The Case for Omaha’s Sustainability Office
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?
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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
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, email@example.com and 402-444-5527
- District 2: Ben Gray firstname.lastname@example.org and 402-444-5524
- District 3: Chris Jerram, email@example.com and 402-444-5525
- District 4: Garry Gernandt, firstname.lastname@example.org and 402-444-5522
- District 5: Rich Pahls, email@example.com and 402-444-5528
- District 6: Franklin Thompson, firstname.lastname@example.org and 402-444-5523
- District 7: Aimee Melton, email@example.com and 402-444-5526
Onward and upward.
* 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.