POSTED ON MAY 12, 2010:
Use It or Lose It
With time running out for grant allocation, city's DOS prepares to spend dough quickly
The director of Tulsa's new Department of Sustainability said the remainder of a $3.8 million federal grant to the city should be coming soon, allowing his department to begin work on a handful of programs designed to increase energy efficiency.
Brett Fidler, the department's director, said Tulsa received the first installment of an Energy Efficiency Conservation Block Grant administered by the U.S. Department of Energy in the fall of 2009. A second portion was received two weeks ago, and Fidler said city officials have received word that the third and final installment is on its way, as well.
That will allow his department to begin the process of dispersing funds for two items on its list that are ready to go -- a $1.4 million retrofit program at the Oklahoma State University Medical Center, which will result in an estimated $210,000 in annual energy savings, and a $740,000 public lighting system that will result in the replacement of many existing public lights with more energy-efficient, lower-maintenance technology.
"Those are the two highest-priority projects, and they're being dealt with concurrently," Fidler said. "We hope to be well on our way with those within the next six weeks."
Fidler's department was created in early March under an executive order signed by Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. The goal of the department, he said then, is to prove that energy efficiency is something Tulsans can no longer afford to ignore.
The OSU Medical Center and public lighting programs will serve as two examples of that, he said, while eating up approximately 60 percent of the grant total. Among the changes coming for the medical center are new, high-efficiency boilers and chillers, along with LED lighting retrofits in the building's surgical suites, he said. Fidler said that work will be part of a larger retrofit program going on at the facility that uses other funds.
"They're very excited about the surgical suites, particularly because the LED lights are more efficient and much cooler," he said.
The lighting program originally was billed as a project that would lead to the replacement of many existing highway lights. But Fidler said that with many of those lights having been turned off because of budget problems; city officials are rethinking that approach.
Instead, he said, they are considering replacing lights that are "more pedestrian accessible" and currently in use, such as traffic and crosswalk lights. Much of that work would take place downtown, he said, though the rest would be scattered around the city. The savings that would be realized from those changes then could be used to finance the replacement of highway lights later, he said.
All but a handful of highway lights in Tulsa -- the most important, from a safety standpoint -- have been turned off as a cost-saving measure. Fidler said the few that remain on are the most expensive to replace, another factor has led city officials to research other possibilities. They should make a decision about how to proceed soon, he said.
"Officially, we haven't changed the project yet," he said. "But DOE knows we're considering it, and they're very supportive."
Another program that was on the department's original list that is being revisited is the second most costly, a $900,000 allocation for a geothermal project in the Brady Arts District that would produce more than 400 tons of heating and cooling capacity. Fidler said the merits of the project are not in question, but the complexity of pulling together the different funding sources for it may slow it down.
"We're still trying to work out the details of the Brady project," he said. "It's a great project, but there have been concerns about the multiple funding streams for it, including two federal sources, and that becomes a big issue."
Fidler said organizers of the geothermal project are pursuing other federal grants that could replace the Department of Sustainability funds that have been earmarked for it.
"They're not writing us off, necessarily," he said, though they are exploring other options.
If alternative funding for the geothermal project becomes available, Fidler said the funds his department originally targeted for it could be used to supplement other projects already planned or used for newly developed ones.
"It could, technically, although we'll try to get that project to work because it benefits the city and gets some revitalization going," he said.
Fidler said city officials are under a deadline in their decision-making process. Originally, DOE officials told recipient cities they had until January 2011 to have all the projects allocated and under contract. But that date has been moved up, and cities now have until June 25 -- just a month and a half away -- to have the work on 90 percent of their grant total allocated and under contract.
Any grant amount that isn't allocated and under contract by then, he said, would be lost.
"We would have to make a decision fairly soon," Fidler said about the geothermal project.
But unless technical aspects about how the funding sources would come together are resolved quickly, city officials may have no choice than to devote the funds to another project.
"We'd rather do that than lose it," he said.
Other projects currently on the list include an energy audit for the city of Tulsa, which officials hope will reduce energy consumption in audited facilities by 25 percent; a renewable energy feasibility assessment on selected city facilities that identifies suitable locations on city-owned buildings and properties for renewable energy installations, primarily solar; the development of a 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, and the development of a long-term energy and sustainability plan that focuses on improving energy efficiency and sustainability citywide for the next three to five years.
All the grant money has to be spent by July 26, 2012.
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