City mulls proposals to 'green' municipal properties

December 22, 2009

Local contractors and suppliers of building materials stand to make some green in coming months from the city’s plan to “green” about 70 municipal buildings.

The city’s Office of Sustainability has begun evaluating recommendations by three so-called energy service companies, which will procure everything from more efficient lighting and plumbing fixtures to new HVAC systems. The firms, hired this fall, have been scouring properties from the 1800s-era City Market to the nearly 50-year-old City County Building.

Purveyors of exotic green technologies are out of luck, though, as none of the reviews has called for extreme energy efficiency upgrades. Some changes are as simple as relocating thermostats and twisting in new types of fluorescent light bulbs.

“I think a lot of this is just getting back to the basics,” said John Hazlett, manager of the project for the Office of Sustainability. “They’re also looking at the building envelope itself,” he added, noting the potential for improvements such as a new roof.

One idea is to install infrared heaters that warm only targeted interior surfaces rather than the entire building. In some cases, temperature regulation could be centralized through Web-enabled digital controls. One company proposed a system that shuts off the heating system in a city garage when doors are opened. There have been discussions of mounting wind turbines or solar panels at the City-County Building, or even installing a geothermal system that takes advantage of the high groundwater beneath the tower.

But radical, renewable energy demonstration projects are not the point right now.

“We’re really looking at energy savings … nothing really outside the box,” said Karen Haley, director of the Office of Sustainability.

Overall, the city aims to reduce its total energy consumption by 15 percent to 20 percent, she said. Haley declined to say what the proposals could cost until her staff had time to further digest the recommendations.

Once proposals are analyzed, it will be up to the City-County Council to give final approval. The three energy service companies would then procure materials and contractors. Haley said much of the work could be completed in 2010.

Under the energy service contract concept, the city’s cash outlay would be minimal, with energy savings applied toward the cost of the upgrades.

The city previously tapped three firms to conduct the building energy audits and implement the improvements: Indianapolis-based Performance Services, Newburgh, Ind.-based Energy Systems Group and Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls.

For the city to realize a financial benefit, in the end the energy savings must exceed the cost of the upgrades.

Whether the city’s efforts inspire greening projects in the commercial sector is another matter. Often, efficiency features are incorporated only during major remodeling or construction projects.

Clearly the potential is huge on the commercial side, with more than 400 buildings and 31 million square feet in the downtown area, said Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council. But commercial building owners sometimes are reluctant to make upgrades—unsure whether they can recover the costs through higher rent, Kharbanda said.

He counters that some studies have shown that energy-efficient buildings can command higher premiums and improve their marketability. Kharbanda said one little-known provision of the American Clean Energy & Security Act, whose future in Congress is uncertain, would provide substantial incentives for firms to modernize building stock to reduce energy consumption.

Much of the federal money toward energy efficiency measures has come in the form of stimulus-package programs to make older homes more efficient.

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