As the director of the newly created Department of Sustainability for the city of Tulsa, Brett Fidler is aware of the fact that many people already have a negative perception of his office.
He hopes to change their minds by demonstrating that improving the city's energy efficiency is something Tulsa can no longer afford to ignore.
"That's really true," he said. "And I wish more people saw that, instead of thinking that we're just adding more government, more bureaucracy. This department is going to have a huge external component with a lot of community involvement. I'll spend as much time dealing with members of the community as I do city employees. It relies on public support, and it relies on the nonprofits in Tulsa for public assistance."
His fledgling program could have a major impact in a city that is struggling to make ends meet, Fidler said.
"It has the potential to save a ton of money," he said. "There's a lot of waste. We waste a lot of energy. We're an energy city, so I think people are used to having it here."
Fidler and his new department were introduced during a March 3 press conference at the McBirney Mansion by Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr., who used the opportunity to sign an executive order creating the Department of Sustainability.
For now, the department has a single employee -- Fidler -- but a rather ambitious agenda, a list of programs designed to increase energy efficiency, reduce dependence on foreign energy and create or retain jobs.
"Energy is Oklahoma," Bartlett said. "Our state was founded on the energy industry. Now the door is wide open for the city of Tulsa to lead Oklahoma into the future with energy initiatives and projects that address sustainability. That's what these initiatives, focusing on alternative fuels and energy efficiency, are all about."
Much of that process will be funded by $3.8 million in grants from the Energy Efficiency Conservation Block Grant program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Included on that list of projects are:
$1.4 million retrofit program at the Oklahoma State University Medical Center, which will result in an estimated $210,000 in annual energy savings;
$900,000 geothermal project in the Brady Arts District, which will have the capacity to produce more than 400 tons of heating and cooling capacity;
$250,000 energy audit program for the city of Tulsa, which officials hope will reduce energy consumption in audited facilities by 25 percent;
$50,000 renewable energy feasibility assessment on selected city facilities that identifies suitable locations on city-owned buildings and properties for renewable energy installations, primarily solar;
$500,000 energy-efficient highway lighting system that will result in the replacement of many existing highway lights with more energy-efficient, lower-maintenance technology;
the development of a $50,000 revolving loan program that will make loans available to citizens and small business owners interested in performing energy-efficient upgrades to their homes and places of business, with the goal of offering $1 million in energy-efficiency loans;
the development of a $75,000 long-term energy and sustainability plan that focuses on improving energy efficiency and sustainability citywide for the next three to five years.
Work on those projects will begin quickly, Fidler said, noting they've already been in the planning stages for some time, beginning during the administration of Mayor Kathy Taylor, for whom Fidler served as a sustainability adviser.
"DOE released the funding announcement in February 2009, and our original application was due at the end of June 2009," he said. After the federal agency recommended some modifications to Tulsa's application, the city submitted its Energy Efficient Conservation Strategy -- a list of specific projects to be funded with the money -- in August of that year.
"We've gone back and forth (with the DOE) since then," Fidler said, noting that the process was delayed somewhat by the change in mayoral administrations in Tulsa. "Now we're in the final stages of approval. The DOE will release the funding per project; although they gave us a preliminary chunk of $250,000 to develop the strategy and set up the office for three years."
Fidler described the aforementioned list as a fairly complete accounting of what Tulsa will do with the grant money; although he added some smaller project could be added. One thing that won't happen, he said, is money being shifted from one project to another, something that is forbidden under the grant process.
Federal officials also require that the money be spent within a specified time.
"It's a fairly narrow funding window," Fidler said, adding that all the grant money has to be spent by July 26, 2012.
He said a couple of the projects will be more visible to the public than others, including the highway lighting system and the revolving loan program.
Bartlett also announced he has proposed two city ordinances that will be presented to the City Council soon, both of which could result in millions of dollars in energy-efficient improvements being made to public facilities without any new appropriations.
Fidler said the changes would deal primarily with procurement issues from the city's standpoint.
"There's a cap on what contracts we can enter into, and that cap is really low," he said. "That precludes us from being able to enter into certain contracts."
Bartlett's proposed ordinances would permit the city of Tulsa to follow state statute on procurement, allowing it to enter into so-called performance contracting. Under that system, Fidler said, an energy service company performs an audit of a certain building and makes recommendations designed to increase its energy efficiency and save a projected amount of money.
The company essentially guarantees those savings and performs the work, then is paid from the savings that result. The advantages to the city are obvious, Fidler said -- no capital expenditures up front, a more energy-efficient facility and the company absorbs any possible costs if the savings aren't as high as projected.
Passage of the two ordinances also would allow the city to appropriate $1.6 million from the 2006 third penny sales tax extension that had been earmarked for energy audits and energy performance contracting on city facilities.
Fidler noted the creation of his office will not place an additional burden on Tulsa's strained budget.
"We're totally grant funded," he said. "This does not come out of the general fund. This grant cycle expires at the end of July 2012, so by then, we'll have to find some other grant funding or some other way for the city to fund the office."
Fidler said Bartlett opted to make the office a stand-alone department rather than placing it under the auspices of another department, such as Public Works, so that the initiatives it is responsible for could be implemented more quickly. Fidler will report directly to Terry Simonson, Bartlett's chief of staff.
While his department and position may be new, Fidler is no stranger to city government, having begun his career at the Tulsa Zoo, where he was its first conservation director, overseeing the zoo's recycling and energy-efficiency programs. He said positions like his are fairly common in cities on the east and west coasts, less so in the Midwest, though he noted Oklahoma City created a sustainability department last summer.
"But this is something universities and large companies have been doing for years," he said.
Fidler described the creation of his department as a step in the right direction for Tulsa. He's pleased about having the chance to access $3.8 million in federal funds, but he's more excited about what his department can accomplish beyond that.
"Someday, I want to be able to look back at all the money we've saved and look at the long-term benefits," he said.
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