Local governments turn to green energy
In 1995, Daryl Stockberger was faced with a decision which would affect the environmental course of Bowling Green, Ohio for generations. In his eighth year as Utilities Director for the city, Stockberger had an opportunity to push Bowling Green in a direction of “Green Energy.”
Years later, he remembers how the general consensus was that renewable energy in Ohio lacked quality. Most communities nearing the millennium sided with conventional wisdom over innovation.
Around the United States, other municipalities with visionaries like Stockberger were realizing that renewable resources would soon become economically feasible for energy projects. Nearly two decades later, Bowling Green has proudly worn its role as one of Ohio’s pioneers in local government energy efficiency.
Today, wind turbines scatter the countryside, thrusting their surfaces against the harsh, Northwest Ohio landscape. Solar panels perch atop buildings throughout town and horde sunlight like foragers. Bowling Green even owns a significant portion of the Belleville Hydro Plant on the Ohio River, greatly contributing to the city’s resources.
When Stockberger left his post in 2005, renewable resources made up 20 percent of Bowling Green’s energy, he said.
“We’ve always had a history of being a proponent of green energy resources,” said Brian O’Connell, Bowling Green’s current Utilities Director since June, 2011.
As the overseer of the Utilities Department, O’Connell directs the city’s energy divisions (such as electricity and water) and serves as advisor to the Board of Public Utilities. This group of five citizens, appointed by the mayor, makes ultimate decisions regarding Bowling Green’s energy projects, O’Connell said.
Like the directors before him, O’Connell himself is faced with long-term energy decisions.
But the scope has changed since Stockberger.
When the price of power was cheap, Bowling Green opted towards energy contracts such as wind turbines and landfill gas. With rising costs, however, the dynamic changed and local governments like Bowling Green buying their own projects.
This ownership, O’Connell says, helps cities control costs for their citizens, who, in the case of energy, are more thought of as customers.
Bowling Green joins 127 communities in surrounding states as members of American Municipal Power. AMP, an energy facilities operator, develops projects such as the Belleville Hydro Plant to sell to its members.
“If we were by ourselves, or if we were one of a group of 10 municipalities who wanted…to try to buy power, or build something, there’s no possible way we could do that,” O’Connell said.
This “strength in numbers” approach, he contends, provides a stronger outlet for energy opportunities to cities like Bowling Green. AMP members can opt-in to projects they see fit for their community, leaving O’Connell and over 100 other Utilities Directors throughout the Midwest and Appalachia. The variables for approaching a project leave O’Connell and others playing several different roles—as economist (how will this affect the price of power?), as political scientist (how will environmental policies and regulations change or affect this power?) and, in the case of envisioning the project’s success, as soothsayer.
Local governments and municipalities throughout the United States are gradually transitioning towards renewable energy. Even the Cleveland Indians baseball stadium Progressive Field operates a wind turbine above its upper deck.
“Energy efficiency…helps reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, improves energy security and independence, and creates jobs,” according to an EPA guide on local government energy operations.
The benefits, as AMP members like Bowling Green are beginning to enjoy, make a compelling case for this environmental change in focus. The projects are safe, too—in 2010, the Belleville Hydro Plant received an award for safety excellence by the National Hydropower Association.
Lowering energy costs for citizens is an increasingly important function for the Utilities Department, O’Connell said. The EPA estimates that energy accounts for up to 10 percent of a city’s annual operating budget, which continues to rise as energy prices do.
Take wind energy, for example. Each individual turbine cost around $1 million, the initial investment taking up a bulk of the price, Stockberger said. As the years pass, the turbines begin to pay themselves back as the money saved through wind energy offsets the minimal labor costs.
The area’s flat terrain makes Bowling Green an environmental gold mine for wind energy. Despite the significant investment and impact the project has made on the community, wind turbines are “not a very large part of the overall power supply,” Stockberger said.
Just how “not very large” was wind energy of the city’s overall resources in 2010? One percent.
While the EPA calls for a national action plan consisting of specific yearly annual goals, Bowling Green has no environmental master plan, O’Connell said.
Although, if there were certain renewable resource goals in the coming years, the city would almost certainly surpass them. Sustainable resources like wind, solar and hydro power generate 20 percent of the city’s electricity and will nearly double to 35 percent in 2015, according to AMP estimates.
Between several other hydroelectric projects being constructed along the Ohio River Bowling Green holds stock in and the ever-rotating wind turbines, the impact of green energy continues to grow.
An “EcoSmart Choice” developed by AMP and made effective in Bowling Green in 2010 allows citizens the choice to increase their energy bill slightly to provide an amount of Green power of their choosing.
“By paying that upcharge, you’re paying for a renewable energy source somewhere in the grid, somewhere in the system, and that’s how…you’re helping to pay for that renewable energy resource,” O’Connell said.
By Tyler Buchanan
Bowling Green’s environmental policy has changed dramatically since Stockberger’s helm. Energy is more sustainable. The city’s ownership of renewable resources is rapidly expanding.
O’Connell, finishing his first year as Utilities Director, continues the city’s tradition of pushing for energy with a lessened impact on citizens’ wallets as well as the environment.
A large, aerial portrait of Bowling Green he presides over fills the side wall of his downtown Church St. office. The checkerboard fields extend from the city outward into infinity, the farmlands patterned intricately as if by an electrical grid.
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