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 have several new projects underway that we’re really excited about and wanted to let you in on a little of what we’re up to. Let’s get right to it!

Methodist Health System brought us on board to complete some preliminary Sustainability Master Plan work. Our main objectives are threefold: 1) identify and articulate their previous accomplishments, 2) establish benchmarks in key areas such as energy and water consumption, waste diversion, commute modal split, and our Sustainability Engagement Index, and 3) set their sustainability vision and goals.

Countryside Community Church is in the process of building a new church, and we were brought onto the design team to ensure all involved are really taking a thorough and meaningful approach to sustainability. Their aspirations are impressive, and we’re excited about having such a great, sustainability–focused house of worship in Omaha.

Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, a long-time client of ours, has us hard at work this year with several different projects, including the development of a new master plan for the Wildlife Safari Park (as a partnership with ASD Stanley J. How Architects), re-evaluating the goals in their Energy & Sustainability Master Plan, many of which have been met, and technical assistance with a new solar installation. We’re also continuing our implementation work at the Zoo.

The University of South Dakota (my alma mater) hired us to conduct our Sustainability Engagement Survey and to provide a suite of recommendations on how they might re-engineer their waste and recycling collection processes so as to increase their diversion rate.

In partnership with WELLCOM, we created and rolled out the Active Commuting Toolkit to help employers develop comprehensive active commuting programs. These programs support employees’ transportation choices such as walking, biking, riding the bus, and carpooling. Active commuting saves employees and employers money, improves health, and keeps our air cleaner. Our efforts earned recognition from Omaha by Design with the 2016 Access & Mobility Award.

Omaha’s Metropolitan Utilities District brought us on board to write their first ever Sustainability Annual Report. It’s been very exciting to learn about their past efforts and future plans!

Duchesne Academy engaged our team to help carry out a school-wide sustainability initiative this year. By engaging students, faculty and staff, we are helping them to hone in on the best opportunities for sustainable improvements and to implement them in ways that are smart, efficient, and fun.

Morrissey Engineering hired us to conduct a waste audit, and Soil Dynamics engaged our expertise to help them navigate the changes being considered to Omaha’s waste collection system.

Creighton University , partnered with us earlier this year to design and implement a peak energy reduction campaign that primarily focused on operational and behavioral strategies. We also conducted our Sustainability Engagement Survey for all CU staff and students and developed a sustainability engagement plan for one of Creighton’s residence halls.

New Mexico State University, our newest client, recently hired us to conduct our Sustainability Engagement Survey, which, for all you institutions of higher learning out there, will help them fulfill AASHE STARS credit EN-06: Assessing Sustainability Culture.

Last but certainly not least, our implementation work continues with the Omaha Public Schools, Kearney Public Schools, and UNMC/Nebraska Medicine.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

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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.

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

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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In early May, we announced our 2015 Small Business Sale to coincide with the Omaha Chamber of Commerce naming us the 2015 Small Business of the Year (did you know there are over 37,000 small businesses in Greater Omaha?!). Our hope was to return a little love back to all our fellow small businesses.

We’re taking this up (or down, actually, in price) a notch. The first small business to commit will get our suite of services for a mere $500, and the second small business in the door gets the entire package for $1200. Those are 94% and 85% off sales respectively. Kmart’s Bluelight Special doesn’t have anything on us.

This is a limited time offer. Act now.

Onward and upward!

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Park Arbor Day - 4

(above) Students from Kearney Public Schools participate in a tree planting event to celebrate Arbor Day. (April 2015)

 

Spring is probably my favorite time of the year. The weather improves, nature becomes prettier, people seem more energetic and happy, and two of my favorite sports (track and field, baseball) are in full swing. Spring is also a time when we seem to pay more attention to the environment and environmental issues. Thank you, flowering plants and Earth/Arbor Day.

As people check back in with the environment, I would like to take a few moments to allow you to check back in with our work. Here’s what’s new and exciting at some of our clients:

 

Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium

Due to successful investments in sustainability projects during the past four years, the zoo’s revolving Green Loan Fund currently sits at an all-time high amount, and the zoo is avoiding energy and water costs of over $385 thousand annually. The zoo is also busy constructing its new African Grasslands exhibit, which will incorporate sustainable features that conserve energy and water. For example, the elephant barn floor will be made of sand and natural materials instead of concrete, thus requiring little or no water for cleaning.

 

Omaha Public Schools

The U.S. Department of Education recently named Wilson and Gomez schools winners of the 2015 Green Ribbon Schools award. Meanwhile, the district has established new goals related to energy, water, recycling, and emissions. New estimates indicate the district has achieved $4.9 million in energy savings over the past four and a half years.

 

University of Nebraska at Omaha

Since rolling out its Sustainability Master Plan several months ago, UNO has earned Omaha by Design’s inaugural Access & Mobility Award. UNO has also launched its online dashboard widget that showcases the university’s progress towards its sustainability goals.

 

University of Nebraska Medical Center & Nebraska Medicine

UNMC and Nebraska Medicine recently celebrated their 5th annual Earth Week to engage students and staff in environmental stewardship. In June, UNMC and Nebraska Medicine will launch the TravelSmart program. This transportation/parking demand management program will encourage/incentivize staff and students to bike, carpool, use transit, and walk to the 42nd & Dewey campus. The program will include subsidized bus passes and free rides home in emergency situations.

 

University of Nebraska at Kearney

UNK is currently finalizing goals for its Sustainability Master Plan and will soon begin prioritizing strategies for achieving said goals. While that planning is underway, UNK has started a Recycling Task Force to improve its campus recycling program. Recently, several campus groups partnered to conduct the annual waste audit, in which volunteers sampled UNK’s waste and recycling streams. Also, led by the student group Enactus, UNK is researching a bicycle sharing program.

 

Kearney Public Schools

Thanks, in part, to this school year’s Green Schools Challenge, the district has accomplished exceptional decreases in electricity consumption in most buildings and increases in measured levels of sustainability engagement.

 

We are so proud of our clients’ sustainability achievements. As spring warms into summer, I look forward to ice cream, and our Verdis Group team looks forward to continued success with the organizations we serve. -BR

 

 

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