Transcripts

D.C. Aims To Out-Green Other Cities

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

00:00:03
We're going to press the fast-forward button now and head to the D.C. of 2032. That may sound dizzyingly far off in the future, but District Mayor Vincent Gray is planning ahead. By that year, he says, D.C. will be...

MAYOR VINCENT GRAY

00:00:20
The healthiest, the greenest, the most livable city in the world. Not just the United States, but in the world.

WILSON

00:00:28
That was Mayor Gray speaking last month, when he released a 120-page document laying out a plan 17 months in the making called, Sustainable D.C. Jacob Fenston takes a look at those ambitions and what they may mean for our energy future here in the nation's capital.

MR. MIKE BARRETTE

00:00:48
All right. Here we go.

MR. JACOB FENSTON

00:00:50
Mike Barrette is opening up the stairs through his attic to the roof of his Capitol Hill row house.

MR. JACOB FENSTON

00:00:55
Can I come up?

BARRETTE

00:00:56
Yes, come on up.

FENSTON

00:00:58
Up here it's covered with solar panels.

FENSTON

00:01:00
If you want me to grab anything, let me know.

FENSTON

00:01:01
Barrette installed 19 panels back in 2010.

BARRETTE

00:01:04
That was about half of my home's electricity powered from those.

FENSTON

00:01:08
But two years later he decided that wasn't enough. He wanted to get as close to 100 percent solar as possible.

BARRETTE

00:01:14
I put on another 13 panels in the back of the roof. That's probably got me up around 80 percent, maybe close to 90 percent.

FENSTON

00:01:23
From Barrette's roof, if you look out across the neighborhood, you can see other solar panels, poking up above historic row house facades.

BARRETTE

00:01:30
My neighbor two doors down from me put in a system. My neighbor across the street put in a system. And in this Capitol Hill neighborhood, I think we've got at least 70 of these up now.

FENSTON

00:01:41
As neighbors learned about Barrette's solar panels, they started asking for tours of the roof and then installing their own systems. Part of the reason, it can be a very good investment. Barrette says possibly better than the stock market. Back downstairs, Barrette shows me on the computer how he can track is energy production in real time.

BARRETTE

00:02:01
Starting in March, I'll have a negative bill.

FENSTON

00:02:03
In the hottest months of summer and the coldest months of winter, he might actually owe something on his electric bill.

BARRETTE

00:02:09
But the rest of the year I pretty much don't have an energy bill.

FENSTON

00:02:13
Mayor Gray's Sustainable D.C. plan calls for adding 1000 renewable energy projects, like solar panels, to District houses, apartments and commercial buildings. It would also increase the proportion of clean and renewable energy used in the District to half of the city's total energy pie by 2032. That could mean many more than 1000 solar installations says Bill Updike with the District Department of the Environment.

MR. BILL UPDIKE

00:02:38
Yeah, I mean I think the goals in the plan are visionary goals, you know, they're not easy goals and they shouldn't be.

FENSTON

00:02:45
Currently, he says, solar panels in the District produce just five to ten megawatts of energy. To reach the goal of 50 percent renewable power could require hundreds of megawatts of solar. That's a lot of panels.

UPDIKE

00:02:56
Why aim low, right?

FENSTON

00:02:57
The Sustainable D.C. plan came together through months of meetings with hundreds of volunteers from the community and government officials. Updike, who chaired the Energy Working Group, says D.C. is already a national trend-setter in some areas. We have the most LEED-certified green buildings for example.

UPDIKE

00:03:13
We blow all the other cities away.

FENSTON

00:03:15
But the goals present a number of challenges. One is that renewable energy is still expensive upfront. Even with D.C. government rebates and federal tax credits, an average solar panel system can cost $5,000 out of pocket. That's something the D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility is working to change. The group, created by the District Council in 2008, offers rebates on efficient light bulbs and washing machines. They also work to make solar more accessible.

FENSTON

00:03:41
Ted Trabue, managing director of the Sustainable Energy Utility, says solar technology isn't evenly distributed in the city. In most wards...

MR. TED TRABUE

00:03:50
Ward 1, Ward 2, Ward 4, Ward 3, Ward 6.

FENSTON

00:03:53
...there are between 150 and 200 homes with solar panels. By contrast...

TRABUE

00:03:58
In Wards 7 and 8 combined, only 11 homes had solar panels.

FENSTON

00:04:02
Now, many more do. DCSEU installed panels on 87 homes last year east of the Anacostia River. The other side of the energy equation, besides producing cleaner energy, is, of course, using less of it. But that doesn't always generate as much excitement.

MS. ELIZABETH LINDSEY

00:04:17
We've definitely seen that in our work.

FENSTON

00:04:19
Elizabeth Lindsey, with the organization Groundswell.

LINDSEY

00:04:22
We do work with homeowners and renters and help them to make their homes more energy efficient. And that is not as sexy as doing solar. People want to immediately put solar panels on their homes, but if their homes aren't efficient, where is that energy going? It's still being wasted.

FENSTON

00:04:38
On the efficiency side, Sustainable D.C. calls for cutting energy use in half in the next 20 years. Lindsey says it's a great goal, but many residents need more help to afford to energy efficiency upgrades.

LINDSEY

00:04:50
In D.C. there's not a lot of financing, like low-cost financing or subsidies available for people, so it's actually quite expensive.

FENSTON

00:04:57
The District's goal to cut energy use in half in the next 20 years lines up with President Obama's goal for the nation, set out in his recent State of the Union address. And a lot of other cities have plans too, according to Nicole Steele with the Alliance to Save Energy.

MS. NICOLE STEELE

00:05:13
New York City, San Francisco, Austin, Chicago, all the big cities have big plans.

FENSTON

00:05:17
The Alliance has its own plan as well. It was released in January and seeks to double energy productivity by 2030.

STEELE

00:05:24
It can mean the same thing, but it's about rebranding energy efficiency.

FENSTON

00:05:28
She says all these plans and targets and goals can be good motivators.

STEELE

00:05:32
If you don't set a goal, you're not going to meet it.

FENSTON

00:05:35
But, plans can also be just plans. Documents that collect dust. Elizabeth Lindsey with Groundswell says now it's time for the next step, putting the plan in action.

LINDSEY

00:05:46
I think that's what will distinguish us between other cities who kind of talk the talk. We want to walk the walk now.

FENSTON

00:05:52
I'm Jacob Fenston.

WILSON

00:05:58
Want to learn more about energy efficiency or how to get started with your very own solar installation? Check out our website, metroconnection.org. Time for a break, but when we get back we'll head to Virginia's Pittsylvania County, where the political debate over uranium mining can be deeply personal.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1

00:06:18
People who are against it don't know what the hell they're talking about.

FENSTON

00:06:21
That and more in a minute on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.

ANNOUNCER

00:06:26
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