City scrutinizes Powerful ChoicesTalk at the Tuesday and July 10 City Council meetings focused on the energy-conservation and efficiency-incentive program Powerful Choices. The program draws funding from a 1% share of the local utility revenues -- about $110,000 annually.
By: Debbie Griffin, River Falls Journal
Talk at the Tuesday and July 10 City Council meetings focused on the energy-conservation and efficiency-incentive program Powerful Choices. The program draws funding from a 1% share of the local utility revenues -- about $110,000 annually.
The Utility Commission and City Council of 2007 created the program.
The current council members began questioning it after being asked to approve a $55,000 Powerful Choices grant to help the high school implement an energy-management system.
The council decided Tuesday night to approve the grant.
But it also asked the Utility Advisory Board to do a thorough review then come back with more information and perhaps a recommendation about the program.
Council Member Jim Nordgren said at the July 10 meeting, “I think it needs to be reviewed.”
He’d suggested that it would be good to look over not only the allocations made but also what it pays for.
Nordgren wondered why people can’t be encouraged to implement renewable energy and efficiency without an incentive drawn from utility ratepayers.
Council Member Scott Morrissette agreed, saying he isn’t opposed to the idea but wants to know more about it -- what’s going in and out of the fund, who is using it and what results it is producing.
Said Council Member David Reese: “We are actually putting a charge on our ratepayers,” adding that he’d be happier to see the city loan money for renewable projects.
Several council members questioned using Powerful Choices funds for a high school facilities project.
They had delayed the vote until learning more, and what they learned is: The project has been discussed for many years and the city had committed long ago to helping with a bit of it.
Council Member Christopher Gagne warned that the city should be careful about taking from what is technically a utility fund and giving it to a facilities project of another taxing entity.
Most agreed with him but also recognized that the city should honor its word and help with the high school’s energy-saving project.
They also agreed that the Utility Advisory Board should look into, for example, if it is difficult to find “takers” for the various incentives and what accounting methods are used with it.
After being asked during the early July meeting, Utilities General Manager Carl Gaulke assured the council that Powerful Choices funds are not “use or lose,” that they roll over to the next year.
The city’s Energy Conservation and Efficiency Coordinator, Mike Noreen, helps implement Powerful Choices locally and defended the high school project at the July 10 meeting.
Noreen assured the council that the energy management system wasn’t a study -- it’s a $480,000 project underway now that will save $90,000 a year.
He said the Powerful Choices program is how everyone realized: The high school’s energy usage was excessive compared to similar buildings.
The School District’s Director of Finance and Facilities, Chad Smurawa, answered more questions last week between council meetings. He said the district started years ago to “fix” the human end of its energy efficiency issues.
He said, “We were able to save quite a few dollars just by adjusting our behaviors and usage patterns.”
The district started then to plan for the EMS, looking to save part of its annual maintenance budget of $250,000. Smurawa says emergencies gobbled up that money two years in a row -- for a boiler replacement at Greenwood Elementary and a new roof at Westside Elementary.
After the referendum passed and nothing else broke, the district could realistically think about paying for the system inside of two budget cycles. Smurawa said the grant makes the project possible, because he would not have recommended touching a third year’s budget to do the EMS.
He points out that systems were not as smart in the early- to mid-1990s, when the 2001-built high school was designed and specified. Systems then tended to sit on the roof and function separately.
The EMS will enable the school to monitor and control usage, down to the individual room at a particular time of day. The system connects everything -- even ductwork -- via computer chip and lets users evaluate efficiency.
Noreen provides a few other examples of how the Powerful Choices money has been used: Energy education sends a specialized instructor to teach 2nd and 4th graders a science-based curriculum about efficiency, renewable energy and conservation.
He said, “We’ve gotten great feedback on that.”
Powerful Choices enables the city to offer home energy audits valued at $300, for $50. For local businesses, Powerful Choices will match statewide incentive dollars given for installing efficient lights. Noreen said energy efficiency incentives are also offered to non-profit entities who cannot take a tax deduction for them.
He clarifies that many people do volunteer to buy blocks of renewable energy at a premium rate. That support both provides an incentive to businesses who want to for example, install a solar panel, and boosts River Falls’ high-ranking overall “green” profile.