Reuters

City programs slowly turn an oil city green

As somebody who makes a living on environmental sustainability, Laura Spanjian could have done a lot worse than San Francisco. "Obviously that’s a town that’s extremely environmentally friendly," Spanjian says. "It’s so easy to do environmental work in San Francisco."

So it was kind of a leap when Spanjian left her post at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and headed to Houston, Texas, where she’s been the city’s director of sustainability since August 2010. Home to major gas and oil companies and notorious sprawl, Houston is not exactly a mecca of environmental consciousness. But if Spanjian has her way, it could be soon.

She’s behind a raft of new programs aimed at improving the city’s environmental footprint. Green building and renovations have been a key part of the city’s strategy for reducing energy use, as has the replacement of its 2,450 incandescent traffic lights with LEDs. Houston is also the number one municipal purchaser of renewable energy in America.

But she concedes that bringing about these changes in Houston has been a challenge, especially given the current economic climate. "It’s hard for people to think long-term. I get it," Spanjian says.

She has found success in touting the economic benefits of these sorts of programs. Highlighting returns on investments has been a much more effective approach than preaching the green gospel.

“Houstonians like to save money, I’ve learned,” says Spanjian. This is a slight change of pace from San Francisco. "Money’s always important, but it wasn’t always the first thing people thought of."

She says an important part in pushing these efforts forward is leading by example. For the city’s green building and energy efficiency initiatives, officials have focused on city-owned buildings. More than 80 have been retrofitted or redesigned to meet greater energy efficiency standards, and more than 12,000 units of public housing have also been outfitted with energy efficient appliances and fixtures.

Through various incentives, the city has also focused on encouraging building owners and tenants to cut energy use. Its Green Office Challenge offers up to 20 percent of the costs of converting office buildings to be more energy efficient. The city has the seventh most LEED-certified buildings in the U.S., as well as the seventh most Energy Star-rated buildings. These figures are likely part of what influenced the U.S. Conference of Mayors to name Houston and Mayor Annise Parker the winners of its Climate Protection Award earlier this year.

No longer just an oil and gas town, Houston has also been a leader in switching to electric and hybrid vehicles, boasting the country’s third largest municipal fleet of hybrid vehicles. And through a partnership with energy companies NRG and ECOtality, the city is now home to a growing network of privately-funded electric vehicle charging stations. Through the city’s fleet and the provision of charging stations, Spanjian says she’s hoping more consumers in this car-dependent city will consider switching to electric.

“We want to give them the comfort that when they buy these cars they’ll actually be able to charge them,” she says. “I don’t think we’re ahead of the demand. We’re ahead of the supply.”

She says the city’s car-dependence is beginning to shift a little bit. New public transit options are getting Houstonians out of their cars. The city has one light rail line in operation, and three more under construction. Within three years, those three new lines will be open, giving the city a 30-mile network of rail. Within 5 years, another two lines should be up and running as well.

Even so, Spanjian understands that shifting the mobility patterns and behavior of the city’s 2-million-and-growing population won’t happen quickly.

“We know that we’re not going to change the culture overnight with these light rail lines,” Spanjian says.

But Spanjian says that the tides are turning. She gives a lot of credit to Parker for pushing what can sometimes be unpopular environmental programs, and for trying to rally residents behind the city’s plans in a positive way. Environmentalism may be catching on, though it’s admittedly a gradual process. Spanjian is hoping to speed that process up.

“I think the ethos is changing in Houston,” she says. “I’d like to change it in the next four years, during this mayor’s term. But I’m probably too optimistic.”

Photo credit: Richard Carson / Reuters

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