Revolving loan program reducing county’s energy footprint

photo by: Nick Krug

The Douglas County Public Works campus is pictured on Sept. 22, 2016.

Through investments in green projects, Douglas County government is using 20 percent less energy to heat, cool and light its buildings compared to totals at the beginning of the decade.

Eileen Horn, coordinator of the Douglas County Sustainability Office, said that improvement was made through the county’s Sustainability and Energy Savings Reinvestment Fund launched in 2011. The program was started about a year after the county and city agreed to jointly fund Horn’s position with the county providing 60 percent of her salary.

“The key takeaway from all this progress is we have reduced our energy use 20.24 percent in buildings, using 2010 as a baseline,” Horn said. “Thirty percent was the goal. That was a really, really ambitious goal given the age of some of our buildings.”

Douglas County Commissioner Mike Gaughan, who helped craft the sustainability plan, said the goal was purposely made difficult.

“I think you always want to set a goal like that,” he said. “You want to push people to look for opportunities to save energy and lower costs.”

Horn does note that 4 of 7 county facilities — the Douglas County Courthouse, Law Enforcement Center, United Way Building and Douglas County Extension office — have realized the 30 percent goal.

The Douglas County Commission provided $300,000 in seed money to start the program in 2011, Horn said. The revolving loan program that investment created allows county department heads to fund energy and other sustainability projects without dipping into their own annual capital budgets. Cost savings from the improvements are plowed back into the sustainability fund to replenish it.

At the beginning of each year, Horn calculates the total energy each county building consumed in the previous 12 months. Her figures show the county realized $163,000 in savings in 2015 alone from projects paid for through the program.

Many of the program’s projects stemmed from the recommendations of an energy audit the county completed in 2008, Horn said. Some of the energy and cost savings were the result of big projects, such as a boiler replacement in the Courthouse and air conditioning chiller in the Law Enforcement Center, which were funded through the county’s capital improvement program, she said. The biggest share of sustainability loan projects has been lighting retrofits, which is a low-hanging fruit for energy savings. Just this month, the County Commission approved changing out the lighting in the Indoor Arena at the Douglas County Fairgrounds, which is projected to save $6,621 a year.

photo by: Nick Krug

Panorama of the historic courtroom in the Douglas County Courthouse.

Lighting retrofits can present challenges. Horn said the bulbs in the chandeliers in the County Commission’s meeting room in the courthouse weren’t replaced until LED teardrop bulbs became available that didn’t change the character of the historic room.

In addition to such retrofits, it’s now standard procedure to include LED lighting and other energy-saving measures in new construction of remodeling projects, Horn said. The coming renovations to the courtrooms in the Law Enforcement Center will include LED lighting retrofits.

The only new county building built since the program started is the new Douglas County Public Works headquarters. As might be expected, the building has energy-efficient lighting and heating and cooling systems and maximum insulation, Horn said. Its design also provided an abundance of natural light despite its extended roof overhangs that provided cooling shade. Adding to the building’s energy savings is a 14 kilowatt solar panel that provides 13 percent of its energy.

“The Public Works Building is on track to receive a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council,” she said.

The program also funded a solar panel at the Douglas County Extension Office and purchased four hybrid cars, Horn said.

The focus of the program is in energy savings, but it does fund other sustainability goals of waste reduction and water conservation. An example is Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew’s use of the program to purchase electronic polling tablets, which replaced the old precinct poll books that went out to each of the county’s poll sites on election day.

“It saves a ton of wastepaper,” Horn said. “The program primarily focuses on energy, but we do consider waste and paper reduction. There’s flexibility to realize other goals.”

There is currently $95,000 in the program to fund additional projects, Horn said. In an annual report on the program she will deliver to county commissioners Wednesday, Horn proposes the county undertake another energy audit, which could identify other potential projects.

Gaughan and Horn said they have noticed a cultural shift in the county since the program started as department heads have bought into energy-saving goals.

“It’s no longer, ‘Oh, that’s Eileen and her energy thing,'” Horn said. “I don’t have to be the generator of ideas anymore. Department heads are now coming to me with ideas.”