Real Estate

5 million reasons to save energy

City participates in nationwide energy-saving competition

Palo Alto is not only known to be a tech-savvy city, but also a green city. Now, the city has 5 million reasons to grow its green reputation.

The city is participating in an energy-saving competition called the Georgetown University Energy Prize, in which the winner receives $5 million. Started by Georgetown University, this is a friendly competition between communities across the country to come up with sustainable, energy-saving innovations.

Last year from April to June, the competition began with communities submitting applications in hopes of being invited to compete and move on to the quarterfinals. Then from August to November 2014, cities competed in the quarterfinal stage, submitting detailed plans for their energy-saving programs.

Palo Alto is one of the 50 communities, with a required population between 5,000 and 250,000, that has reached the semifinals of the competition. Berkeley, Davis, Fremont, San Mateo and Sunnyvale are also representing the Bay Area in the competition.

From January 2015 to December 2016, semifinalists compete to reduce energy consumption in a manner that will promote energy-use improvements. Then finalists are selected to compete from January 2017 to June 2017 and submit final reports on their plans, performance and future prospects. Winners will be selected based on a combination of final report scores and semifinal energy-saving performances. The highest-ranked community will receive the $5 million prize.

These 50 communities have developed long-term energy efficiency plans, and they are demonstrating the effectiveness and sustainability of those plans over the two-year period.

Christofer Nelson, program director for Science in the Public Interest at Georgetown University, is also the project director of the energy prize competition. He assisted the competition's executive director Francis Slakey and technical director John Shore with creating the competition, which took about two years to design and organize.

Nelson became involved in the competition because he wanted to look at issues concerning energy use in the United States and increase emphasis on efficiency. The energy efficiency methods of large communities that he looked at were not working because of resource and infrastructure issues.

"Those approaches were not impacting smaller and medium-sized communities," Nelson said.

Because of this, he decided to help launch the Georgetown University Energy Prize for more scalable approaches in energy efficiency. He wants to "spur innovation (in) the energy revolution."

"(Energy efficiency) is the quickest, most available way to impact energy uses," Nelson said.

The nationwide competition has a mix of communities from urban to rural. Nelson is excited to see communities from some of the wealthiest and most tech-savvy areas in the country participate.

"We've got the whole range," Nelson said.

Nelson acknowledged that there were doubters of the competition during its designing phase, saying that it would not work or be successful. But according to him, that has not been the case.

"I'm really proud to say ... over 100 utilities have stepped up," Nelson said.

He said Palo Alto signed on to this competition, and has been a known leader in sustained energy use.

"They recognize that there's still work to be done," Nelson said.

He hopes that the competition brings about different ways to conserve energy for other communities. They can "develop a few different models that can be replicated and scaled, (which can) improve the way we use energy in this country."

Catherine Elvert, communications manager for the City of Palo Alto Utilities, said she enjoys how the city is participating in the competition.

"We feel like this is a pretty unique opportunity. It's great being one of 50 communities," Elvert said.

As for the city's competition overseer, Elvert points to Bruce Lesch, the city's key account representative. Lesch said they were introduced to the competition when former Councilman Larry Klein returned from a meeting in Washington, D.C., with details about it. From a utilities perspective, Lesch said, it was something that they thought would be fun.

The city gives Georgetown University its energy-saving progress on a quarterly basis. Lesch said providing that information has not been as easy for other communities.

"A lot of the cities had a lot of problems. ... It was easy for us," he said.

He also said that the city hopes the competition will reinvigorate its programs.

Palo Alto has been actively pursuing energy-saving for more than 30 years, which is one of the criteria that the city will be rated on. It will also be rated on program innovations, replication potential, future performance, equitable access, energy education and overall program quality.

The winning community is required to spend its $5 million on programs outlined in its quarterfinal submissions. If Palo Alto wins, it will continue its energy efficiency programs.

Elvert said that they are trying to encourage and engage residents to participate and help the city win.

"It's a good, positive step for us. It benefits not just the city in achieving energy efficiency goals, but it also benefits the community as well," Elvert said. "It's an environmental good."

Jamauri Bowles is an editorial intern at Palo Alto Weekly.

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