Blog: Jordan Eizenga & Michael Stepniak

Lowering regional energy usage isn't just one-off municipal LED lighting or solar power projects; cities now see that information sharing is power. We check in with Jordan Eizenga and Michael Stepniak, interns from the UniverCities program of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance charged with helping Metro Detroit cut back energy usage 25% by 2015.

Jordan Eizenga - Push Start: Energy Bills and a Copier Build a Regional Cause

It's four o'clock, and I'm at work. All afternoon I have been hunched over a copying machine making copies of a city's utility bills. My back is starting to get sore, but I'm close to done. However, I know that as soon as I finish I will have to go through the ream of pages I've just copied and reorder all of them by hand. Once that's done, I will page through the entire stack again to enter the information into an online system. The whole process will take most of three days. I know because I've done the same thing multiple times already. And I still have several more cities' data to collect.

And yet, I was thrilled to get that stack of bills.

Why? The answer is not in the details, but in the end goals. So let's back up to look at what I've been up to.

For the past three months, I have been constructing a database of energy usage by city governments in metro Detroit. When complete, it will house records of municipal energy use—everything from city halls to streetlights to parks—in one central location. This database is crucial to the success of the Millennial Mayors Congress' Energy Protocol, a voluntary regional initiative obligating cities to reduce municipal energy use 25% below 2005 levels by the year 2015. Naturally, one of the first steps must be to figure out how much energy they used in 2005 and how much they use now. For this, we need data.

The uses of the database go much further than this. It will make data available for local energy policy projects of all varieties. In its incomplete state, the database has already been used to evaluate the effectiveness of energy efficiency improvements in Madison Heights municipal buildings. It is currently finding its way into climate policy reports for the cities of Hazel Park and Southgate. Plans are underway to use it to create efficiency audits by the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office. As the database progresses, we can easily imagine comparative work between cities as well. This kind of work is the real meat of environmentalism in local policy.

But as exciting as these projects are, I will confess that they are not the only reason I was so happy to get those bills. Another reason is that it took me almost a month to get my hands on them—and this is the main challenge in my work. In the face of declining revenues and rising expectations, city governments are stretched to capacity as is. Most have difficulty adding any more responsibilities, so even something as simple as pulling a box of records out of storage can become a major disruption. At the same time, such a situation illustrates precisely why my work is necessary. Cities need to have a long-term outlook and a grounded approach to policymaking in order to maintain fiscal health, and this database provides both. Energy efficiency, after all, is a great cost-saver in addition to making good sense for the environment.

Such balancing acts are part and parcel to local governance in the region. Cities have risen to the challenge admirably, but there is a limit to how much they can achieve just through working harder and better on their own. This database provides an additional option: regional cooperation among cities. By manning the photocopier, I embody regionalism in action. Would the creation of this database be possible without the involvement of regional bodies like the Millennial Mayors Congress and the Regional Energy Office? Would it take the form it has now? Probably not. Thanks to these organizations and my time at the photocopier, we chug forward. And in time, regional information sharing will lead us into a more prosperous and sustainable future.