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Smart energy - becoming cool

by Anthony Foxx

July 17, 2011

Originally published June 5, 2006

The environment has become a top priority for the Charlotte City Council with the addition of an Environmental Committee to the Council’s regular business. As chair of this committee, I am hopeful that Charlotte will continue to make progress toward protecting our air and water quality, making good land use decisions and conserving natural resources and energy. I’m feeling optimistic (despite the now routine headlines about the threat of a rapidly warming planet and other impending environmental disasters) because I know that local leadership can make a big difference.

The overwhelming majority of scientists have now conclusively demonstrated that the planet has entered an artificial warming trend, due to the burning of fossil fuels in our homes, cars and industries. But the question of how to move past petroleum is a discouraging one.

Recently, the local Sierra Club organized a conference to discuss the concept of “Cool Cities” with some hopeful ideas on how to answer that question. Cool Cities is the idea that by cutting down on energy use in local government we can save money and curb pollution. Can we solve global warming by ourselves? No, but we can help cool off the problem a little bit – and there’s no reason not to roll up our sleeves and give it a shot.

I attended the conference, which took place at ImaginON: the Joe and Joan Martin Center on a sunny Saturday in May. ImaginON is on its way to becoming the first certified “green building” in Mecklenburg County, and green building is just one of many steps we can take to put a lid on global warming pollution.

Attendees to the Sierra Club conference included energy experts, architects, a fleet manager, a building maintenance superintendent, and others from across North Carolina. The purpose of the conference was to ask: “What difference can a city make?” The answer might surprise you. Since about two-thirds of the country's energy is consumed in cities, if enough American cities decide to cut global warming emissions, the country can move forward with real energy savings, plus pollution and cost reductions.

Cities can take advantage of the technology we have today to slow global warming, reduce air pollution, save consumers money, and create thousand of new jobs by adopting better energy practices. At the Sundance Summit last year, a gathering of mayors from around the county to discuss the environment, our own Mayor McCrory stated: “We are the ones building roads, designing mass transit, buying the police cars and dump trucks and earthmovers. We're the ones lighting up the earth when you look at those maps from space. Together we have huge purchasing power, and if we invest wisely, that can have huge implications for the environment.” 

Indeed, Charlotte is one of many cities across America that is rising to the occasion and looking for ways to wipe our wasteful energy habits. Last year, Charlotte earned a spot in Time magazine for adding over two dozen hybrid vehicles to the city fleet – with added savings to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. 

If we can make cleaner cars a priority, we can certainly take other energy efficient steps. At the Cool Cities conference, I was impressed to learn that the Twin Falls, Idaho is making the city's 11 schools more energy efficient and saving $3.5 million in the process.

Just as remarkable is Fort Collins, Colorado, which has committed to meeting 15% of its energy needs with renewable sources by 2017, mainly with wind power. A presentation from North Carolina State Energy Office Director Larry Shirley illustrated that the piedmont region of our state is blessed with excellent solar resources, making solar powered applications a potential option for Charlotte. After all, the San Diego Unified School District is replacing the roofs on many of its buildings with solar roofing material, yielding $6.9 million in total cost-savings over 20 years. If they can do it, so can we.

No one city is going to be able to address the enormous challenge of meeting our energy demands without compromising our quality of life, our environment or our pocketbooks, but together all of these cities, along with businesses, universities, and other institutions that are investing in smart energy solutions will create a groundswell that won’t be ignored.

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Tags: smart energy, environment, global warming, anthony foxx

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