When you've been around for more than 200 years and plan to stick around for 200 more, you can afford to invest for the long haul.
That's the luxury the city of Pittsburgh enjoys when considering the costs versus benefits of making municipal facilities and operations more energy efficient.
"People are always looking for a quick payoff, but our time horizons are a lot longer," said Grant Ervin, the city's chief resilience officer.
"If you are making an investment in a building that will be part of your portfolio for 15, 20, 30 years, you don't need to limit yourself to a two-to-three-year payback period," he said. "That changes some of the moves you can make to put in higher-performing materials."
Pittsburgh is not alone in that regard. Every city is full of essential infrastructure — libraries, fire stations, streets, courthouses — that isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Even a modest improvement in energy efficiency — combined with patience — can generate a worthwhile return on the upfront cost over time.
Amid all the buzz around climate change, the opportunity to reduce their carbon footprint while also easing the squeeze on their budgets is inspiring many cities to get serious about reducing municipal energy use.
Energy use accounts for up to 10 percent of a local government's annual operating budget, according to a report on energy efficiency in local government operations by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That's a significant expense with significant potential for savings.
Energy cost savings of 35 percent or more are possible in many buildings, which can add up to millions of dollars over the life cycle of an energy-efficient building compared to a conventional one, the report stated.
The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., publishes a scorecard that ranks the 51 largest U.S. cites according to their overall efforts to save energy in five key areas — including local government operations.
Pittsburgh ranked ninth on the 2017 list for local government operations after setting a goal to cut energy use in half by 2030 using 2013 as a benchmark — one of the most aggressive goals in the country
"We are in the early stages of ... seeing where we can yield a lot of savings and identify the projects to help us get there," Ervin said.
The Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit based in Boulder, Colo., that advocates for renewable energy, is helping the city develop a plan to transform all city facilities into net-zero buildings, which could cut the city's utility bill in half and save $2-$3 million a year, Ervin said.
A net-zero building is designed to minimize energy use through tactics such as natural ventilation, passive solar heat and superior insulation coupled with high-efficiency lighting/HVAC systems and smart controls that ensure the systems operate only when needed. It is also designed to rely entirely on renewable energy — solar, wind and hydro — from onsite as well as offsite sources.
Pittsburgh is revamping its request-for-proposals paperwork to make vendors aware of the net-zero target so they can incorporate materials, equipment and energy sources that further the goal when bidding on capital projects.
The city of Portland, Ore., rewrote equipment specifications for city facilities to support its energy reduction goal. When a piece of equipment reaches the end of its useful life, it must be replaced with high-efficiency equipment and not just code-compliant equipment, said Danny Grady, energy specialist with the city's bureau of planning and sustainability
"Every time you need to replace a boiler or an HVAC rooftop unit, you are essentially making a 20-year investment," he said. "If you're just ... putting in code minimum, you're missing out on an opportunity to improve the efficiency of the building."
Portland shoots for a 10-year payback on energy efficiency investments. "That's the general rule of thumb," Grady said. However, the city is open to lengthening the payback period if a project has other benefits such as increasing resiliency or reducing maintenance time.
Portland, ranked fourth for efficiency in local government operations by the ACEEE, has been whittling its energy usage for more than a decade with a goal of reducing consumption by 2 percent a year using 2006-2007 as a benchmark — the equivalent of $94,000 in new savings each year.
Although the weather can affect the city's ability to meet that goal in any given year, the city's cumulative reduction of 28 percent is tracking ahead of the 22 percent reduction it expected to achieve by this point in time.
Portland's most productive step so far involved converting 45,000 conventional streetlights to LED lights, which use less energy and last much longer. Completed last year, the conversion reduces annual energy usage by 20 million kilowatts and saves $1.5 million a year above and beyond the 2 percent goal.
"That was low-hanging fruit," Grady said. "We currently don't have another one of those types of projects — one project that can save a significant amount of the city's energy usage."
The challenge now is to wring out smaller savings that add up to a significant sum. One avenue is the city's green building policy that requires all new construction and renovation of city facilities to exceed state energy code requirements by 5 to 15 percent depending on the size of the project.
Portland is shooting for even greater efficiency in a "downto-the-studs" retrofit of a large city administration building. The goal for the building is to operate 40 percent more efficiently than code and earn net-zero certification.
Although the need to make seismic upgrades and repair water leaks drove the project, those fixes opened the door to also upgrade electricity-wasting lighting and HVAC systems.
Another way Portland hopes to use less juice is through energy-savings performance contracts. "This is a contracting model where a municipality works with an energy services company to develop a list of projects that collectively are bundled together to have a specific payback," Grady said.
Portland's parks department is making plans to become the first department in the city to use that model to foot the bill for energy-saving projects.
Irrigating and lighting hundreds of acres of parks eats up a lot of electricity that could be saved by introducing more energy-efficient systems. Energy costs at pools and community centers could also be trimmed with improved lighting and HVAC systems plus tighter building envelopes.
Denver has already awarded one energy-savings performance contract and expects to award more. "I think there will be a strong push for continuing those in the future if they prove to be successful," said David Basich, energy manager for the city of Denver.
The first contract financed $2 million in improvements in 14 buildings and is on track to pay for itself within 15 years with annual savings of more than $130,000.
One of the first measures financed by performance contracting was a top-to-bottom review of automated heating and lighting controls to ensure they were correctly scheduled and functioning appropriately.
"You need a good understanding of the demands within the building to know when to turn on (systems) so the building will be warm enough or cold enough depending on when people arrive for work," he said. "We have to deal with changes in temperature of 40 or 50 degrees in a day."
Denver, which is ranked number one for local government operations by the ACEEE scorecard, has been working toward a 20-percent reduction in energy usage by 2020 using 2012 as a benchmark.
The effort is driven by data. The city tracks energy usage throughout its facilities using a software program called Energy Cap.
"We import all of our utility bills into it so we've got a pretty good idea of how our buildings are performing," Basich said. "We regularly go over that data in depth with our facility groups and point out where potential improvements can take place."
One such improvement is tying fan motors to variable frequency drives so that when the HVAC system kicks in the motors operate at the optimal speed rather than running full blast. "All those little incremental changes in how hard that motor needs to work can save electricity," Basich said.
The more energy the city saves, the better it can meet a new goal — making sure all of the electricity consumed by its facilities comes from renewable sources by the year 2025. Electricity from renewable sources can cost more, but if the city uses less electricity, its overall bill won't increase.
"Our focus is on bringing down total demand as much as possible ... and then converting what is left to renewable energy," Basich said.
Although technically a county and therefore unranked by ACEEE, Arlington, Va., has been investing in energyefficient local government since the mid-1990s.
"We're now avoiding about $1 million a year in utility costs in our buildings," said John Morrill, energy manager at Arlington's office of sustainability and environmental management. "Our total energy bill is about $11 million a year, so avoiding $1 million in utility costs is not trivial."
Much of that comes from methodically replacing fluorescent lighting with more efficient and longer-lasting, white LED lighting — which can save up to 70 percent in energy and maintenance costs — in all county facilities.
On top of that, Arlington is saving hundreds of thousands of dollars on street lighting every year after converting almost all county-owned street lights — about 8,000 total — to LED lights that are controlled from a central location.
"What we do is gradually dim them as the night goes on," Morrill said. "They're brightest at dusk and by 3 a.m. they're only operating at 25 percent output because ... hardly anyone is out there and by then people's eyes are used to the dark."
Arlington's payback expectations are flexible. "Sometimes things pay for themselves in a year or less. Sometimes it's eight or 10 years. On average, we're getting a roughly five-year payback on our efforts," Morrill said.
While saving money is paramount, the county sometimes applies other criteria to energy-efficiency investments. Arlington has been adding electric vehicles to its fleet even though the payback is muted because the county is compact and county vehicles don't rack up high monthly fuel bills.
"This is one of those exceptions where from a policy standpoint, we feel it's important to lead by example and be an early adopter," Morrill said.
That doesn't mean Arlington won't be rewarded in the long run.
"What remains to be seen is the maintenance cost savings," Morrill said. "There are far fewer moving parts in an electric vehicle. We think ... this is kind of the hidden savings."
Next on Arlington's energy-saving agenda is the city's wastewater treatment plant. Treatment plants are energy hogs because of the electricity needed to power large pumps, but in Arlington's case, the pumps are larger than necessary.
"They were sized for the plant's capacity, but most days the flow is only about 6 percent of capacity," Morrill said. "Although we (can) throttle the big pumps to partial output, we believe adding smaller pumps alongside the others would allow greater efficiency in matching the equipment to the needs of the plant."