DC Sustainable Energy Utility saves energy and money while creating jobs

In most industries, it costs less per unit to produce greater quantities of a product (economies of scale). But with energy, the reverse is true. That’s why investing in conservation at the consumer level is a prudent way for governments to reduce energy use and save users money. Not only is efficiency more effective for ratepayers and taxpayers than building new power plants, even ones using renewable sources, it’s also better for the environment in many respects.

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Photo by Dept of Energy Solar Decathlon on Flickr.com

DC’s growing population means its rate of energy use is forecast to rise in the coming years. That’s why the DC Council created the DC Sustainable Energy Utility (DC SEU) in 2008. It helps residents and businesses make meaningful gains in energy efficiency, a task as which it has been quite successful. It and similar programs are needed if the city is to achieve Mayor Gray’s goal of cutting the District’s energy use in half by 2032, part of his Sustainable DC Initiative.

Created by the DC Council’s Clean and Affordable Energy Act of 2008, the DC SEU, a nonprofit organization under contract to the District Department of the Environment (DDOE), is dedicated to reducing the District’s energy footprint to keep rates low for all businesses and residents. Through a surcharge on their electricity and natural gas bills, DC ratepayers are funding DC SEU energy efficiency programs that they can take advantage of to reduce energy costs in their homes or businesses.

The DC SEU calls itself a power plant made not of concrete and smokestacks, but of people. It assists DC residents and businesses in reducing their electricity and natural gas bills through a variety of initiatives, such as offering reduced-price compact fluorescent light bulbs, handing out rebates for energy-efficient appliances, installing better insulation and duct sealing in homes, providing incentives and technical assistance for large-scale commercial properties, and giving commercial customers rebates for energy-efficient commercial equipment and lighting.

The DC SEU is the only energy efficiency utility in the country that measures success with both energy savings and economic development goals. While other states, including Vermont, Ohio, and Delaware have such utilities, and many states have energy efficiency programs, the DC SEU’s mandate extends beyond reducing electricity and natural gas consumption. It is tasked with creating green jobs for District residents (each of its employees lives in DC), allocating 30% of its annual project budget to programs that serve low-income residents, and working with local Certified Business Enterprises (CBEs).

In 2012, it served 18,795 households in 2012 (60% of these being low-income households) and spent $5.2 million with locally-owned CBEs. Its customers saved a total of almost $3 million annually in energy costs while its efficiency measures produce lifetime economic benefits of almost $24 million, the DC SEU claims.

Commercial and industrial buildings are the city’s largest energy users. Soon, energy and water use information for all buildings with more than than 100,000 gross square feet will be made public in compliance with the DDOE’s benchmarking regulation that went into effect this January. This wealth of public data will increase transparency in the market and provide a more complete picture of DC buildings’ energy, water, and carbon footprints than has ever been produced, and will reflect change over time as efficiency measures are implemented.

DC has assessed the energy and water use and carbon emissions of every District-owned building every year since 2009, but this is the first year that private owners of commercial buildings larger than 100,000 square feet are required to benchmark and report to DDOE—the deadline for submitting their assessments was Monday, April 1. By next year, the requirement will extend to all commercial and multifamily residential buildings that are 50,000 square feet or larger. For the past two years, the DC SEU has provided a Benchmarking Help Center assist owners of large buildings assess and report energy and water use.

The Help Center has fielded more questions about medical offices and small retail outlets in multifamily apartment buildings and condominiums than expected. “We walk by these buildings every day, but we don’t think about how they operate – how much energy or water they use or what’s inside,” says Help Center spokesperson John Andreoni. “Through the release of benchmarked and reported data, we’ll gain access to this information.”

Armed with more public data on District building’s electricity, water, and gas use than has ever been amassed in one place, the DC SEU will have more information at hand to shrink the District’s resource consumption and encourage building owners and managers to embrace energy efficiency—trimming the city’s environmental footprint and keeping costs low for all District ratepayers.

Thanks to the DC SEU’s Hanna Grene for her assistance with this post.

Just a click helps restore Meridian Hill Park’s grotto

DC’s Meridian Hill Park, a National Historic Landmark noted as one of few examples of 20th-century Neoclassicist park design in the United States, is competing for a share of a $1 million Partners in Preservation grant to restore the grotto at its 16th Street entrance. The historic sites with the most votes by May 10 win. You can vote today and every day through May 10.


The park, also known as Malcolm X Park, gets its original name from a mansion erected there in 1819. The mansion took its name from Thomas Jefferson’s idea that the line of longitude on which the White House sits, also marked by 16th Street, should be the Earth’s Prime Meridian.

The federal government purchased the land in 1910 and, as part of the McMillan Plan, hired landscape architect George Burnap in 1914 to design a grand formal park modeled after Renaissance and Italian gardens. George Peaslee, another landscape architect, later revised Burnap’s plan. This type of garden was historically reserved for aristocrats in Europe, but this one would be for the enjoyment of all the people. Construction was completed in 1936, by which time the National Park Service had assumed control of the park.

Meridian Hill Park’s classical structures are made of concrete aggregate, representing one of the first uses of this material on such a scale. Concrete aggregate is made from small pebbles from which colors and textures are pulled as they are melded together, then brushed with wire and washed with acid to expose the texture.

Today, Meridian Hill Park is one of the city’s iconic and most-used public spaces, enjoyed by residents and visitors alike. It is a meeting place for a diverse cross-section of Washingtonians and has hosted numerous concerts, celebrations and other gatherings.

The 1985 Historic American Buildings Survey offers a poetic description of entering the park through the grotto on 16th Street, which is in need of repairs to keep it in good shape for another 100 years:

The rusticated, round-arched doorway of the Sixteenth Street entrance to the mall leads into an elegant, tunnel vaulted flight of stairs. A graceful, wrought iron lantern hangs from the ceiling of the groin-vaulted landing. Ahead a grotto niche encrusted with stalagtite forms contained a trickle of water falling from below a hooded, female face in shallow relief. Light comes in through a high, semi-circular window to the left. Making a quarter turn to the right, one emerges into the upper mall from an open stairway facing south. The stairway was designed to be softened by hanging vines from above. Directly in front of the stairway, a pleached ailee of linden trees leads to the great terrace. The great terrace terminates the upper portion of the park, and forms the major cross axis of the park. It is marked at each end by great bowl fountains.

Please join me in casting as many votes as you wish, no more than one per day through May 10, to help Meridian Hill Park win a grant to perform this needed upkeep.

Urban Serendipity

Among my favorite aspects of living in a major city is the ability, when I’ve got nothing better to do on a Friday night, to go out and take advantage of one of a plethora of cultural offerings. Last night, I decided to check out a performance of mostly Afro-Brazilian rhythm and dance as part of Dance DC Festival, a free performance series sponsored primarily by the DC Commission for the Arts and Humanities (something I am glad to have my tax dollars support).

The performance, held at the Atlas Performing Arts Center — the restored theater at the heart of the booming H Street Northeast corridor — spanned from ballroom dancing, to something akin to belly dancing (done by a woman while balancing a bottle of water on her head), to a performance of capoeira (which I never knew existed before last night), a martial art of African origin brought to Brazil by slaves and fused with music to become a dance of sorts. DC actually has a capoeira club, something you won’t find in my old hometown of Greensboro, NC.

Having been energized by the performance — which concluded with a 15-member, all female drum corps — I felt like walking the one-and-a-half miles back to my house in Bloomingdale. As I turned to cross H Street at 14th St. NE, I heard a man ask me if this was the way to U Street. He said he wanted to walk to 14th and U. I told him my destination was right on his way, so we walked together. His name was Ian. He was a tall, thin thirty-something visitor from Tucson, Arizona. When I told him that I work for the National Association of Railroad Passengers, he said that sounds like a dream job, and we proceeded to share our frustrations with the ill effects of car-dependent culture. When we got to my house, I gave him my business card and a bottle of water, and he said he would be sure to get involved in passenger train advocacy.

These are the kinds of serendipitous encounters that people who drive everywhere rarely experience. If you take time to walk, or even to ride the train or bus, you’re sure to meet interesting people and gain a real-world education.

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