Mayors face challenges in reducing CO2

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE
  • Star Tribune
  • March 31, 2008 - 5:36 AM

Thirty-five mayors in Minnesota and hundreds more nationwide have pledged to put a lid on the heat-trapping gases billowing from their cities into the warming atmosphere. Now they're confronting the complexity of following through on their promises.

While it's been easy to change light bulbs in City Hall, some steps to combat climate change aren't so simple. Will stopping police cars from idling make their jobs harder? Eliminating some "no right turn on red" signs will make for fewer traffic backups, but will it cause more accidents?

And then there's the biggest challenge: How do you get businesses and individuals in your city to change their polluting ways? In St. Paul, for example, municipal operations account for only 2 percent of the carbon emissions from the city.

"Trying to engage the private sector is going to be the big challenge," said Anne Hunt, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman's deputy policy director for energy and environmental issues. "I think it will have multiple benefits, in respiratory health and water quality. But I'm optimistic."

The U.S. Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement commits signers to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 7 percent below 1990 levels by the end of 2012, less than five years from now. That's in line with the Kyoto Protocol, which the U.S. government has not signed.

Many local leaders said they signed the mayors' agreement because they wanted to take a leadership role the federal government hasn't. To date, however, they're still figuring out how much carbon they're putting into the air, so no Minnesota city knows how much people will have to change their ways.

Minneapolis and St. Paul have a head start on reductions, having begun to tackle carbon-dioxide emissions more than a decade ago. Minneapolis has even set a goal that's tougher than those in the Kyoto and mayors' agreements: a CO2 reduction of 12 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, and 20 percent by 2020. That's not only for the city's public operations but for all activities in the city -- including a share of the considerable emissions from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Major conversion this year

In terms of overall emissions, both cities will leap toward their emissions reductions goals when Xcel Energy converts two major coal-burning electricity generators to natural gas this year and next. Next year's conversion of the Riverside plant in north Minneapolis, which has been burning coal since 1911, will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 1 million tons per year, about one-eighth of what the entire city has been emitting in recent years.

When Xcel's High Bridge plant starts burning natural gas instead of coal in May, the amount of carbon dioxide billowing out of St. Paul will drop by an estimated 585,000 tons each year -- a reduction of more than 12 percent of the city's annual emissions.

That could be enough to fulfill the capital city's first major goal under the mayors' agreement. But not so fast, Hunt said. St. Paul is not the only consumer of power from the High Bridge plant, so the city isn't going to claim the entire emissions reduction as its own. Moreover, the power plant's CO2 reductions are actually a lucky side effect of a conversion that was actually intended to eliminate mercury and other air and water pollutants, not carbon dioxide.

Xcel Energy environmental policy director Jim Turnure said the CO2 reductions from the utility's own projects will be about 20 percent over the next 15 years. But he noted that similar reductions from more fragmented sources -- cars, largely -- are likely to be tougher to achieve.

Minneapolis sustainability manager Gayle Prest points to dozens of other undertakings by the city that are reducing carbon dioxide, or should. This summer the city will erect the largest solar installation in the upper Midwest on city maintenance buildings; two other maintenance buildings and a fire station are already solar-powered.

Minneapolis has replaced bulbs in traffic signals with more efficient "light-emitting diode," or LED, lights. It has gotten rid of 130 fleet cars and replaced others with hybrids. There's an energy-saving, rainwater-cleansing "green roof" under construction at City Hall and another proposed for the city-owned Target Center.

Every city department has been ordered to reduce its carbon footprint, and the city has set up a grant program for neighborhood groups to take action to save energy or otherwise cut back on carbon emissions. Many of those projects have included giveaways of compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Minneapolis and St. Paul announced on Friday that they are receiving $200,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy to make solar energy more accessible for homes and businesses by 2015

Energy savings, but at a cost

The squiggly white bulbs have arguably become the most popular energy-saving device on the market. Last year, there were 108,000 sold in Minnesota, and each should use about 75 percent less electricity than their incandescent ancestors, according to Kim Sherman, product portfolio manager for Xcel Energy.

But the bright little helixes contain mercury, so they are considered hazardous waste -- it's illegal to toss them in the trash or recycling. Hardware stores may accept old bulbs but often charge a fee. Citing the mercury issues, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., is sponsoring a bill that would keep incandescent bulbs on the market instead of phasing them out by 2012.

That kind of dissonance seems to be a frequent feature in the carbon-reduction effort.

Minneapolis police are trying to establish a policy to cut down on squad-car idling and are even installing meters that track how long cars are left running. Deputy Chief Rob Allen said less idling will save engine wear and tear as well as cut fuel costs. But some cars need to stay running to support night-vision equipment, computers and computerized radios, and to keep police dogs warm in the winter.

"Of course in the wicked cold weather, we suspended the policy," Allen said.

Limiting 'no turn on red' signs

Jon Wertjes, Minneapolis traffic and parking services division chief, said the city also is trying to remove "no right turn on red" signs whenever practical and has a federal grant to retime the city's traffic signals. But those efforts, while destined to cut down on CO2-producing idling, often run afoul of neighborhood safety advocates.

"You want free flow, but free flow isn't safe," Wertjes said.

Other cities in the mayors' agreement are blazing new paths, though the course tends to be through design of scheduled new buildings rather than costly retrofits. Roseville is about to convert a traditional heating and ventilation system on its indoor ice arena to a geothermal system that could be extended throughout its entire City Hall campus. But that was a matter of capital-improvement timing as much as a new environmental consciousness, said parks director Lonnie Brokke.

Some progress is slow

Others, however, are just getting started measuring emissions and tweaking city practices. Eden Prairie city manager Scott Neal said the city has just completed a carbon dioxide inventory after two years of study.

Sheldon Strom, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Energy and Environment, said they shouldn't sweat the big stuff.

"Cities in my opinion spend too much time on the analysis,'' Strom said. "It makes this whole thing seem complicated. Each treats it like they're the first ones to do this, and they never get beyond the planning."

Strom said cities should focus on making their own buildings and vehicle fleets energy-efficient, and seek to buy recycled materials for offices and other agencies.

"The city has a bully pulpit to encourage businesses and residents to take action," Strom said. "Our point is that it's not credible if the city hasn't taken action first. They have to lead by example."

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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