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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.


We sure had some bam with our breakfast last Wednesday! On February 22nd, our team was delighted to convene a select group of Omaha leaders for a breakfast discussion on a leading-edge sustainability topic: net zero emissions.

The breakfast event was the first in a quarterly series of thought leadership forums we are hosting under the name “Green, Eggs and Bam!” Future topics will likely include sustainable transportation systems, waste reduction, biomimicry, resiliency planning and other cutting-edge sustainability topics. Check out the video highlights of the event here, and the full hour-long presentation here.

We initiated the Green, Eggs & Bam! series after contemplating how we can move sustainability initiatives forward in the Omaha region. As my colleague and Managing Principal Craig Moody explained, “As a consulting business, most of what we do is through our clients. This time we wanted to independently bring together the right people in the room to see what sparks we could generate to move net zero emissions forward in our community.”

We noted an important distinction between net zero energy and net zero emissions:

  • Net zero energy refers to a single building that is highly energy efficient and produces as much clean renewable energy onsite as it consumes over the course of a year.
  • Net zero emissions buildings are ultra-energy efficient and produce as much clean renewable energy onsite or offsite as they consume over the course of a year.

Here in Omaha, the University of Nebraska Medical Center (our client) recently announced a goal to achieve net zero emissions by 2030. Already, they have implemented aggressive energy-saving efforts that have saved them thousands of tons of CO2 emissions, millions of dollars, and aligned with their public health mission. Ken Hansen, Associate Vice-Chancellor of Facilities Management & Planning at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, described how their efforts led to an impressive 25% reduction in energy usage in just five years—and a whopping corresponding savings of $10 million. (We had a little bit to do with this success.)

Countryside Community Church (also our client) plans to build a net zero emissions church building to align with their faith and core values. Countryside is the Christian partner in the new Tri-Faith Initiative, which will bring together a Muslim mosque, a Jewish synagogue and the church on the same Omaha campus in 2018.

Senior Pastor Eric Elnes described the process the congregation went through as they reckoned with the environmental urgency of our time. The result was they decided to significantly expand their ministry around sustainability issues. And that dovetailed with the opportunity to build a new church on the Tri-Faith campus.

“We began to look at how far we could go to make our building sustainable,” Elnes explained. “We realized it was actually achievable to create a net zero building, maybe even a net positive building. And it was amazing what happened once we realized that was actually achievable; people just instantly kind of got it. They said, wait a minute, if we go net zero, or even net positive, suddenly our building is actually a mirror reflection of our theology and our beliefs: you give back to the world, you don’t take from it.”

There was a palpable sense of excitement in the room as guests shared their passion for bringing Omaha forward along these lines and their willingness to collaborate with one another to make it happen.

Mike McMeekin, president of Lamp, Rynearson & Associates, noted that in 2010 the city of Omaha adopted the Environmental Element to its comprehensive master plan, which set out broad energy and emissions goals such as meeting the goal of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) 2030 Challenge to achieve carbon-neutral buildings by 2030. However, this and many other energy-related goals and strategies from the Environmental Element have lacked leadership toward implementation.

Several attendees noted that the Midtown 2050 effort might present a unique and timely opportunity to create a net zero emissions district. Midtown 2050 is a nonprofit development corporation whose mission is to coordinate and accelerate the next phase of midtown Omaha’s revitalization and progression into a dynamic, transit-oriented urban community.

Sarah Gudeman from Morrissey Engineering noted how important it is to not just focus on a particular building, but on district and regional levels to take advantage of shared renewable generation resources. Zero Emissions Districts provide many more opportunities for achieving net zero energy than a single building.

OPPD is a critical partner for its customers to achieve net zero emissions. By 2018, OPPD will have over 30% of its energy coming from renewable, emission-free sources and according to their Integrated Resource Plan, OPPD will achieve 50% renewable energy by 2023.

The issue of cost for net zero improvements was raised. Ken Hansen noted that the Medical Center has been able to take advantage of federal grant funding in their renovations, he also made it clear that the financial case is extraordinarily strong even without any grant funding as part of the equation. He noted that energy efficiency improvements pay for themselves over a short period of time and joked at the fondness he has won from his Chief Financial Officer.

Attendees noted that strategic risk-taking is a necessary component of achieving zero net emissions. My colleague Daniel Lawse, Chief Century Thinker here at Verdis Group elaborated, “This is a rapidly changing environment in which all of us need to be innovating. We should embrace the concept of ‘failing fast’ in order to learn quickly and create the sustainable future we need. We don’t have time to wait,” he added. “If we don’t build zero-emissions buildings and districts, we lock in current energy and emissions patterns for the lifespan of a building: 80-120 years. On the other hand, if we get this right, we can change the world.”

Watch the full presentation here.

It was a heck of a breakfast. And no one seemed to mind that the eggs were not actually green.

Stay tuned to hear about our next forum tentatively planned for May 2017.

To find out more about how Verdis Group can help you achieve net zero emissions, drop us a line at craig@verdisgroup.com. Or give us a call at 402-681–9458.

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I’m really hoping this is not news for most of you, but I’m running to represent Subdistrict 5 on the Omaha Public Power District Board of Directors in the upcoming general election. Running for office was not something I was ever planning to do, but life threw a few things at me, and I decided it was time to step up.

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Why am I running, you might ask? Three reasons.

First, I think I’m actually well suited for the Board. Given that I work in the energy industry on a daily basis, I have a really good level of knowledge that will be immediately advantageous for the Board. I also have a background in finance with an MBA so I’m also able to fully understand all the financial implications of OPPD’s activities.

Next, I would really like to see the Board be more open and transparent. It’s a public utility; we own it. And OPPD can do a much better job of sharing and soliciting information from its customer-owners.

Finally, the energy industry is changing very quickly right now. New technologies are popping up all the time. Wind and solar energy are not only getting more efficient, but they’re decreasing in cost. That pace of change is only going to continue. My hope is to help OPPD take advantage of all these changes. They’re coming whether they want them to or not. How can we pursue them as opportunities? What must we do to ensure we have a long future of clean and affordable energy?

You can learn more at craigmoody.org. Or call me anytime if you’d like to discuss further. I’m always more than happy to chat!

And, of course, I would greatly appreciate your vote!

#GetintheMoody

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Everyone who cares about the natural environment recycles, right? Paper, plastic, glass…but what about money? It can be almost just as easy to recycle energy investments to address the serious global issue of climate change if you set up a Green Revolving Fund (GRF).

What is a revolving loan fund?
A revolving loan fund is a dedicated funding mechanism used to support specific projects that payback project costs to such fund. Often using cost savings from funded projects, loans given are repaid into the revolving loan fund. Then the money repaid to the revolving fund is lent again to finance additional projects.

What is a green revolving fund?
A green revolving fund (GRF) is a revolving loan fund used to finance projects that have specific ties to energy conservation or efficiency, renewable energy, or other natural resource-saving projects. Specifically tracked savings from projects funded are returned to the green revolving fund to be used for future projects.

How do GRFs perform?
Colleges and universities with GRFs have reported a median return on investment of 28 percent over the life of a typical project (see Sustainable Endowments Institute’s (SEI) Greening the Bottom Line 2012). GRFs are often focused on projects with a payback window of no more than five or ten years. The investments make economic sense. Often the biggest hurdle is working out the mechanisms to allocate savings appropriately within the constructs of a university’s current budgeting and finance structures.

To start brainstorming for high payback projects, review McKinsey & Company’s Global GHG abatement cost curve beyond business-as-usual, in its report Pathways to a Low-Carbon Economy. This chart and report provide insight into the investments that reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the highest financial payback. Of course, most everyone knows that changing an incandescent light bulb to a LED often pays back its investment in less than a year, but this report will get you thinking beyond lighting. If the McKinsey & Company report is too academic for you, just start talking to your facilities and maintenance leaders. They know what needs to be replaced and upgraded. Starting from there, look at your options for more efficient technologies. More energy efficient options often cost more upfront, but that additional cost will often be more than recovered in energy savings over the life of the equipment, saving money and reducing emissions.

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Image included with permission from Sustainable Endowments Institute

 

Who is using GRFs?
The most common users of GRFs are colleges and universities. AASHE has a database of information about many of the institutions that have started GRFs. The Sustainable Endowments Institute (SEI) has coordinated The Billion Dollar Green Challenge to encourage colleges, universities and other nonprofits to investment a cumulative total of one billion dollars into green revolving funds. As of July 2016, SEI has $131 million committed from 62 participating institutions. See if your alma mater is on the list, or your child’s dream school. As of July 2016, the University of Vermont boasts the largest GRF, with a $13 million fund started in 2012. They look for projects that pay back within seven years and cost no more than $3 million per project. Harvard University’s well know $12 million fund, established in 2001, has supported nearly 200 projects which now cumulatively save the school over $4 million each year (yes, each year!) on energy bills.

Schools have found that a GRF is a reliable mechanism to support cost-saving capital improvements even in the midst of budget cuts and rising energy costs. GRFs regularly outperform the investment returns for schools’ endowments and thus some endowments have become involved with initial funding support to GRFs.

Are you at a small institution or one that doesn’t have access to millions of dollars? No problem. The range of sizes (both regarding enrolled students and school endowment size) among colleges and universities with successful GRFs suggests that any school could implement a GRF. SEI reported that initial capital investments in GRFs are evenly distributed in the ranges: below $100,000, between $100,000 and $1 million, and above $1 million. The fund I helped start began with only $50,000 and is added to annually from various sources. As a result of projects funded by this GRF and through a number of other small cost behavior-based changes on the campus, the energy bills are down, and the institution is saving more than $400,000 annually on energy costs compared to a business as usual scenario.

How is a GRF formed?
GRFs are formed in many ways. The most common sources of start-up funding are one-time administrative budget allocations, prior efficiency or utility savings, private donations or foundation grants, and endowment funds. Although administrative involvement and support for a GRF is key, students are frequently involved in creating the GRF at colleges and universities.

Verdis Group helped Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium (“Omaha’s Zoo”) set up a GRF, starting with seed capital from a grant and growing through utility lighting rebates, recycling-focused grants, direct contributions, and of course energy savings. One of the hurdles the Zoo’s Green Team faced was having money to fund even small sustainability projects, and this fund has almost entirely resolved this issue. Each year projects are selected that are both high payback projects, such as lighting updates, and low or no payback projects, such as adding recycling infrastructure to make recycling easier, faster and more complete. These GRF bundles use the high payback projects to support the projects that don’t financially payback on their own, and everyone is happy—the accountants who are saving money on energy bills, the Green Team who now has funds to make the changes they view as most important, and the environment which benefits from resource conservation and reduced pollution.

How is a GRF administered?
It is important to get your administration and tracking set up before jumping into a GRF. There are many administrative models among GRFs. On college campuses, the governance of the fund often depends upon how it was formed. Typically, a small group oversees the finances of the fund, while a larger, more diverse group reviews project loan applications on an ongoing basis. Funds typically require projects to have a maximum payback period to ensure timely replenishment of principal to the fund. Some funds charge interest while others simply require repayment of the principal. Interest allows the fund to grow organically over time; however growth can also come from additional external contributions or allocations from operating funds. Other funds require a percentage of real energy savings to be paid to the fund even after the principal amount of the loan is returned, allowing the fund to grow from the additional savings.

At Omaha’s Zoo, Verdis Group currently administers the GRF in partnership with the Zoo’s accounting group. The Zoo wanted its GRF to financially benefit its general operating budget and serve as a continuing funding source for green projects. Thus, savings in the Zoo’s GRF projects are allocated with a percentage to the Omaha Zoo’s general operating budget and the remainder to replenish the GRF. Since the creation of the Zoo’s fund, SEI has developed a GRF tracking system (GRITS 1.5) that helps institutions manage and analyze project-level energy, financial and carbon data without developing a new process or tool just for the GRF tracking. SEI’s experience with GRFs is exceptional and the GRITS tracking tool has made setting up and tracking a GRF even simpler.

What are common GRF goals?
A GRF can focus on energy efficiency goals, such as reducing energy expenses and cost savings (a.k.a., fighting climate change with the bonus of saving money). In other cases, the GRF may support innovation and engagement projects that do not have direct significant financial payback. In the latter example, a GRF is replenished by grants or other funding, rather than repayment of project savings. GRFs are often operated as hybrid funds that fund both high payback projects along side engagement projects with low or hard-to-measure payback.

At Omaha’s Zoo, a hybrid fund was formed because engaging the staff and providing funds to implement staff-generated green projects was important. Yet, ensuring the revolving nature of the fund endured was critical because an ongoing source of contributions beyond savings was not guaranteed. Verdis Group works with the Omaha Zoo annually to analyze potential projects, determine project paybacks, and guide the Omaha Zoo’s GRF selection committee toward a group of annual projects that meet financial payback, employee engagement, and environmental goals.

So get out there and start recycling something even more interesting than those old aluminum cans – recycle your energy investments!

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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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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.

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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.

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Just over a year ago (May 2014), we conducted our first Passion Projects. In a nutshell, all six of us are given a 24 hour period to do just about anything. At the end of that period, we convene at Fontenelle Forest and we each spend some time talking about what we did and what we learned. There’s no expectation or requirement that the activities directly align or relate to our work, although they always have.

We’ve since repeated the exercise in February 2015. Here’s a list of a few Passion Projects from the team:

  • Researched local ecological impacts of and potential policy solutions for climate change
  • Researched water issues specific to the Omaha region
  • Researched recycling behaviors for the apartment dwellers in our building (Tip Top)
  • Researched and prepared a list of the top 20 best practices for conducting an effective meeting
  • Researched biomimicry and how it relates to our work

I have an interest in and passion for Omaha’s physical design characteristics and how they impact our daily lives. My time spent on Omaha’s Urban Design Review Board really opened my eyes to just how much (or how little) our community cares about improving our urban environment.

The way we design and build our largest public spaces – our streets and the associated right of way –  have a huge impact on our community’s health, safety, ability to safely and enjoyably use active transportation, and our well-being. So I decided I wanted to measure the quality of six intersections in Omaha to see what I could learn about how our community’s urban form is faring.

I focused on intersections that are traditional main street environments, as I have a high expectation that they are the best, most-inviting places for anyone and everyone. I then created a scoring system after doing a little research and set out to take measurements and conduct observations. The results:

  1. 11th & Howard
  2. 24th & N
  3. 24th & Lake
  4. 50th & Underwood
  5. 64th & Maple
  6. 33rd & California

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Rather than diving into the details via this blog post, I think it’s easiest to offer an actual summary of what I did, what I learned, and where these intersections excelled and fell short. Here are the results: Passion Project: Assessing the Quality of Six Omaha Intersections.

As noted therein, this is not necessarily my area of expertise. As such, many experts in the field will look to the methodology and chuckle. I’m cool with that. My hope was not to conduct a highly rigorous analysis. Rather, I wanted to learn something. And if what I did and the manner in which I did it sparks a discussion or could be used in some small way to improve Omaha’s urban environment, I’ll consider it a win.

Onward and upward!

 

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Last week was Climate Week in New York City, and I wish I could have been there. Around 400,000 people marched by my old apartment, bringing the world a message: The public cares about the issue of climate change and wants action from our global leaders.

Nebraskans made some great strides moving the public’s understanding of climate change forward and addressing the issue as well.

Here’s what caught my eye this past week or so:

  • For the first time in five years (since Copenhagen 2009), world leaders came together to discuss climate change at the Climate Summit on September 23rd. One hundred twenty heads of state, hundreds of business leaders, activists, and celebrities were at the United Nations in New York City for the Summit. The U.N. Secretary-General started the meeting with a statement that included:

“… Science says they [emissions] must peak by 2020 and decline sharply thereafter. By the end of this century we must be carbon neutral. … I ask all governments to commit to a meaningful climate agreement in Paris in 2015. … We are not here to talk, we are here to make history.”

The poem Dear Matafele Peinem (linked below) set the stage for the meeting with a standing ovation, and France led the statements by countries by committing $1 billion to the global Green Climate Fund. The intent of the meeting was to move global leaders toward a legally binding global agreement to address climate change at the meeting in Paris in 2015.

 

  • The People’s Climate March in NYC drew three or four times the number of expected participants, a number nearly equivalent to the population of the City of Omaha! Imagine that. I was surprised and happy to see Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations join this march himself, marching with singer Sting, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, activist Bill McKibben (the environment’s rock star) and 400,000 others.
  • On Saturday, September 27, I attended the Harvest the Hope Concert in the middle of a northern Nebraska cornfield. It showed me that Nebraskans do care about their environment, and that our farmers, ranchers and Native Americans are willing to stand up for our land, clean water, and their property rights. The Willie Nelson & Neil Young concert was a fun afternoon for my family, and I was proud to have three generations there to support Bold Nebraska and the thousands of bold Americans working to stop the construction of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline. These individuals appreciate how climate change will affect our children’s lives, and they are doing something about it.
  • Global average temperatures over land and ocean surfaces for August 2014 were the highest on record for the month of August, at 0.75 degrees Celsius (1.35 degrees F°) above the 20th century average.
  • A new report out by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate challenges the idea that addressing climate change will be costly, indicating that climate fixes will cost effectively the same as forecasted investments in needed infrastructure.
  • At a meeting just last week, I was reminded of the great work being done by the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD). Leaping over many other U.S. utilities, OPPD plans to supply 33% of its retail load generation using renewable power (mainly wind power) by 2018.  OPPD is also positioning itself to stop burning coal in Omaha by retiring three units at the North Omaha coal plant in 2016, and retrofitting two other units to use natural gas (a cleaner fuel) by 2023. Way to go OPPD!

Even though all of these actions are wonderful news for our environment, they are not enough.

Without global participation in the effort to limit green house gas emissions, climate change will have dramatic effects on our planet within your children and grandchildren’s lifetime. In the United States, our greatest efforts should be around eliminating coal use, but if still developing countries like China and India are building more coal plants than we retire, progress on this truly global issue will not be possible.

The simplest, cheapest solution is clearly understood by economists: put a price on carbon (greenhouse gas emissions). NPR’s Marketplace did a good job explaining how and why this would work. Yale University professor William Nordhaus explains it in his book The Climate Casino. He says that putting a price on carbon for the top 100 countries by per capita income, plus India and China, would cover 90% of the globe’s emissions. This price could then be enforced through a country’s policy mechanism of choice. Prices drive choices made by corporations and individual consumers alike. More expensive carbon-intensive practices (due to the carbon price) would be replaced by the least expensive, cleaner solutions.

And voilà, climate change is no longer the greatest challenge of our century.

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