Sustainability a priority for Ann Arbor

McKenzie Berezin/Daily
Rick Hollander, a Master’s student in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, plays pool in the Michigan Union Billards Room last night. Buy this photo

By K.C. Wassman, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 1, 2012

The city of Ann Arbor — also known as Tree Town — has been widely recognized for its environmental and sustainable practices. However, these awards represent just the beginning of Ann Arbor’s sustainability efforts, according to city officials.

In an effort to make the city more environmentally-friendly, a four-part Sustainable Ann Arbor forum series was launched earlier this year. An energy financing program called Property Assess Clean Energy was implemented last fall. The series, which held its first community forum at the Ann Arbor District Library earlier this month, is meant to facilitate public discussion on four sustainability themes — resource management, land use and access, climate and energy and community.

The meetings have had large turnouts thus far, more than 100 people attended the first meeting on Jan. 12, Christopher Graham, vice chair of the Ann Arbor Environmental Commission said.

Graham wrote in an email that the city’s sustainability efforts are a combination of different programs and initiatives that will make Ann Arbor a greener place.

“Sustainability, in practice, is actually dozens and dozens of individual initiatives, each of which represents an incremental effort in the direction of less pollution, less energy use, less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, less water runoff, less transportation cost and impact, and more of many things that have positive effects on people’s lives,” Graham wrote.

He added that a combination of small sustainability programs ultimately adds up to large-scale environmental change in the city.

“The list of these things that we are thinking about and/or actively working on at any given time is quite surprisingly long,” he wrote. “It is the combination of each small success that makes progress overall.”

Andrew Brix, city energy programs manager, said support from the city has helped further sustainability efforts.

“I think that we’re one of the cities here in the U.S. that has a very supportive population,” Brix said. “We’ve got a lot of support from the University, and we’ve got support on City Council, from the mayor, and that is fantastic, we’re really lucky to have that.”

The next sustainability forum will take place next week, and will focus on land use and access including city transportation, infrastructure and public spaces.

Apart from the forums, Matthew Naud, city environmental coordinator, said the PACE program will help Ann Arbor improve its energy efficiency by allowing commercial property owners to borrow money from the city in order to improve their building’s energy efficiency.

According to Naud, the city will wait until it has $1 million in potential projects through PACE before looking into obtaining loans for the projects.

Naud added that PACE will not only help the environment, but also improve Ann Arbor’s economy.

“I think the PACE program is a real game changer,” Naud said. “It goes a long way to making our built building stock more sustainable, more energy efficient, cheaper to business in Ann Arbor, more comfortable, and ideally, it’s all local contractors and local jobs doing that work so it’s a huge economic multiplier in the community.”

According to Naud, Ann Arbor spends about $250 million per year on natural gas and electricity, and he said he hopes PACE will lower the city’s spending by improving inefficient heating in buildings, particularly off-campus student housing.

Naud said he believes student housing is the largest sustainability issue in the city, and with the University supplying about 7,000 new student renters every year, Ann Arbor should continue to make it a priority to improve.

“It’s not hard to walk around downtown and go through some of the student neighborhoods and you see the upstairs attic room they’ve occupied with the windows open in the wintertime because it’s so hot and the air conditioner is actually still in the window,” Naud said. “It’s a huge waste of energy.”

He added that the city hopes to decrease energy waste in student housing through a $3 million grant that Washtenaw County received from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in November.

Washtenaw County was one of four communities to receive the grant to make communities more economically competitive through initiatives that improve housing, schools and transportation.

Naud said use of the grant money has not yet been determined, but hopes that it will be used for education on efficient energy use for students in the county.

“One of the things we proposed is a three-year effort to hire a person to really work with landlords, renters and the universities to figure out what are the educational efforts we can do,” Naud said. “How do we teach (students) how to be sustainable on campus and then live sustainably when they move into off campus housing?”

Naud added that 20 percent of the city’s operations use renewable energy from the generation of hydroelectric power at two dams on the Huron River. The city also uses a landfill gas collection system and sells back the energy from such facilities to DTE Energy, which displaces electricity in more sustainable means.

The city also implemented LED lighting on street and traffic lights, and is in the process of adding wind energy facilities, Naud said.

Though the city is unsure of where the wind turbines will be installed, Naud said the land near Forsyth Middle School, located by the landfill on the south side of the city, is a possible location.