Making an Ambitious Sustainability Plan a Reality

In the race to be greenest among the more progressive cities in the country, Washington, D.C. is no laggard. According to a recent Economist Intelligence Unit report, the city ranks eighth among all North American cities. Impressive as that is, D.C. still remains far behind top performers like San Francisco and Vancouver so the city government under Mayor Vincent Gray has initiated an ambitious new plan, SustainableDC, with the goal of becoming number one in a generation.

After months of public review sessions and advisory committee meetings (your blogger was involved in the climate change committee), Mayor Vincent Gray is trying to make many good ideas more concrete, turning them into regulations and laws. In a hearing held this week, seven bills were considered by the City Council, while two related to energy efficiency have already passed. Here’s a run-down of what Gray and his able team at the Planning office and District Department of the Environment (DDOE) are hoping move forward now.

Boosting Energy Efficiency:

The “Energy Efficiency Financing Amendment Act of 2012” would increase access to private capital for energy efficiency. The Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) pilot program, which is a “$30 million energy retrofit pilot backed by private capital,” would serve as the down payment on a $250 million program. New rules being proposed would enable water and stormwater infrastructure — what we assume to mean green roofs and the strategic use of trees for energy efficiency — to be eligible for PACE financing. This is really smart because as an ASLA animation demonstrates, green roofs and trees can be very effective at reducing energy consumption. The D.C. government says PACE could “inject hundreds of millions of dollars into the District economy each year,” creating tons of green jobs. Those incentives could also make the city greener, literally.

The “Clean and Affordable Energy Benchmarking Amendment Act of 2012” will establish a green building benchmarking program. “This program, one of the first of its type in the nation, requires disclosure of EnergyStar portfolio manager scores for all private buildings over 50,000 square feet.” Rolling out in 2012, the program will require “industry education support, data management, and enforcement” — efforts all geared towards improving D.C.’s already substantial progress on green buildings.

As noted above, the District has already passed two other measures related to energy efficiency. These are the “Low-Income Weatherization Plus Program Amendment Act of 2012,” which provides “essential weatherization services” to low-income District residents, and the “Heating System Repair, Replacement, or Tune-up Program Amendment Act of 2012,” which allows DDOE to restart a “successful program to repair, replace, or tune up heating systems and hot water heaters in low-income households.”

Spurring Renewable Energy Production:

The city seems to realize it needs to get more serious about removing the obstacles limiting renewable energy production, which has taken off elsewhere in the U.S. far faster. The “Renewable Energy Incentive Program Amendment Act of 2012” would allow the DDOE to continue to offer rebates to District businesses and residences that install renewable energy systems.

On the same front, separate from SustainableDC initiatives, the City Council also debated new measures to boost both residential and industrial-scale solar power and co-generation energy and heat plants (mostly geothermal systems) by making regulations clearer and reducing property taxes. The “Energy Innovation and Savings Amendment Act of 2012,” would enable excuse 3rd party vendors — the firms that provide low-cost financing and installation of renewable energy systems — from paying nearly 3.5 percent in property taxes. As Councilwoman Mary Cheh (and interim Chairwoman of the City Council) noted, “this may be needed to become more competitive with Maryland and level the playing field.” By giving up the extra taxes, more renewable energy investment could come, creating more valuable properties and therefore more property taxes. Right now, the District only has a few large-scale solar plants, totalling 5 mega-watts. Two of the biggest plants creating some 900 kilo-watts of power are on the campuses of American and Catholic universities.

Promoting Electric Vehicles: 

In the hearing we attended, we also heard how the City Council is considering bills that would give electric vehicles a fighting chance in the District, which is great news. So few cities have incentivized the development of electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure — the charging stations — really needed to make EVs a reality. NRG Energy’s EV-Go system, which is a subscription model that “reduces up-front costs,” could be a good fit for the District. The city seems to be responsive to that firm’s interest in rolling out charging stations and serious about removing any regulatory obstacles that could limit the range of sites.

Still, Cheh asked pointed questions about EV demand, the cost of these charging stations, and the fees each EV owner would need to pay to use the stations. The NRG representative said that “these stations would cost a fraction of the price of gasoline, about less than half.” To tap the “regional ecosystem,” the stations would be put along key routes for commuters, taking up spaces in shopping malls (“retail hosts”) and parking spaces along streets. Exciting stuff.

Protecting the Rivers:

Another bill would tax-exempt RiverSmart programs aimed at the conservation and protection of natural resources, which in turn protect the rivers. The city says residents need clarity on the “rebates, grants, subsidies, in-kind services, and other such incentives.”

A related program, the “Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Fertilizer Amendment Act of 2012,” would specifically take aim at the fertilizers used by homeowners and businesses that dirty the District’s waterways, “accelerating the growth of algae and damaging aquatic ecosystems, fisheries, and water quality.” DDOE explains: “Algal blooms have a strong negative impact on fisheries, degrade fishing and boating activities, and harm tourism and property values. Controlling fertilizer use in general — and especially by reducing phosphorous and nitrogen use in fertilizers — will greatly aid the District to meet federal Clean Water Act requirements.” We have to see the details — for instance, will fertilizer use will actually be restricted? — but this may be long overdue considering the Anacostia still ranks as one of the filthiest waterways in the U.S.

Helping the Bees and Promoting Urban Agriculture:

Bees are in trouble so the District seems to be moving on this critical issue. In the “Sustainable Urban Agriculture Apiculture Act of 2012,” homeowners will now be allowed to legally raise honeyebees, which play a symbiotic role in home gardens and help produce fruit and vegetables in the District. All that wax and honey could help fuel the growth of new local industries, too.

Reducing Toxic Exposure Among Kids:

Lastly, the “Child-occupied Facility Healthy Air Amendment Act of 2012” says that “child-occupied facilities and dry-cleaning facilities that use perchloroethlyene or n-propyl bromide as a cleaning agent for clothes or other fabrics” can’t be in the same place. “The prohibition would extend through 2029, when perchloroethlyene will be outlawed in the District. The bill requires that owners of dry-cleaning facilities be educated about the dangers of perchloroethylene and n-propyl bromide, about their proper handling, and about less-toxic alternatives. The bill was drafted in response to an incident of serious PERC contamination next door to a District daycare center.”

Even if all of these measures pass the Council, D.C. will need to do much more to be number one. Hopefully this is just a good start.

Explore D.C.’s Sustainability vision and the legislative proposals before the council.

Also, check out an interesting article in The Architect’s Newspaper on recent urban planning innovations in D.C., like the Southwest eco-district.

Image credit: Rooftop Solar Installation / Eco-friend

One thought on “Making an Ambitious Sustainability Plan a Reality

  1. Building Green 07/05/2012 / 2:56 pm

    It’s wonderful to see so many taking the initiative and pushing forward with a serious green plan of action.

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