Hieftje's green vision: Making Ann Arbor energy independent one solar panel at a time

Jed Moch/Daily
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BY EMILY ORLEY

Published March 15, 2010

Four years ago, Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje built a fully functioning house entirely off the electric grid. Hieftje designed and built the house, which runs on a solar energy system, on Lake Superior with his father-in-law. It includes all the fundamentals of a normal home — a refrigerator, washer, dryer and dishwasher — and is completely self-contained. And according to Hieftje, he’s never had a single problem with it.

Hieftje’s effort to reduce his carbon footprint is just a small step compared to the enormous strides he has made for the city of Ann Arbor. In 2005, the mayor challenged the city to, by the end of 2010, obtain 30 percent of its energy from renewable sources and to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent.

His plan was inspired by the windmill farms in Sault Saint Marie, Ontario, just north of the Upper Peninsula. Unfortunately, Hieftje said, Michigan doesn’t have strong enough winds to power farms of its own, but it does have two hydro-dams and a landfill gas energy system, both of which have enabled cities across the state to increase alternative energy usage.

By the end of 2009, 16 percent of the total energy used by the city of Ann Arbor — including fuel, heating, lighting and electricity — was generated from renewable sources — the equivalent of taking 400 cars off the road last year.

The number is still far from the mayor’s goal of 30 percent, though he maintains the city will still make up the 14 percent by the end of this year. “We’re going to do it,” he says when asked about making the target.

Though almost doubling the city’s use of renewable energy in just one year seems unlikely, if anyone is going to get Ann Arbor to that goal it’s Hieftje, who has made green energy a focus of his administration from the start. And even if the city doesn’t make it to 30 percent by 2010, the progress the mayor has made has helped mold Ann Arbor into a national leader in environmental practices.

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Hieftje’s plan stems from his personal life. Before setting the challenge in 2005, the mayor and his team made small changes, any little thing they could to make Ann Arbor a greener place. This proactive work has helped accelerate Hieftje’s goal.

“Because we’d been doing this for so long,” Hieftje said, “by the time I made the challenge in 2005 we’d already done all the easy energy savings.”

The mayor has been cognizant of changing all the buses in the city to hydro-buses. And while he won’t decommission a perfectly good bus, he does ensure that when a bus’s life is over, it’s replaced with a hydro-bus. The city has even begun to obtain hydro-bucket trucks to fix streetlights, which require substantially less energy when operating.

“I want Ann Arbor to be an environmentally focused, technologically focused, innovative kind of city that is a place with a high quality of life where people want to live,” Hieftje said.

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Last year, Ann Arbor ranked sixteenth in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of on-site green power producers in the agency’s Green Gower Partnership list. The program acknowledges organizations that have made the most resourceful green power purchases. Ann Arbor was recognized for its use of biogas, small-hydro power and solar power. During the summer months, city biofuel vehicles obtain 50 percent of their energy from bio diesel. Additionally, the EPA recognized the mayor’s efforts to replace city street lighting with LED lights.

Ann Arbor is the leading city in the United States in terms of using LED streetlights. The downtown area is almost completely converted at this point and changes have begun in neighboring districts. However, the mayor and his team have faced an imposing obstacle — 5,000 of the 7,000 lights in Ann Arbor are owned by DTE energy. This means that the city cannot change the lights to LED without the company’s consent. And while the city has successfully changed the other 2,000, the push has been met with resistance from DTE.

“We’re going to do everything we can,” Hieftje said. “We’re going to be at 100 percent but we can’t affect the other 5,000 unless we can get them to agree to be partners with us.”

The LED lights the city has installed, however, have been remarkably effective — both environmentally and economically. The installations have cost the city $630,000. Predictions initially projected the investment would be paid off in approximately five years. However, researchers from the Ross School of Business studied the proposal and determined that the city would be paid back in about 3.8 years.

“They came back and told us how productive it is going to be and, from our point of view, if we can make an investment that pays itself back in four years and then forever with energy savings, we’re going to go for it,” Hieftje said. The mayor is so enthusiastic about LED lights that there is even an LED lit conference room in city hall.

The bulbs in LED lights last almost 10 years compared to the two-year lifespan of a normal bulb, and the bulbs have many capabilities that are currently being tested. Research is being done to provide a dimming feature to the system. This would reduce the amount of power being used but would still allow the bulbs to emit quite a bit of light because of the high brightness wavelengths released.

Additionally, the mayor and his team are trying to formulate a way the lights can be used for safety. One potential idea is that each light post in the city would be hooked into a grid and assigned a specific number. If someone placed a call to 911, the operator could input the caller’s location and flash specific lights to help guide the ambulance to the victim.

These LED lights could also be used to light new parking structures around the city. During night hours, the parking structure would be dark to conserve electricity. However, as motion is sensed, the lights will begin to turn on in front of you. The lights will remain on for fifteen minutes after the motion stops and then begin to turn off in the same sequence.

“We already expect these (lights) to last a long time and if we cannot run them at full power they’ll last even longer,” said Andrew Brix, energy programs manager for the city of Ann Arbor.

With the increased safety of residents, the decreased usage of electricity and the financial savings, the LED lights appear to be an infallible option. The University, however, has decided not to get on board the LED wagon. Despite the Business School’s excellent productivity results, the University has not voiced its desire to make the change to LED.

“We shared what we’re doing with them but they decided it doesn’t make sense for them to do yet, which I don’t understand,” Brix said.

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LED lights are simply one phase in a much bigger plan the mayor has for the city. There is currently a grant put in place in which businesses can apply for an energy audit. People can apply for up to $20,000 to renovate their building to be more energy efficient. Soon, the mayor hopes, the plan will be able to expand to residential areas and help people restructure their homes.

The program will work like an energy bank. The city will give people money to make their buildings or homes more energy efficient, and the monetary savings over time will be given back to the city until the loan is paid off. Essentially, once the program is in full bloom, the money will just be recycled to continue to help the city.

The largest goal on Hieftje’s checklist, however, is reducing the necessity of landfills. While his current goal is for Ann Arbor to be at 30 percent renewable energy by the end of 2010, the mayor firmly believes that someday the city will be completely sustainable on renewable energy.

But in a society where the average American has about 1,500 pounds of trash per year, eliminating landfills seems unrealistic. So instead, Hieftje and his team have created a way to actually recycle the gases being emitted from landfills. “If you’re going to produce all this animal waste, is there a way to use it to produce energy?” Hieftje recalls asking himself a while back.

And there is. When garbage breaks down in landfills, it creates methane. The key was to develop a way to tap into that gas to turn it into energy.

The major landfills in Ann Arbor have machines that trap the gases and then convert them into energy. Not only does this help to produce alternative forms of energy, it protects the environment. The machine captures 99 percent of methane emissions that would normally be released into the atmosphere.

“We’re taking what could be a very harmful thing for the atmosphere and turning it into energy,” Hieftje said.

In 2008, the machines recaptured over 31,000 metric tons of CO2, the equivalent of about 6,000 cars’ emissions being recaptured. While Ann Arbor didn’t invent this system, it was one of the first communities to adopt the technology. And the program is a win-win because it is generating energy while saving the city over $20,000 a year.

“We’re trying to mitigate the effects,” Hieftje said of the city’s landfills. “Our efforts are going to save us money in the long run. I don’t see how people can argue with that.”

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The United States is responsible for about a fourth of the world’s greenhouse gases. Even though the acceleration rate of greenhouse gas emissions has slowed as a result of the recession, it by no means has begun to decrease. And while the best thing a person can do for the environment is to conserve energy by not burning it in the first place, the next best option is to recycle the energy that must be burned.

The mayor has designed and begun to initiate a new single-source recycling program for all Ann Arbor residents, including students that live off-campus. The plan is to provide residents a bin to fill with any waste products that aren’t trash. The city will then pick up the contents of the bin and sort them so they can be recycled.

This program can dramatically increase the volume and variety of recycled materials collected, as most choose to just throw away items rather than sort them into proper recycling groups.

“The planet should be working toward not having any more landfills and that’s the direction we’re going in,” Hieftje said. “We don’t want any more landfills or to pay to put our trash in landfills.”

And the mayor is truly optimistic about his plans. While his goals are lofty and possibly unattainable in the near future, he hopes that in time people will drastically alter the way they dispose of waste.

“My goal would be that people would be putting a lot more in the bin than in the trash so they’d have a big recycling cart and a small trash cart,” he said.

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One of the most crucial components to reducing greenhouse gases in the city, however, is the use of solar energy. Ann Arbor fire stations and city swimming pools run entirely on solar hot water heat, and the Ann Arbor Farmers Market is powered exclusively by solar panels.

Unobtrusive green panels were installed on the rooftop of the market in June 2008. The project, which cost about $100,000, supplements approximately $1,500 in electricity per year. The panels collect DC energy, which is then converted into AC energy in a transmitter located in the market. The AC energy is sent back out to devices that light and heat the market.

The city’s solar Farmers Market helped earn Ann Arbor the honor of being named a Solar America City, one of only twenty-five in the country. The U.S. Department of Energy awarded this title to cities that espoused solar technology. The mayor prides himself on the city’s plethora of “green” buildings.

The police station and courthouse are as environmentally up to date as possible. And the new city hall that is being built is an elite gold LEED certified building, according to Hieftje. This means the new building will have the most advanced, state of the art, green features available today including geothermal heating on all floors.

The building was also designed to be easily updated when new technologies come out. “An investment in an energy efficient building costs you upfront but it comes back to you,” Hieftje said.

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Hieftje has emphasized the importance of investing now to save later. And his plan was wisely plotted — beginning far before the economic recession. In the few years since Hieftje made his challenge, the city has made back a large chunk of the money it invested. The LED lights, which last five times as long as normal bulbs, will save taxpayers money. And the mayor believes that being environmentally and fiscally savvy has brought people to Ann Arbor.

“You’d have to look far and wide to try to find a city that is doing more than we do,” Hieftje said.

Ann Arbor is a serious frontrunner in the alternative energy race. On the technological side, the city’s webpage has won numerous awards for its attention to the cause. And the mayor himself has been recognized for the strides he has personally made for the city. In 2008, Hieftje received the Environmental Leadership Award from the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, and in previous years was named local official of the year and preservationist of the year.

The city is by far one of the nation’s leaders in groundwork for energy efficiency. While these efforts are important for Ann Arbor's budget and for the environment, they can also be a major economic benefit for the city and the state. A few years ago the city, along with the University, started an economic development group called SPARK that looks for technologically savvy, cutting edge companies to come to or start in Ann Arbor. Because of this collaboration, companies have migrated to Ann Arbor to work with the city on new energy ideas.

This group’s most notable accomplishment was establishing a new Google headquarters for its AdWorlds division in 2006.

“We’re not looking for smoke-stack industries. We want cutting edge things to come here and companies that are really going to be places where our people want to work,” Hieftje said.

The city has become a prime example of pristine and efficient energy usage. With the mayor’s guidance, Ann Arbor has truly transformed into an environmentally friendly, technologically advanced town.

But the mayor hasn’t done all this work to make Ann Arbor look good in the public eye. His hope is that other cities will mirror Ann Arbor’s ideas and apply them to their own hometowns.

“Our goal is to do what we can in Ann Arbor but to share what we do in Ann Arbor with everybody else, so that people in other cities in Michigan and people at other universities can come in and take a look at our LED street lights and what we’re doing here in Ann Arbor,” he said. “We’ve done the research, we’ll share that with you and you can go back to your community and do it there.”