Be Patient and Persevere

At this year’s SEEC Forum, Dan Schoenholz and Rachel DiFranco gave a well-reviewed presentation on making sustainability projects happen.

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At this year’s SEEC Forum, Dan Schoenholz, Deputy Director of Community Development, and Rachel DiFranco, Sustainability Manager, for the City of Fremont, gave a well-attended and well-reviewed presentation on the nuts and bolts of making sustainability projects happen.

Entitled “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful Municipal Sustainability Professionals” (a not-so-subtle riff on the famous Stephen Covey guide to personal and professional success), the talk had a dual purpose: to highlight Fremont’s many innovative sustainability programs, while at the same time reminding attendees that Fremont’s sustainability successes were not due to big budgets or high staffing levels, but rather resulted from some basic strategies that could be replicated in most local jurisdictions.

“We are like a lot of other cities in California in that we have a Council that is very supportive of sustainability efforts, but we don’t have a ton of resources available, so we have to be creative,” said Schoenholz.  He noted, however, that the policy framework established by the City Council—identifying sustainability as a key part of the City’s general plan vision statement in 2011, and adopting a Climate Action Plan in 2012 that called for emissions reductions of 25% from 2005 levels by 2020—was the foundation for future successes.

The presentation used four major sustainability projects in Fremont as case studies, including:

  • Participation in a regional renewable energy project that resulted in the installation of 1.6MW of solar on carports at multiple city locations, offsetting about 15% of the electrical load from City operation.
  • A $9.1 million water- and energy-efficiency project that involved conversion of 16,000 streetlights to LEDs, upgrades to park and facility lighting, plumbing and irrigation improvements, and variable speed water pumps at the City’s water park.
  • A pilot microgrid project funded by the California Energy Commission at three fire stations using technology developed by local cleantech firm Gridscape Solutions. The project, which pairs solar carports with batteries that would allow the stations to continue operating in the event of an emergency, will provide ongoing utility savings to the City while also adding resiliency to a critical public service.
  • A community-based competition called the “Kilowatt Smackdown.” Through a partnership with the non-profit Green Impact Campaign and prize donations from local “green” firms, DiFranco engaged five teams of high school students in a competition to conduct energy and water audits of local small businesses. The project was a tremendous success, completing 481 audits in just seven weeks while linking businesses to utility rebates or incentive programs.

Using these projects as a springboard, Schoenholz and DiFranco identified “seven habits” that were essentially strategies for navigating sustainability projects through to completion (see the list of the “Seven Habits” at the end of the article.)

“We have seen a lot of our efforts coming to fruition in the past year or so,” said DiFranco.  “We wanted to offer ourselves as living proof that if you follow some basic strategies (like avoiding impacts to the general fund, taking advantage of opportunities that arise, leveraging internal and external champions, and above all, persevering) you can have a big impact.

7 Habits of Highly Effective Municipal Sustainability Professionals

1. Be Thrifty
  • Fremont did not have to dip into their general fund for any of the four featured projects. They used Power Purchase Agreement for renewables and leveraged multiple sources of funding such as grants from the CEC, on-bill financing from the IOUs, and low-interest loans repaid through utility savings, as well as partnered with non-profits and the private sector support local community initiatives.
2. Be Opportunistic
  • The regional renewable energy project offered the City extensive up-front consulting expertise at little or no cost, enabling procurement of solar with little out-of-pocket investment.  The Kilowatt Smackdown leveraged the enthusiasm of local high school students and required little staff time to implement.
3. Leverage Internal Support
  • The Police Department sought rain/sun protection for its fleet, so were strong supporters of installing solar carports.
  • The Economic Development Department was a proponent of the microgrid project that featured technology developed by a local company.
4. Show Courage
  • Due to resource limitations in the Public Works Department, there was no staff available to project manage the $9.1 million energy/water efficiency upgrade project.  Despite some trepidation, sustainability staff agreed to take on the management of this infrastructure upgrade project.
5. Do the Heavy Lifting
  • Sustainability projects don’t always fit neatly in an organizational box, so it isn’t clear who should “own” them.  In many instances, Fremont sustainability staff has stepped forward to manage projects where a leadership vacuum has existed.
6. Market, Market, Market
  • Get the word out about your success in the community. Taking advantage of social media to share your success not only highlights your accomplishments but also can provide support for sustainability leaders in other communities.  Messaging regarding Fremont’s sustainability efforts has generated considerable interest and positive response.
7. Be Patient and Persevere
  • Completing a project can take a long time. During this time you will experience setbacks such as changing city staff, budget constraints, shifting priorities in city departments, and much more. But if you are patient and continue to persevere you will find success.