It’s been nearly two years since Helena’s nine-member Climate Change Task Force completed an action plan listing 38 goals, complete with timelines, aimed at reducing the city’s overall consumption and carbon footprint. Though the city isn’t following every recommendation, officials say it’s working to adapt the majority of the concepts, as well as making progress on its own initiatives.

Some of that work came to light — and was up for scrutiny — during the first part of a two-day conference arranged by the local nonprofit Alternative Energy Resources Organization that started Wednesday.

The Climate Change Task Force, assembled in 2008, included individuals from various government agencies and environmental groups. They reviewed the city’s operations, assessing its energy usage, greenhouse gas emissions and water resources before putting together recommendations and deadlines. Subgroups, with added members of the public, were designated to focus on each of the four sections of the plan: implementation; energy efficiency and municipal operations; water supply, treatment and delivery; and transportation, waste, recycling and public/private partnerships. The process was completed in August 2009.

In accordance with one recommendation of the plan, the city has formed a “green team” — composed of all its department heads — to focus on the implementation of many of the goals, as well as additional energy and water projects. The group meets every other week, City Manager Ron Alles said in an interview last month.

The task force had also recommended that the city hire a full-time sustainability coordinator to monitor the efforts, but at the moment, with its budget tight and with the city leaders continually working on the goals and tracking their progress, Alles said it didn’t seem like a necessity. At a reception organized by AERO Wednesday night, Mayor Jim Smith echoed that sentiment, passing around a spreadsheet the city has maintained to record its efforts.

But several members of the crowd maintained that it would be valuable to designate someone to a coordinator position to — in the words of former task force vice chairman Pat Judge — track the work in a “quantitative, systematic fashion.” Judge questioned how the city could take credit for any improvements that are made if that’s not the case.

Stan Bradshaw, who had chaired the task force, spoke shortly after, urging that the city engage a type of follow-up citizen entity to review the implementation of the measures in the plan. He also said the city should work to engage the public in the issue again, since it fell from discussion after “brief fanfare” upon its passage.

Lewis and Clark County currently employs a sustainability coordinator who focuses on tasks like the Brownfields Project.

Regardless of the organization of the implementation structure, the city said it is continually working to reduce its environmental impact and, by doing so, save money.

Because some of the city’s highest energy usage comes from its wastewater treatment plant, much attention has been focused on the facility. The staff has been working on various sustainability measures for the past decade, starting with efforts such as switching to methane and using recycled water for irrigation, Water and Wastewater Superintendent Don Clark said in an interview. In the years since then, the plant has retrofitted its lighting with more efficient options, installed new energy-saving Stirling engines that operate both heat and power, and added variable-frequency drives, which are used to adjust the speed of devices such as fans to meet continuing fluctuations in demand, rather than running at a constant speed and using more energy. Since 2001, Helena’s wastewater treatment plant has seen a 50 percent reduction in its energy use and a 44 percent decrease in its carbon emissions, according to Clark.

There are still some kinks that need to be worked out before all the upgrades are running smoothly, Clark said, but the city is already seeing energy savings from those measures. If it weren’t for that, the sewage rates city residents pay could have jumped much higher than they have in recent years, he said.

In the future, Clark would like to see the plant become increasingly self-sufficient, potentially using water that comes through the plant to power the operations there.

As part of the AERO conference, a group of interested individuals had the opportunity to tour one of the city’s other facilities of focus — the Tenmile Water Treatment Plant. By mid-June, a $400,000 overhaul of the facility’s heating system — more than half of which was funded with help from NorthWestern Energy, a close partner in the city’s efforts — should be complete. It’s a system of various-sized pipes and 11 heat pump units that, essentially, extracts heat from water coming into the plant and converts it into the type of heat that can go through air vents. A handful of the heat pumps can also be used as air conditioners, Clark added.

The Tenmile has also been equipped with more efficient lighting and employees are experimenting with additional environmental- and financially-conscious measures, such as using solar-powered devices to churn algae instead of opting to pay $25,000 for chemicals that keep the organisms from reproducing.

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The Tenmile plant is the primary source of the city of Helena’s water supply. In the summer, at times of peak demand, it also utilizes its Missouri River Treatment Plant, though it is a far more expensive facility to run because, unlike at the Tenmile, its processes are not helped along by natural gravitational pulls.

At the Wednesday night reception, Smith noted other steps the city has taken with an eye toward sustainability, including signing on to the Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, gathering information from the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, working with the county to make progress on the “energy suck” that is the City-County Building, preparing to add more bus routes and a new transit center to the Helena area next week, developing Centennial Trail, and including information on city project memos about potential environmental impacts  that are given to the city commission.

In the earlier interview, Alles had said some of the recommendations the task force had made were logistically difficult to implement immediately, such as instituting fees for the use of plastic shopping bags and establishing a true “pay-as-you-throw” system at the city landfill, since it would involve retrofitting some equipment.

Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Derek Brown also spoke at the reception, noting, among other things, the difficulties the city and county are facing as they attempt to find uses for recycled glass. He also said that energy efficiency measures should be considered even if they don’t save a lot of money.

“If we can save energy, it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Reporter Allison Maier: 447-4075 or allison.maier@helenair.com

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