not to at least start ticking off many of the low-cost, high-impact items the minute they receive their report.

The reEnergize program is a really good deal, and I can’t quite figure out why every building owner in Omaha and Lincoln isn’t participating. The worst-case scenario is you have thousands of dollars worth of free services and a report with an associated action plan that spells out how you can begin saving money. Shameless plug warning: call me, I’ll help you get signed up and ensure we can serve as your advisor.

Wrong Metrics

The authors focused on the number of retrofits that had been completed (93) versus the original number that was projected in the grant (3,193). Clearly organizers are nowhere near where they had hoped to be when they initially wrote the grant, but the main impetus for why the reEnergize program was funded was to create a new market for energy audit and retrofit services, not to just complete 3,000 retrofits.

There was no mention of a metric aimed at measuring the grant’s effectiveness in creating a market. They came close when Jesse Krivolavek, president of American Energy Auditors, noted they did 50 energy audits in 2011 but are on track to do 500 this year. I’ll cut the reporters a little slack though because I’m not sure there is a great metric, at least in the short term, for whether or not a market has been created. It will be interesting to see how this all looks in two years. That’s the key test: how many firms will still be providing these services, and how is business.

Honestly, I’m hopeful but a little skeptical that much will change. Yes, people have been trained. And yes, new companies have been birthed, but neither of those things matter if the market isn’t interested in the services. At the residential level, it doesn’t seem like we’re there yet. I hope I’m wrong.

The Low and Moderate Income Program is Now A-W-E-S-O-M-E!

In my humble opinion, the original design of the program was fatally flawed because, as the article mentioned, it was targeted at very specific geographic areas that were, at least in Omaha, primarily low and moderate income folks, AND it required those folks to bring some pretty serious cash to the table. Some of those people can barely afford the necessities so asking them to cough up $250 to enroll in a program, regardless of the payback, was just not going to happen.

Organizers have since made right and created a more accessible program for low to moderate income participants. In essence, participants receive an energy audit and up to $3,000 in upgrades for only $100. For those that can’t afford the $100, a network of sponsors has been created to cover it, in essence making participation in the program free. This is a huge deal for those in our community that are most susceptible to increases in energy costs, and it’s imperative that those eligible are made aware and encouraged to participate.

Can reEnergize be Salvaged? It can and is!

There’s not a person involved with the program that will tell you that it’s gone as planned. Furthermore, I suspect that most, when being honest, will probably share an eye roll and tell a story of frustration and impatience. Errors were made and miscalculations were aplenty*. At times we wondered whether it would ever pick up, but it has and in a big way. It’s now accessible for ALL Omahans (and Lincolnites…we love you too!), and I firmly believe that Omaha will be in a better place if the program does well.

The most unfortunate thing about it right now is that nobody knows about it even though a cool million has been spent on marketing and communications (ouch!). So here are your marching orders: 1) sign up and 2) tell a friend.

Onward and upward.

[*Editor’s note: I’ve had a few, shall I say, lively conversations with a couple people since posting this blog, and I acknowledge that I sacrificed some important content and context for the sake of brevity. Furthermore, a few word choices may not have been perfect. It’s important for our readers to understand a few important things about the reEnergize program:

  1. reEnergize ventured where no (wo)man has gone before, and it’s a really complex and quickly evolving market to try and pin down. There was no precedent, which makes designing such a program extremely difficult. The concept is innovative and a bit bold, and in the end, did we really expect perfect success right out of the gate? Continuous improvement is a good thing. Some may suggest that the government shouldn’t be testing new ideas and theories on the public’s dime. I completely disagree. The government is the perfect place to do just that. It’s big and can handle a few bumps. Small businesses can’t.
  2. The “fatal flaw” that I mentioned above is more about the geographic limitations than it is about the income levels of the people that live therein. The Department of Energy pushed Omaha, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Seattle to try the “green zone” concept, and it didn’t work in all four locations. Interesting idea. Didn’t work. Revise. Move on.
  3. Forward action is a good thing. I’ve been in far too many frustrating meetings wherein attendees are discussing what should or could be done to solve a problem, but nobody goes out on a limb and takes action. The reEnergize program is a good example of a collection of organizations taking the bull by the horns and taking action. That, I can appreciate.
  4. Finally, reEnergize has evolved and done so in a very positive way. I want to be clear that the program is working right now, and I also want to reinforce the fact that it will only be successful if people participate, both residents and business owners. Government is normally limited to regulation and rarely offers incentives. In this case, the incentive is legit. It’s a big carrot; take a bite.

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