Recently, Dallas County, Texas, embarked on a $43 million sustainability plan that county Judge Clay Jenkins believes is a powerful economic driver for the community. For Texas’ second largest county, that’s an understatement.
The plan, funded in part with an energy performance partnership, will create 400 jobs, and an additional $58 million in business sales, which will generate another $2.3 million in state and local taxes — all while lowering operational costs and saving taxpayers money.
In addition, Jenkins says the county’s sustainability advances and leadership will help it compete globally for new business against places such as Beijing and Mexico City. “People look for jobs in places with clean air and vibrant economies,” he says. “We want to do what we can to attract businesses — big and small.”
Today, as the public increasingly demands environmental awareness, entities such as Dallas County are realizing that sustainability planning is not only an important environmental initiative, but also a powerful economic development driver.
Just what is sustainability planning? The simple answer is that it’s a blueprint for municipalities and schools to create sustainable operating models that create efficiencies and preserve natural resources.
And thanks to funding mechanisms such as energy performance contracting, organizations can embark on sustainability planning with little upfront costs and guaranteed returns on investments. In fact, in an era of tight municipal budgets and decreased revenue streams, performance contracting has become a key funding tool for sustainability planning and improving infrastructure.
Like Dallas County, municipalities and schools nationwide are discovering that such plans are also great marketing vehicles.
Just look at higher education. More than 60 percent of students said a college’s commitment to the environment would impact their decision to choose a school, according to the Princeton Review survey of more than 10,000 college applicants.
That sentiment carries over to the wider population. Nearly 80 percent of Americans are in favor of sustainable communities, according to a 2010 Ford Foundation survey conducted by Harris Interactive.
Those two trends came together in the sustainability plan for Marshall County Schools in Holly Springs, MS. The fast-growing school district used an energy performance partnership to implement a sustainability plan that will reduce energy consumption by nearly 30 percent for a savings of close to $150,000 annually. Over the life of the project, the school district will save more than $4 million, allowing it to put money back into their classrooms.
But the district quickly discovered the benefits extend well beyond energy savings.
“Many of our community leaders, parents, staff and students have complimented us on how much more appealing our campuses are with the new lighting,” said Jerry Moore, Superintendent of Education for Marshall County Schools. “Many community groups and businesses have highlighted what we have done and how proud they are that we are moving in a direction of energy savings.”
The benefits didn’t end there. The school also used its sustainability planning as a teachable moment for students and the community as a whole. “We worked with students on explaining the project to them so that they would understand the importance of limited energy resources,” Moore said. “Our goal is to get all community and school groups involved in order to spark other energy efficiency and sustainability projects in Marshall County.”
As a result, Marshall County Schools has become a hub of sustainability information for the region, and that has people talking. “One thing that we have pushed to the community about this project is that the costs of energy and the savings from projects such as these,” Mr. Moore said. “There is little educational information, nor has there ever been, concerning limited energy resources in our area. This project has somewhat opened the door to those.”
Across the country, Walla Walla Community College (WWCC) is seeing similar benefits from its sustainability planning. In June, the 12,000-student college embarked on an ambitious sustainability plan enabled by an energy performance contract and a state grant. The plan includes installation of roof-mounted solar panels and single-axis tracking panels across the 8-building campus along with a sophisticated energy metering system, and 8 new electric vehicle charging stations.
Beyond the energy generated by these new systems, the work also gives the college something possibly even more valuable: A whole new way to market itself to prospective students. “Having the ability to show proof of our commitment to sustainability has been an incredible asset,” said Melissa Thiessen, Director of Public Relations for Walla Walla Community College. “Potential students and their families take tours of WWCC on a weekly basis. As part of that campus tour, sustainability has always been included in the discussion. Now it is not only a talking point — it’s a showcase.”
The school has found this approach so successful that it’s now updating its marketing materials to include information on sustainability and the impact it has on their future planning.
But WWCC’s sustainability efforts are more than just about marketing. The school created a new Water and Environmental Center that aims to benefit the entire region, and its rapidly expanding Renewable Energy Technology program has made water, environmental and related cultural studies a high academic priority.
Now, thanks to its sustainability planning and systems, the school can give students hands-on education in this fast-growing technology sector. In that way, the school’s sustainability plan — and those like it across the nation — are not just saving energy, but also powering a whole new generation of citizens with the skills necessary to compete and win in the new energy economy.
Rachel Gutter, Director for Green Schools with the USGBC says these “sustainability natives” will drive global market transformation — and represent a vast opportunity for public entities.
As Mr. Moore at Marshall County Schools puts it, “When we incorporate sustainability in cities and schools, we are influencing the future in more ways than one.”
To learn more about energy and sustainability planning, go to http://www.enable.schneider-electric.com/sustainability/