The Alternative Energy Resources Organization recently held a conference on community energy initiatives taking place across Montana. Helena Mayor Jim Smith and Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Derek Brown attended and described the energy conservation efforts of their respective governing bodies. As members of the Helena Climate Change Task Force that drafted an action plan for the city commission in 2009, we were particularly interested in their remarks. The action plan proposed a number of steps to improve the city government’s energy and water conservation programs, and a specific goal for future energy reduction.

When the task force embarked on its assignment in early 2008, we assumed that, as with most cities, the inventory would show steadily increasing energy consumption by city government. Instead, we were pleased to find that between 2001 and 2007, energy use and associated carbon emissions had actually decreased, by about 20 percent, even as city government grew. Most of these savings arose from cutting-edge energy management strategies employed by visionary leaders at the city water and wastewater treatment facilities. We found that, collectively, the city’s energy efficiency activities were saving local taxpayers well over half-a-million dollars annually.

Since 2007, the city has further expanded its portfolio of energy- and money-saving projects, for which city officials deserve recognition. Unfortunately, the city has not been systematically analyzing the impact of these measures. Ironically, some of the most important recommendations in the action plan went to this specific need to track energy use. It took significant time for city staff and task force members to pull together the energy usage figures, calibrate the software, and perform the initial analysis. We are now in jeopardy of losing the value of that work, and having to start again at square one.

In a recent IR article, City Manager Ron Alles suggested that some task force recommendations simply didn’t get priority in tight budgetary times. In particular, he dismissed the need for a specific sustainability coordinator position, and indicated that current city staff members were working on the goals of the action plan.

In tough economic times, it’s hard to argue against the strategy of getting the job done with existing resources. But we’ve also learned from other communities — and our own county government — that hiring someone with the specific charge of implementing a sustainability program greatly enhances its likelihood for success. While the city has been keeping a spreadsheet checklist recording the status of measures taken, this matrix does nothing to quantify energy or carbon savings. It’s one thing to list projects and activities; it’s something else entirely to see what, if any, effect those efforts have had on the city’s energy bills.

While ongoing and careful monitoring might require some limited funding or staff time, it’s an investment that would pay ample dividends in terms of increased efficiency, transparency and accountability. And when it comes to conservation projects and the resulting savings, the pertinent question is, “Can we afford not to?”

In its final report, the task force urged the commission to adopt a strong and achievable goal of trimming energy use an additional 20 percent by 2020, to fully harness the available economic and environmental benefits. It also asked the city to adopt interim goals to help assess progress along the way.

At the recent AERO event, Mayor Smith characterized the 20 percent target as the city’s guiding principle for energy conservation. But this goal has yet to be formally ratified by the city commission. Doing so would be a great first step in reaffirming the city’s commitment to these issues.

A great second step would be to re-energize the action plan by securing the proper analytical tools and human resources needed to reach the 20 percent goal. It’s difficult to achieve any objective if you aren’t getting feedback on your efforts. And whether it’s a sustainability coordinator, a city green team, and/or a citizens’ conservation board, involving additional individuals who possess the knowledge, motivation and responsibility for this task would only enhance the city’s prospects for success.

Stan Bradshaw and Patrick Judge were the chair and vice chair of the Helena Climate Change Task Force.

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