The Berglund Center in Roanoke, Virginia. Credit: City of Roanoke / Courtesy

The Virginia city is the seventh nationwide to earn the Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge Goal Achiever status.

An endeavor by city employees in Roanoke to button up its civic center, libraries, fire stations and recreation centers has reduced its energy footprint 23% since 2012 and saved taxpayers $400,000 annually on utility bills.

It’s also earned the Virginia city status as a 2019 Better Buildings Challenge Goal Achiever from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Roanoke is one of only seven local governments nationwide to achieve that title since the federal agency introduced the energy efficiency challenge seven years ago.

“It’s a pretty elite group we’re in,” said Nell Boyle, Roanoke’s sustainability and outreach coordinator. “And it’s a big deal when the Department of Energy tells you you’re doing a good job.” 

The community is among the 360-plus cities, states, businesses, manufacturers, universities, schools, data centers and other market sectors that have partnered with the DOE on its Better Buildings Challenge. Each entity commits to reaching 20% energy savings in 10 years.

Roanoke is unique in that it exceeded the 20% goal by the end of 2018 — four years ahead of schedule. Its baseline for calculations was 2009.

Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tennessee, also were named Better Buildings Challenge Goal Achievers this year. Hillsboro, Oregon; West Palm Beach, Florida; Beaverton, Oregon; and Chicago joined the list between 2015 and 2018.

Roanoke’s speedy eco-accomplishment isn’t shocking in a community of about 100,000 that has long aspired to snag top green credentials in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Boyle had about a decade of experience with environmentally friendly  construction practices when she was hired in 2012. But she credits her predecessor Ken Cronin with laying a solid foundation when, in an internal move, he was promoted in 2005 as Roanoke’s first director of general services and sustainability.

Cronin hired employees with efficiency know-how who could accelerate projects laid out in capital improvement and operations and maintenance plans.

“We’ve made a commitment to having our own internal energy team,” Boyle said. “It’s a big win having a team of people who really get to know the buildings who have a sense of ownership and pride.”

Teamwork pays off big time

Teamwork was crucial for the Better Buildings Challenge as Roanoke employees crafted an overarching blueprint to tackle upgrades at fire stations, libraries, recreation centers, the courthouse and jail, the public works service center, the police station and the police academy.

Nell Boyle, Roanoke’s sustainability and outreach coordinator (photo courtesy of the city of Roanoke)

That entailed transitioning to LED lighting, retrofitting HVAC systems and installing plate exchangers that would allow cooling without the traditional electric-powered mechanical chillers.

However, tightening up those municipal structures seemed like small potatoes compared to the challenge of overhauling the centerpiece energy hog. That would be the Berglund Center, Roanoke’s 391,300-square-foot cultural hub built in 1971 of concrete panels.

Part of the Better Buildings Challenge requires participants to select one piece of its overarching plan as a showcase project. Roanoke chose the Berglund Center.

“It was our big energy consumer,” Boyle said about the behemoth that houses a coliseum, a performing arts center, a special events center and offices. “It had never been touched.”

After completing a comprehensive assessment, workers delved into a lengthy checklist. It included converting interior and exterior lights to LEDs, replacing exterior doors, repairing HVAC equipment, and installing a high-efficiency chiller and a state-of-the-art ice rink refrigeration system.

Sherman Stovall, a 25-year Roanoke employee, has spent the last 10 as assistant city manager. 

He noted that $400,000 in energy savings can make a significant dent, even in a city with a $299 million overall budget. Avoided energy costs not only reduce the city’s operating subsidy for the Berglund Center but also translate to extra dollars in the general fund dedicated to city services such as picking up trash and maintaining libraries, parks and streets.  

“This validates the reasons why we made a pivot to energy savings,” Stovall said. “We’re very pleased with our success.”

Kudos from DOE

Maria Vargas directs DOE’s Better Buildings Initiative, which includes the challenge and a wide array of other efficiency programs designed for the public and private sectors.

She visited the Berglund Center in January 2015 as part of a media tour to spotlight Roanoke’s potential and ingenuity.

“It was a way to make Nell’s glide path a little easier,” Vargas said. “Roanoke citizens need to know that their city is a model for cities all over the country. What they’ve done is a badge of honor.”

She helped to launch Better Buildings after two decades with the Energy Star program at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Her incentive? She knew that this country wasted 20% to 30% of the $400 billion spent on heating, cooling and lighting commercial and industrial buildings.

“Often, the energy bill is just something we pay and don’t think about,” Vargas said. “The challenge was a way to elevate energy efficiency to the senior level across an entire organization’s portfolio.” 

Collectively, the 360 organizations on board with the challenge have saved $3.8 billion thus far by greening more than 4.4 billion square feet.

In return, challenge participants can access technical expertise from DOE, as well as expertise and insights from other enrollees at an annual summit geared for idea-sharing.

“Roanoke is one of the places I point to when people ask who is doing it right,” Vargas said. “We hold Roanoke up as an example of what I call ‘co-opetition.’”

Boyle also deploys that collaborative spirit during gatherings of the Virginia Energy and Sustainability Peer Network. Since 2016, about 20 cities, towns and counties across the state have met online and in person to trade tips about advancing efficiency and renewables. Their broader discussions center on overcoming regulatory hurdles and shaping a common vision to advocate for state legislative action.

“This is a way we can have a voice in Richmond and influence what matters to us,” Boyle said. “Having information from other communities has given me a lot of confidence and support when something arises that makes our city council or government officials nervous.

“I couldn’t do my job without it.”

Funding stream from RGGI?

Boyle is disappointed that Virginia hasn’t provided direct funding to communities intent on boosting energy efficiency. 

“There hasn’t been a whole lot at the state level,” Boyle said. “It would be nice to have incentives or funding streams allocated to these types of projects.”

Energy leader Chelsea Harnish is hopeful that scenario will change if Virginia follows through on joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. That seems more likely after Democrats gained majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly during an election earlier this month.

RGGI is a regional compact of northeastern states designed to cap and reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases from power plants. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has called for 5% of those allowances to fund a new energy efficiency program at the State Energy Office.

“We would advocate for those funds to be available to localities who want to address their own carbon footprint,” said Harnish, executive director of the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council. The money would help because “localities are exempt from taking part in any energy efficiency programs currently offered by Virginia’s utilities.”

In the meantime, local governments can take advantage of a state framework that lines up localities with companies that specialize in energy retrofits of publicly owned buildings. The Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy coordinates that program. 

Vargas said it might make sense for Virginia to fund model projects to highlight the value of energy efficiency investments. But she emphasized that such incentives need careful thought.

The federal Better Buildings Challenge is intentionally voluntary because “paying people sets up the wrong path forward,” she said.

“You don’t have to pay people for something that’s in their self-interest. Saving energy is low risk, cost-effective, and pays for itself.” 

Boyle is elated with Roanoke’s progress and can-do attitude. While that motivates her to keep the bar high, she is aware that energy efficiency gains become more formidable after the initial makeovers are executed. 

“The story for me is the leadership that this community has shown,” she said. “It’s something to be proud of and I hope it trickles down to future generations.”

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.