City’s environmental committee is back — and members say they have urgent work to do

Bluestone Elementary, which opened in 2017, has numerous features that stress environmental and energy conservation and stewardship. (File photo by Eric Gorton)

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

Members of a city committee aimed at suggesting energy and environmental policy changes brought an added sense of urgency to their first in-person meeting since before the pandemic. As part of it, the Environmental Performance Standards Advisory Committee members are looking for even more support from the city.  

The global situation is “past climate change and into climate collapse,” as committee member Donna Armstrong put it during last Tuesday’s Environmental Performance Standards Advisory Committee meeting. With wildfires raging across the western United States and hurricanes pummeling the South and East Coast over the last month, climate and environmental issues continue to make headlines. 

Several members expressed frustration with the slow pace of progress in local government when it comes to enacting environmental policy, juxtaposed with the immediacy of the fate of our planet.

EPSAC citizen member Douglas Hendren told The Citizen he believes that “city government has put some good things in place but isn’t yet making best use of them.” He said he specifically was referring to EPSAC, which includes 9-12 community members appointed by the city council as well as one council representative and one school board representative.

As one example, Hendren pointed to the council’s resolution passed last fall to transition to 100% renewable energy by 2035. 

“I think the renewable energy resolution was an important aspirational thing, and one of EPSAC’s jobs right now in my opinion is to figure out how to act on that,” Hendren said. “But so far, we’re not all in agreement about that.”

Hendren said that the resolution — drafted last November by former councilman Richard Baugh after extensive lobbying from the “50 by 25” coalition — has great aspirational language in it. “But really very little has been done on it,” he said. 

Parts of the resolution concern the city’s energy supply, including electricity that comes through the Harrisonburg Electric Commission, a municipally-owned utility. But the Harrisonburg Electric Commission has its own board and is not under the jurisdiction of city staff. 

“So there’s an interesting additional variable there that even though the city owns HEC and profits from it it’s basically treated separately,” Hendren said. “So that just because the city council adopts a renewable energy resolution and various goals doesn’t mean that HEC does.”

He added that HEC makes up a big chunk of the city’s carbon footprint, and while he’s unsure exactly how much, city staff has been working on a Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory that’s expected to be released to EPSAC for review by the end of the month. 

Tom Hartman, director of the city’s Public Works Department, shared big-picture numbers from the document as a bit of a preview of the full report for the EPSAC members. The data uses 2016 data as a baseline year to compare with 2019 numbers. The effects of the coronavirus pandemic skewed data from 2020, Hartman told the committee. 

Split into two categories — community and municipal — the report compiles data showing both how the city uses electricity and how that input translates into emissions of carbon and greenhouse gases. 

The inventory found that on the municipal side, the city schools are the largest electrical consumer, followed by water and sewer operations, and then the traffic and street lights. The final report will include additional details, such as energy use at each school. The initial findings also show consumption among municipal sources increased 6% from 2016 to 2019. In total, though, the municipal sector consumes only 4% of the total power Harrisonburg uses, Hartman said at the meeting. 

In the community, a third of electric usage is attributed to the residential districts and one-third comes from commercial uses. James Madison University consumes one-sixth of the power, while one sixth comes from industry. 

Hartman said shares of power those sectors use are consistent with the city of Roanoke, which had a similar inventory report. 

Harrisonburg buys its electricity from Dominion Energy, and the inventory report notes that Dominion has shifted its energy supply, with 7.6% of power coming from coal-fired plants in 2019, down from 20% in 2016. Dominion has increased its renewables from 3.4 percent to 5.6 percent.

Hendren said the issue becomes even more complicated when the Virginia Clean Economy Act is taken into account. The act calls for Dominion to shed additional coal-burning plants, but the ratepayers — the electricity-buying public — are required to pay for the difference. Recently, Dominion billed HEC $7.2 million, and Hendren said “there’s going to be more to come, I think.”

And while the city works to come up with ways to approach the Environmental Action Plan and city council’s new vision statement, Hendren said EPSAC has work to do in the community but also needs the “city’s blessing to act a little bit more aggressively.”

“How can we get things going? How can we help get local groups to act on helping insulate homes in low income neighborhoods, for example, or helping just general energy efficiency get more legs in town?” Hendren said. “Now education’s part of it but also helping organize and work with various communities or various parts of the community, so far that’s been off the table and our argument is it really shouldn’t be.”

For instance, the committee discussed different ways to educate Harrisonburg citizens on energy efficiency, but members agreed that doing so in conjunction with the city government would prove most effective.

He said that there’s a great opportunity for figuring out how to mobilize resources in the community to help people, particularly low income residents, to insulate their homes better, “and in the process, benefit from more comfortable homes, better health, lower bills and a lower carbon footprint for the city.”

“The city has a great opportunity to lead by example,” said EPSAC member Mark Lemmond.

Laura Dent, who’s the city council representative for EPSAC, said she “to some degree share(s) the frustration among EPSAC members, namely ‘we don’t have ten years.’”

“The slowness of the process is really difficult to go through when there’s such urgency with the (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report coming out saying it’s Code Red for humanity: we need to act now,” Dent said. “So what does ‘now’ mean in the pace of city government?”

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