With fancy thermostats and pool-filtering moss, the city of St. Paul has been trying different things to be nicer to the environment, reduce energy use and save money.

An influx of cash from federal grants and stimulus program funding, as well as money from private partners, helped the city get several projects done over the past year, and there are many others in the pipeline.

A report released last week outlined those efforts. Some highlights from the Sustainable St. Paul annual report include:

• Securing more than $6 million in grants for energy projects for the city, businesses and residents

• Installing sophisticated programmable thermostats and energy-efficient lighting in five city facilities that have significantly cut electricity and natural gas use

• Recycling or reusing more than 21,000 tons of stuff through the residential recycling program and neighborhood cleanup events

St. Paul officials say finding better ways to use less energy and have a smaller carbon footprint will save taxpayers money. Currently, the city spends about $8.5 million a year on electricity and gas.

Although efficiency upgrades can cost more upfront, the time it takes for them to pay for themselves is relatively short, said Anne Hunt, environmental policy director for Mayor Chris Coleman.

City workers have been taking an inventory of buildings and rating them by how much energy they use.

Four utility hogs were the Como Lakeside Pavilion, Phalen Golf Course Clubhouse and the Langford and Linwood recreation centers. Each received new programmable thermostats that turn off heating and cooling systems when parts of the buildings aren't in use. So far, the reduction in electricity has ranged from 12 percent in the Como building to 32 percent in the Phalen clubhouse. Gas consumption has decreased by 20 percent at Linwood and 72 percent at Phalen. Linwood has seen a $10,000 savings in its energy bill since the switch, and Phalen has seen a $14,000 reduction.

Upgrades are scheduled or underway for about 10 other buildings. Along with the previous four buildings, city officials expect to save $120,000 per year in operating expenses from the new thermostats.

The city also changed 1,800 lights at the RiverCentre parking ramp, which has meant a 47 percent cut in energy consumption and about $66,000 in annual savings.

"I try to look at projects that are going to have biggest impact on the environment, that will be effective and that taxpayers will support," Hunt said. "That's why we focus so much on energy efficiency -- it's a big bang for the buck."

Over the next year, the city will embark on 20 more projects, at a cost of $824,000. The city will pay about 40 percent of that total cost after utility rebates and use of stimulus money are factored in. On average, the improvements will pay for themselves within three years, Hunt said.

Coming next

Some of the city's environmental efforts will become more noticeable to the public over the next year.

Locations haven't been finalized, Hunt said, but solar panels will be going up on various city buildings, especially near University Avenue, where the Central Corridor light-rail line is planned to run.

Visitors to public facilities will have more chances to recycle things.

Charging stations for electric vehicles will be installed on streets and in city-owned parking ramps.

One important initiative that won't be noticeable to the public is the development of a detailed tracking system to determine how much energy is being used in all city buildings, Hunt said.

"Everything adds up," she said.

To see the report, go to tinyurl.com/2cw6bpk

Chris Havens • 612-673-4148