Three Lessons for Unlocking Efficient Cities for All

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, home of the Johnson Controls Headquarters, strives to enhance efficiency in city buildings. Photo by zekedawg00 / Flickr

Urban efficiency is all about linking the potential of buildings, energy and infrastructure to create smarter, more sustainable cities. But what does success look like, and how do cities get there?

This past June, 34 city mayors, sustainability directors and energy efficiency professionals gathered at Washington, DC’s National Press Club for a roundtable discussion, led by Johnson Controls, to discuss this very question—what does the implementation of urban efficiency measures in US cities look like?

Three key messages recurred throughout the discussion: the need for involving community members in decision making, the ability for government to play a variety of roles in different contexts and the importance of demonstrating the many positive environmental, social and economic impacts of energy efficiency projects.

Involving the Community in Decision Making

More often than not, decisions about communities are made without the input of community members. Multiple city representatives from the roundtable expressed how important it is to change methods of governance, noting that if leadership and top-level decision making do not reflect the interests of community members, community projects won’t be successful. Yet in order for this to happen, governments need to be open to co-production. Involving—not just engaging—the community in the decisions that will impact them is the only way to get buy-in from residents and build trust and awareness.

Georgetown University’s Dr. Francis Slakey shared a story at the beginning of the roundtable about building trust to create community involvement. “Glenda and the $8 Transformation” tells the story of a woman from a low-income neighborhood in Tennessee who was reluctant to implement a local organization’s “solutions” for her high electricity bills. When approached, she immediately distrusted government agencies and organizations who she felt had long since abandoned her. Yet after continued discussion and engagement with her community, the woman followed the organization’s suggestion and—to her surprise—ended up seeing a 66 percent reduction in her electricity bill the very next month. With this, trust was re-established.

When Glenda’s electricity bills decreased substantially, she told her neighbors about this “$8 transformation,” who in turn told their neighbors, and suddenly a sense of community was established, complete with neighborhood barbeques—something that had been missing for as long as Glenda could remember.

Stories like these highlight the importance of establishing trust in a community—the first step in building awareness and creating buy-in from residents for changes in the community.

Finding the Right Role for Government

As outlined in a recent report from World Resources Institute, Accelerating Efficiency: 8 Actions by Urban Leaders, governments can take several roles to improve urban efficiency: 1) as regulators, 2) as owners or investors and 3) as conveners or facilitators.

First, when government serves as a regulator in the energy efficiency space, it becomes responsible for adopting and enforcing building energy codes, which establish a minimum level for energy performance. However, these codes are generally written as prescriptive standards, and several participants noted that this stringency can inhibit innovation and greater systems-level efficiency. They can “lock in” existing methods, and—unless updated regularly—may not represent best-in-class practice or technology.

As a regulator, government can also be a source of grants or incentives. Participants discussed the possibility of using innovative government programs, such as Property-Assessed Clean Energy programs (PACE), to ease the financial burden on building owners as they try to go beyond the existing energy code. They noted that many home owners and organizations often have trouble securing financing for the last part of a loan to make energy efficiency improvements, but that cities can provide financing (revolving loans) or credit enhancements based on energy savings and incentive programs with local utilities.

Second, as owners of buildings and infrastructure, governments can lead by example. One city representative at the roundtable highlighted the importance of showcasing energy efficiency projects—like publicly displaying energy performance information on municipal buildings and investing in net-zero-energy schools. Another city representative discussed how they installed solar technology and combined heat and power technology to turn wastewater sludge into energy in order to meet the city’s renewable energy targets. They realized that the community could benefit from these new clean energy resources and services while also creating a new source of revenue and greater efficiency for the city.

Third, as conveners, governments can mobilize resources and facilitate interaction among stakeholders in order to improve energy efficiency. One city representative mentioned that they assigned a Chief Information Officer (CIO) to serve as the focal point for sustainability initiatives and community trust-building. Another representative discussed how cities can commit to meeting the minimum level of demand for a long-term power purchase agreement in order to enable solar installations for residential and non-profit organizations.

But Efficiency Isn’t Just About Energy  

In addition to the many environmental benefits of energy efficiency projects, many city representatives noted the positive economic and social benefits as well. One city mayor referred to a LED streetlight initiative in which the city converted 6,900 traditional streetlights to LEDs. An investigation into this city’s streetlights showed that 10 percent of the streetlights were not functional—a dark reality for public safety in some of the city’s neighborhoods. While this project saved the city 60 percent of its energy bill, the street lighting improvements also helped create a lighter and brighter environment for residents.

Energy efficient LED streetlight initiatives can also impact citizens’ happiness, as noted by another city mayor, who saw community satisfaction rates nearly quadruple after project completion. And in some cities, streetlights are going beyond their traditional illumination powers and providing energy metering data to city governments and utility companies. One city participant noted that the control systems on newly installed LED streetlights alerted them to voltage issues that had previously gone undetected.

Learning from One Another to Overcome Common Challenges

Despite these inspiring examples, challenges still exist in bringing urban efficiency to the next level. Common problems include data access and privacy, complex decision making processes surrounding multi-family buildings and lackluster performance of “low energy” buildings.

The Urban Efficiency Roundtable provided cities from across the country an opportunity to connect, share experiences and discuss opportunities for the future. In the end, it’s this kind of open dialogue and communication that will be the key to making our cities more efficient—identifying what works, replicating it and scaling it.

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