What does it take to light up metro Detroit's commitment to energy efficiency?

When city manager Brandon Fournier wanted to save money and energy by upgrading the lighting in the City of Southgate's municipal building, he needed expertise to guide the city in the right direction.

That expertise, says Fournier, came from the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office (REO), a non-governmental entity formed in 2008 with a grant from the Michigan Public Service Commission. Founded by the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, the Michigan Municipal League and EcoWorks (formerly WARM Training Center), the REO provides grant services, planning, technical expertise and education to 26 southeast Michigan municipalities to support energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Since its inception, the REO has written proposals bringing in more than $2.3 million in energy efficiency and conservation block grants funds to support municipal energy projects in metropolitan Detroit communities. It received over $3 million in funding from the MPSC, $1.58 million of which directly funded capital projects in local cities, with the remainder going to support the REO's energy management and support services.

The REO also partnered with Michigan Saves, a statewide energy financing nonprofit, and the State of Michigan on a federally funded BetterBuilding program to implement residential energy efficiency across Detroit and in dozens of metro Detroit neighborhoods. The $5.75 million in federal funds managed by the REO leveraged additional private investment in residential energy efficiency projects across the region, totaling $31.2 million in energy efficiency projects, according to Smith.

"The city of Southgate, in partnership with the REO, has done one photovoltaic solar system above our police department, and also completed a campus-wide lighting upgrade project featuring interior lighting motion sensors and high-efficiency lighting with LED and T4s," says Fournier. "Those projects would not have happened without the REO."

A different kind of regional collaboration

Regional authorities and millages implemented in recent years provide local leaders more tools than ever before to collaborate on shaping the region's future. The Great Lakes Water Authority launched last month, providing a vehicle for cooperative regional water and sewer management. The Regional Transit Authority, created in 2012, is working to build consensus for regional transit. The Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority has been in place to manage Cobo Hall since 2009. Regional millages approved in recent years support the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Zoo. A regional millage to support the Huron-Clinton Metroparks has been in place since 1942.

But when it comes to energy, no regional governing body or taxing authority exists. The REO operates as a joint program between two nonprofits, EcoWorks and the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, and takes a voluntary, grassroots approach to regional collaboration on energy management. It serves 26 local government members, and was the first organization of its kind in the nation, according to Conan Smith, executive director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance and the REO co-founder.

"It's the tool that we have," says Conan Smith, executive director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance and REO co-founder. "Energy is different from water and transit, which are de facto regionalized functions and require regional decision-making. Energy is localized to individual buildings. Utilities have a regional perspective, but local communities experience energy in a very parochial way, so we have to pull them to the table around their own self-interests."

Lighting up the future

Looking to the future, the REO will intensify its focus on municipal lighting, says REO board president and co-founder Jacob Corvidae.

"We're forming a street lighting consortium for local governments to tackle LED street lighting replacement en masse across region," says Corvidae. "We are working towards creating more visible communities, literally."

One of the major obstacles to implementing LED streetlights is the initial cost. A new LED streetlight costs about $460 and about $56 to install, according to a Michigan Suburbs Alliance fact sheet. That's compared with about $250 for a conventional high-pressure sodium lamp. But by partnering with neighboring municipalities to make larger purchase orders, those costs can be brought down. The same goes for coordinating installation.

"As a municipality in a depressed economy, we definitely benefit from the aggregation of resources from a regional collaborative," says Fournier. "It gives us an ability to leverage resources that otherwise would not be available to us. I'm excited to be working on the LED street lighting project right now, which I think has some real potential for all of our member municipalities."

Since streetlights illuminate roads across the region, the scope of the project is massive.

"More than 37,725 streetlights in REO's member municipalities are currently operating on old wasteful technology across the region," says Smith. "And not only do they waste energy and cost more to operate, they don't do a great job of lighting the streets because they are the wrong color for safety."

Streetlighting can account for up to 40 percent of a municipality's energy bills.

"LED streetlights are so so easy to upgrade and have such a quick payoff," says Smith. "They have a five-year payoff, and can last for 15 years."

Supported by a grant from the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, the REO convened a group of stakeholders in November of 2013 to discuss barriers and solutions to upgrading the region's streetlights to LED technology, and produced a plan to begin implementation by 2015.

The barriers identified by the group included lack of an attractive financing option and lack of resources for project planning. In the last year, a new financing option has emerged with the launch of Michigan Saves' Public Sector Energy Financing program.  Also, governments within REO have created an inter-local agreement for the purpose of issuing bonds to help finance coordinated efforts.  

The consortium's eventual goal is to coordinate the conversion of streetlights in 60-100 communities, totaling over 70,000 streetlights, to LED technology. Southeast Michigan communities which have already begun installing LED streetlights include Ann Arbor, Lincoln Park, St. Clair Shores, Ypsilanti, Roseville, Hazel Park and the City of Detroit.

"We have the opportunity to be greenest region in the state," says Smith. "But we need to work together."

This piece was supported in part through a partnership with Michigan Saves and Public Sector Consultants.

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