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D.C. Aims To Out-Green Other Cities

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Mike Barrette installed his first set of solar panels in 2010. Now, panels cover his roof, and provide 80 to 90 percent of his electricity.
Jacob Fenston
Mike Barrette installed his first set of solar panels in 2010. Now, panels cover his roof, and provide 80 to 90 percent of his electricity.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray wants to make the District the greenest city in the country in the next 20 years, and last month he released a blueprint to get there. The plan, called Sustainable D.C., runs more than 120 pages, was 17 months in the making, and involved hundreds of District residents in dozens of meetings.

It's a broad-ranging document, from health to equity to climate change. In at least one area, the District is already doing well: energy. The city is a national trendsetter in green buildings, with the most LEED-certified buildings per-capita in the nation.

Sustainable D.C. would continue that trend, cutting in half citywide energy use by 2032, and increasing to 50 percent the amount of energy coming from clean and renewable sources, like solar.

Since 2010, the city has offered generous rebates to help residents pay for solar installations. Hundreds have taken up the offer, including Mike Barrette.

The roof of his Capitol Hill row house is covered with 24 solar panels, which he says provide as much as 90 percent of his home energy needs throughout the year.

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

"Since I put these in, my neighbor two doors down from me put in a system, my neighbor across the street put in a system," says Barrette. "In this Capitol Hill neighborhood, I think we've got at least 70 of these up so far."

Barrette is part of the Capitol Hill Energy Co-op, one of more than a dozen neighborhood groups supporting solar. 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.

Increasing renewable energy

Mayor Gray's Sustainable D.C. plan calls for adding 1,000 renewable energy projects, like solar panels, to District houses, apartments and commercial buildings.

But the goal of 50 percent renewable energy could mean many more than 1,000 solar installations, according to Bill Updike, with the District Department of the Environment. Updike co-chaired the Sustainable D.C. energy working group.

"The goals in the plan are visionary goals," he says. "You know, they're not easy goals, and they shouldn't be."

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.

The goals in the plan 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, and they also work to make solar more accessible.

Ted Trabue, managing director of the Sustainable Energy Utility, says solar technology isn't evenly distributed in the city. In most wards, there are between 150 to 200 homes with solar panels. By contrast, last year, in Wards 7 and 8 combined, only 11 homes had solar panels.

Now, many more do; DCSEU installed panels on 87 houses last year east of the Anacostia River.

Cutting energy usage

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: "We've definitely seen that in our work," says Elizabeth Lindsey, with the organization Groundswell. "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."

She says people often want to immediately put solar panels on their homes, without first doing energy efficiency upgrades.

"Where is that energy going? It's being wasted," she says.

The District's goal to cut energy use in half in 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.

"New York City, San Francisco, Austin, Chicago, all the big cities have big plans," says Steele.

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

"It can mean the same thing, but it's about rebranding energy efficiency."

She says all these plans and targets and goals can be good motivators: "If you don't set a goal, you're not going to meet it."

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. "I think that is what will distinguish us from other cities who kind of talk the talk, we want to walk the walk now."

[Music: "Sunshine of Your Love" by Jimi Hendrix from Valleys of Neptune]


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