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Efficient buildings and encouraging electric vehicles on city’s next environmental to-do list

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

With the city’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory now in hand, members of the Environmental Performance Standards Advisory Committee are itching to connect community resources to start enacting the Environmental Action Plan’s next phases. Coordinating efforts to weatherize Harrisonburg homes and buildings, install more electric car charging stations and replace combustion engine school buses with cleaner versions are all on the to-do list. 

“It’s a great opportunity for the friendly city to be leading by example,” said committee member Doug Hendren. 

He said some EPSAC members are working on a pilot project for weatherization, which involves better protecting buildings and their interiors from the elements to reduce energy consumption and enhance efficiency.

Hendren said it will be especially important “to see if we can’t get something like that moving for our low and middle income residents who are burdened with excessively high energy bills.” 

He also said EPSAC members are looking at spurring creation of additional electric vehicle charging infrastructure. One station is located outside of the Harrisonburg Electric Commission building on Liberty Street and another is outside the Harrisonburg Democratic Committee headquarters on West Market Street. 

In comparison, Staunton has 31 public charging station ports within a 15 kilometer radius.

“And there’s opportunities here for collaboration between utilities, private interests, and there’s all sorts of different models out there for doing this,” Hendren said. “We don’t want to be behind the curve on this.”

He also said cities like Waynesboro, Arlington and Richmond have recently rolled out electric school bus programs, “and we don’t want to be behind the curve on this one either.”

While the top focus of the Environmental Action Plan puts the spotlight on buildings and energy, he also said “the folks in the waste and recycling sector also have some plans up their sleeves.”

“I think as we go forward in the next few months you’re gonna see some interest and particular projects starting to be hatched from the citizen members of EPSAC,” Hendren said. “It’s certainly high time that we do this because we simply don’t have time to be doing these sequentially. We need to be pulling all stops and going forward along all channels at once.”

There’s yet to be action on the Clean Energy Resolution

Passed by city council unanimously almost a year ago, Harrisonburg’s Clean Energy Resolution is yet to receive funding or come before the city council for discussion about how to implement it. The resolution sets a goal for Harrisonburg of a just and equitable transition to 100% renewable electricity by 2035 and all sectors by 2050.

“I think this particularly applies to low and middle income folks, it’s a housing affordability issue,” Hendren said. “Because if you can afford your rent or your mortgage but you can’t afford to keep it warm because it’s too leaky, well that’s not affordable.”

He said EPSAC has begun collaboration with Faith in Action, which has focused on housing affordability, and there are other interested community groups, as well. But right now, they’re still figuring out how to approach these programs with the blessing of city staff.

“We’re just at the beginning of looking at possible projects that EPSAC can officially get behind. Right now it’s a bit fuzzy,” Hendren said. “I think that the measures I’ve just described to you here are ones that some of the citizen members of EPSAC have some enthusiasm for, and are not of the status of official EPSAC activities at this point. But a lot of us would like to see them become so, but we’re not there yet.”

EPSAC’s city council member representative Laura Dent said she expects further discussions with Sean McGinniss, the Virginia Tech professor of green engineering who helped conduct the Greenhouse Gas Inventory. The next step will be to set reasonable targets for reducing greenhouse gas pollution, based on the report’s findings.

“In the meantime, EPSAC also has this huge chunk of homework to do to come up with the targets and so on,” Dent said. “And that I think is going to take some ongoing consultation with Dr. McGinniss. But it’s a good position to be in, because EPSAC has been wondering for a while, ‘What are we supposed to do?’”

Continuing with power from Dominion? 

As Harrisonburg continues to buy the majority of its energy from Dominion Energy, it has a contract with an energy provider that’s shifting away from coal-burning electric plants and toward more natural gas.

“It is true that burning gas produces much less CO2 than burning coal, but greenhouse gases include methane as well, which is much more potent,” Hendren wrote in a follow-up email to The Citizen. “Calculations indicate that a leak rate (fugitive emissions) of more than about 3% makes gas worse for global warming than coal. We have known this since about 2012, but the industry has blocked accurate measurements and reporting rules on methane until just recently.”

Dent said because of Harrisonburg Electric Commission’s 10-year contract with Dominion, “as a distributor, we’re at the mercy of the supplier, namely Dominion.”

She said she’s looking at ways to try and overcome this barrier, one of which could be the creation of a “green bank,” which could be a public or non-profit entity that facilitates private investment into domestic low-carbon, climate-resilient infrastructure. There are communities with green banks that use Power Purchase Agreements, which are when a third-party developer installs, owns, and operates an energy system on a customer’s property, allowing them access to receive stable and often low-cost electricity with no upfront cost.

But because the city is committed to buying energy from Dominion, Dent said she’s “ looking for where the levers are that we can actually turn to make a difference.”

“The city is basically hands off from HEC so that they can be businesslike, and I keep looking for ‘how can we mandate that they be renewable and sustainable?’” Dent said. “It seems like we have some say, or we ought to, but what are the mechanisms to make that happen.”


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