Details On Houston’s Energy Efficiency Strategy

Posted on April 30th, 2012 by

Laura Spanjian, Sustainability Director for the City of Houston, discusses the different ways Houston is becoming a more sustainabe and energy efficient.

Full Transcript:

Ben Lack Why is the city interested in participating in the Better Building Initiative?
Laura Spanjian The city’s interest in participating in the BBC is for lots of different reasons.  It really falls perfectly in line with a lot of the work that the city’s already done around greening our building stock.  A few years ago we started taking a leadership role by requiring that every city building that had to be built or retrofitted had to be LEED Silver or higher.We took the leadership first on the municipal side then, just in the last year or so under Mayor Parker’s leadership, we started launching some additional green building initiatives that really put the city in a great place to work with the private sector. One of our major initiatives is called the Houston Green Office Challenge. It engages the private sector building owners managers and tenants in green building practices. So, on the owner manager side we work with them on doing things to their building for this energy efficiency improvement. We encourage them to become Energy Star rated or LEED certified. And we encourage them to give us all their data and share their information with us through EPA’s portfolio manager.On the tenant side we actually use a score card that we created that gives them all kinds of different ideas of things they can do as staff, as a tenant in a building. Whether it’s using less paper in their copier or using green products or having a commuter policies in place having a green team in place, etc. Over four hundred participants in Houston are part of the challenge and we’ve actually just finished our first year with 2011 we have a big award ceremony coming up mid-April.

Our second program is our Energy Efficiency Incentive Program. This is an incentive where we’re actually offering few owners and managers to do improvement in their building. You have to be a Green Office Challenge participant but then if you are, you submit your project and we help you fund it. So becoming a member of the Better Buildings Challenge was perfectly in line with the lot of the work we’ve already done. Our goals are similar to the Better Buildings Challenge’s goal. Their major goal is to have 20% reduction in energy usage by 2020. That’s in line with us. Our minimum goal for the Green Office Challenge is 15% reduction and but we really encourage it will stretch to a 30% reduction. So, we’re hoping that our voluntary initiatives, our incentives, would really continue to spur Houston to be a leader in green buildings.

Ben Lack Give us some insight on the city of Houston’s outlook from an energy perspective? Do you guys have any stats on what that looks like?
Laura Spanjian I don’t know exactly how much energy. I do know what our green house gas emissions are in our community or community wide so that’s the city as a whole. We emit 39 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. So everything we do is trying to reduce that number. That’s really our biggest goal to try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They come from buildings they come from cars, you know the things you can’t imagine. Our work with buildings in particular in this initiative is really important because a low energy use means less green house gas emissions emitted.
Ben Lack How receptive has the Houston community been to the city’s initiatives to pursue energy efficiency and really extend environmental responsibility?
Laura Spanjian Really receptive, I know a lot of people think of Houston as oil and gas town and it is, in many respects. But I think people are more understanding that the future really involves a more diverse portfolio. And so people are looking at renewables, they’re looking at reducing their carbon footprint; they are looking at energy efficiency projects. They want to attract young professionals, and young professionals want to work for a company that cares about sustainability, they want to work in an office building that is sustainable, Lead certified or Energy Star rated and more and more referring that particularly from the building owners who work or own class A buildings and a lot of those happened to be downtown. They really care. So we tied a great response with the largest office challenge in the country there’s about ten of them right now, we’re the largest one with 400 participants. So, you know, we’re doing great, we’re already starting on year 2 of the program and we just want to continue to expand and continue to engage more people in these dialogue. So that we can work with them to help them, you know, not only reduce our energy that really these programs save money. Because mostly all about using less resources and when we’re using less resources that’s less energy less water, you’re saving money and that’s a big, that’s a significant point for people, particularly owners and managers of buildings, when things are tough had a significant selling point.
Ben Lack Give me one or two characteristics of the Green Office Challenge that are unique when compared to some other Green Office Challenges that are being run by other cities?
Laura Spanjian I think that the quantity of folks involved is unique to our program. I think our score cards for the tenants are unique because we created it. We really worked with people to understand what things the tenant can actually do. A lot of times, you know the tenants can’t do much, they feel that they can’t do much. Because they feel like the owner or the manager of the building is in charge of everything right, the landlord. We really created the score cards where the tenant can do these things. They can reduce the amount of printers in their office, for their staffs, they can reduce the amount of paper used in those printers. We are working with them on creating commuter policies trying to encourage carpooling, car sharing. We talked them about wrecks, where you can buy wreck for your travel. We have a company where lots of them are travelling; they can offset those travel emissions by buying RECs. So we worked very hard to make our tenant’s score cards specific to tenants and also specific to certain things that happen in Houston. So we’re really proud of that.
Ben Lack Walk us through the financing options. What does the process look like in order for a company to take advantage of that?
Laura Spanjian Great question! We want you to apply. First you have to be a member of the Green Office Challenge; we want you to join the Green Office Challenge if you’re not already there. But secondly, we have an application on our website which is and we will offer up to $500,000 for a qualified project to do energy efficiency in your building. So, there’s lots of different ways, you can do it, some of it is low – hanging fruit such as  just doing lighting, some of it more complicated HVAC improvement etcetera. But if you can prove to us a good project with a minimum 15% energy savings, we will be able to give you funding to help off the cost of the project.

We’re working with owners and managers, we’re working with the bank to help people get loans for the rest of the project funding if they need a loan. We’re off to working with ESCOs to cope them come in and do audits for them. We’re working with Center Point who will provide free audit to owners and managers free energy efficiency audit to actually to see what can be done in a building. So, we have a lot of partners and we had a lot of conversation to hopefully be able to give this money to people that really care about reducing energy in their buildings.

Ben Lack How big is that pool of money and what percentage of potential project ends up being covered by the program.
Laura Spanjian We have this $ 3 million for the program and we should be able you know we kind of did some of back of the envelope numbers we should be able to fund about 15 to 20 projects with that funding and some projects depending on how they’re you know kind of describe to us could receive as much as half of the funding from us.
Ben Lack Is there still money available and when does the money have to be used by?
Laura Spanjian We need to assign the dollars by the end of the year.
Ben Lack Where did the money come from and how do you justify getting the same amount of dollars or even a higher dollar amount for 2013?
Laura Spanjian This money has come from Department of Energy, it’s ARRA fund, the ARRA. And so we’ve used some of our allotments for this work. You know, we had other allotments another grant that we were given that we used for a lot of different projects in city governments. But these grants, these small grants we wanted to use to help invigorate private energy efficiency sector market. We really want to see where we can find funding for next year. We don’t know quite yet, you know, where we going to get that money. But we’re looking this year for next year.
Ben Lack I want to switch gears a little bit and ask you about your team. How do you and your team work with the community and the private sector in order to identify and put together programs like the office challenge or other sorts of initiatives that you hope end up being an effective part of the overall campaign?
Laura Spanjian I have a great couple of staff members that, where we  discuss  ideas all the time regarding energy efficiency projects or you name it, and anything a lot of course you know sustainable food programs, urban gardens, the work we do in this office runs the gambit. And I also work really closely with the Mayor’s senior staff, the executive staff and we battle on ideas all the time about different types of sustainability projects and of course the mayor; the mayor in a way than a lot on these things she’d like us to do, like me to do, so were constantly having those conversations.
Ben Lack How is your role changed over your time there, how long have you been in the role?
Laura Spanjian I will have been here 2 years in April.
Ben Lack So over the last two years how has your role change from the lens of, the level of participation, or level of commitment that the mayor in the city is making towards the work that you’re focused on?
Laura Spanjian She’s been committed from day one of my job and has continued to be committed and passionate about sustainability issues. So, as much as we can do is she’s happy, she loves it. She really wants us to do as much work as we possibly can to try to reduce green house emissions.A lot of the work I do also is at the community level. Almost every project I do I work with the community and whether it’s a green building community or the electric vehicle community or the urban garden community. And I worked with non-profits. I work with the private sector. Every single initiative is collaborative effort and that’s really how we’ve been successful. That’s how we’ve been able to do so much more than the real amount of staff that we have. We work with our community and private sector partners and they help us create these programs. They give us advice on them. In some cases they help us launch these programs. So we really, I really believe in coalition buildings, I believe in stakeholder input and to me that’s the only way to be successful.
Ben Lack As we move on to the second quarter on the rest of 2012 talk to me a little bit about a challenge that you and your team are facing with the community to try either to push these programs out or to identify solutions for a common problem.
Laura Spanjian So far we’ve been successful in the initiatives to date. We have, obviously a lot more work to do. But we want to work on creating a climate action plan for the city of Houston. We have sort of what I call “half a plan” already, we have our data. So we know that, it’s all data, so it needs to be updated. But we know, as I mention to what our green gas house emissions are, on the municipal side and on the city as a whole. So we know, what our data is, we know what our baseline numbers are.

The next step is to create action items and goals and really envision about how to reduce green house gas emissions. We’re doing initiatives we’re doing that work now but we’ve never really put it on paper, we’ve never really   gave stakeholders visionary process about what overall over the next five to ten years. What direction do you want to see Houston take when it comes to reducing green house gas emissions? So we’re going to engage in that process this year. And we hope to have a great document that really is Houston’s’ blueprint or a map to reducing green house gas emissions. And we hope to have it done by the end of the year or early 2013. So that’s going to be a big effort. We’re really excited about it and I’m sure there’ll be some bumps on the road as you start to engage well on to people in this dialogue. But I think in the end it will be successful, I think we’ll have a good document.

Ben Lack Why are you doing what you’re doing and why does this industry interest you?
Laura Spanjian Well I’m a new mom. I have a three-month old at home, and even more even before I had my three month old I really cared about the human future of the planet and really trying to make sure that we reduce green house gases emissions that we put in our environment. As my little son gets older,  I want him to have a great future I want his cohort, his generation, to have a great future.  The work I do, to me is really important to continue to have a great environment as we grow. As many others, not only US but many other countries their populations are increasing by leaps and  bounce, industries increasing by leaps and bounce and we are putting a lot more in to the environment than we ever have, I think in our history. And I think it’s on us to really try to make sure that we can grow in a smart and sustainable way without hurting future generations. That’s why I do this work.

I also really think using less resources helps people save money and that’s important to the mayor. It’s important to me. The more you can save money by doing, in essence the right thing, to me, makes tons of sense and the more you can educate people about that, the better.


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