“Green your home with the energy alliance,” reads a flier that AmeriCorps volunteers are distributing at the local zoo. Nearby, a wooden sign advertises “Producing Power from the Sun” and challenges visitors to go green themselves. Outside the gates, solar panels -- developed by a local business with global influence -- power part of the zoo, and a few more miles away, another group keeps money in the community through an energy efficient buildings campaign.
Where is this scene unfolding? No, not California. Thanks to a growing group of dedicated people and organizations, as well as helpful local and state policies, this green revival is happening in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Long plagued by aging infrastructure -- its 180-year-old sewage system overflows during nearly every rainfall and its coal-powered electrical system helps make Ohio’s air the most toxic in the nation -- Cincinnati’s environmental and energy efficiency policies are supporting local businesses that seek to reverse these trends. They are rapidly creating local jobs, reducing pressure on an overburdened infrastructure, and generating clean electricity.
Between the Cincinnati Zoo’s pledge to get off of the storm water grid, the Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance and Energize Clinton County’s work in retrofitting inefficient homes, and Melink Corporation’s clean technology commitment, the Cincinnati metropolitan area is making great efforts to reduce its energy intensity, dirty fuel consumption, and environmental impacts, all while proving energy efficiency’s strengths as a business model.
Energy efficiency is such a good business model that it has allowed many Cincinnati initiatives to occur with minimal monetary investment. “We saved tens of thousands of dollars by getting the ‘fruit you could kick on the ground,’” says Mark Fisher, the zoo’s Director of Facilities. Without spending any money -- only engaging workers to turn off lights and unplug appliances when not being used -- the zoo shaved a significant portion from its utility bill. And the zoo’s savings are not unique.
Further east, in Wilmington, Energize Clinton County implemented a home retrofit initiative to save town residents on energy costs when the town lost 10,000 jobs. With the realization that the 13,000 person town annually exports millions of dollars in energy costs to the utilities, Energize co-founders Mark Rembert and Taylor Stuckert took action to help the town import less energy and export less money. “We wanted to stop wealth from leaking out of the community,” says Rembert.
And once initial savings are realized, the potential for even more arises. The zoo took their budget surplus and reinvested it into energy and water efficiency initiatives, saving them $2.5 million on their utility bills since 2006. Their compost and recycling programs save on additional solid waste disposal costs, while their geothermal and solar systems further drive down utility costs by generating clean electricity on site.
Saving money creates jobs. In addition to the people directly employed in Cincinnati’s clean economy -- Fisher, Rembert, and Stuckert, among 18,522 others, according to Brookings Institution -- many additional workers benefit indirectly from energy efficiency, as manufacturers of building insulation, hires possible from savings in energy costs, and even Cincinnati restaurants and services, since each dollar saved by efficiency upgrades is spent in the greater economy.
Being that it takes more labor to make a kebab than a kilowatt, using better technology to use less energy stimulates Cincinnati’s entire economy. And because the city is a leader in export value per job -- each worker in the clean economy creates goods and services with a higher economic value compared to most metropolitan areas -- every clean job has an even greater economic impact in Cincinnati than it would elsewhere.
But Cincinnati’s clean economy didn’t grow accidentally -- there’s a reason for its burgeoning success. From Ohio’s energy efficiency standards to its building and renewable energy incentives, Cincinnati’s clean economy has been nurtured by a favorable policy environment, as well as significant collaboration between Cincinnati’s peer businesses and universities.
Nowhere is collaboration more evident than the zoo. Driving into the parking lot, visitors are greeted by a solar canopy. Donated by Melink Corporation, the locally built car-shading cover generates 1.6 MW of clean energy. By teaming with the zoo, Melink shows visitors the next frontier in solar development, while the zoo purchases clean power from a state-of-the-art electricity generation device, an expense that is further reduced through renewable energy credit sales.
Solar canopies greet visitors to the Cincinnati Zoo. Donated by Melink Corporation, the panels represent the growing collaboration of clean energy groups in Cincinnati.
Melink is headquartered on the outskirts of Cincinnati. As Ohio’s first LEED platinum facility, the building is a sophisticated model for smarter energy consumption -- both in the present and the future. “Our building is like our lab,” says Colleen Hines, Director of Marketing. At the frontier of clean energy development, Melink is constantly testing the best technologies for Ohio’s unique climate.
And their “lab” research has paid off: today, through solar panels, a solar thermal system, a wind turbine, among a myriad of other measures, Melink makes money on their monthly utility bills. They also invite school groups, businesses, and other community members to tour their building and get ideas for implementing their own energy-reduction projects. And, “we’re hiring like hotcakes,” says Hines. “We can’t find people fast enough.”
Melink Director of Marketing Colleen Hines explains the different clean energy technologies that, in junction with efficient building practices and appliances, make its headquarters a net zero energy facility.
Also hiring is the Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance, another zoo collaborator. Founded in 2009 by Andy Holzhauser, the Alliance provides reduced-rate audits and retrofits to make homes and nonprofits more energy efficient. Made possible by a U.S. Department of Energy Retrofit Ramp-Up grant, the Alliance has facilitated 800 building audits, turning the grant funding into savings for homes and non-profits, stimulating job growth. One of the Alliance’s most notable projects is the recent retrofit of a local church, whose savings will undoubtedly have numerous spillover benefits to the community.
While each of these green groups is valuable individually, in junction, they represent a larger trend in Cincinnati: the city’s shift to self-reliance. Depending less on volatile fuel prices and uncertain government funding, and more on local technologies, institutions, and individuals, will be critical to Cincinnati’s strength through the coming decades.
One additional way Cincinnati invests in its future is through a workforce development program at Cincinnati State University, grown from a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance. The program teaches skills required to secure one of the high-paying engineering jobs in Cincinnati’s emerging efficiency economy. In turn, groups like the Alliance have access to a strong local workforce.
Unsurprisingly, workers are in high demand, a trend to which all signs point a continual increase as more and more Cincinnatians realize the potential savings of building retrofits. Between the zoo’s education initiatives and the Alliance’s canvassing outreach, as well as Melink’s tours and the slough of associated media coverage, energy efficiency reaches thousands of people a day -- even without tailoring the message to a specific audience. “Everyone can relate to money,” says the zoo’s Fisher, “[so] we mostly talk about money [savings from efficiency].”
But beyond saving residents money, energy efficiency will continue to enhance Cincinnati’s economy, environment, and culture as a whole. And, it is already going to work on Obama’s jobs bill: creating jobs while relieving overburdened infrastructure. While further infrastructure investment will undoubtedly be beneficial, Cincinnati’s energy efficiency groups have already paved the way for new model for economic development model, promising an enduring future for its environment and residents -- as long as the pavement is pervious.