Decatur’s industrial plants line the banks of the Tennessee River, illuminating the night sky and casting an eerily beautiful reflection of modernity in the dark, rolling waters.
Those gray smoke stacks are what the River City is known for, along with white barbecue sauce and Point Mallard’s water park. But officials want to remake that image and save some taxpayer money in the process.
The city, Decatur Utilities and the school system are exploring the possibility of partnering to make their facilities more energy efficient and their operation systems “smarter.”
Their hope is to create an energy-conscious city that not only benefits Mother Nature and public budgets but one that also is attractive to environmentally friendly young professionals concerned about their carbon footprints, Decatur Community and Economic Development Director Wally Terry said.
Terry has spearheaded the effort to coordinate city, school and DU officials in coming up with a request for proposals for companies to conduct an energy-efficiency analysis of all public facilities, including City Hall, recreation centers, schools and the Decatur Public Library.
Because each facility has its own “energy issues,” from power-hogging central heating and air units to drafty window panes, a study would reveal which structures are “bleeding” the most energy and where. Once problem areas are uncovered, energy consultants can devise ways to solve them.
“The idea is that the city already has the money in its budget to fund the facility improvements because it’s already spending excessive amounts of money on its current energy bills,” said Neal Turner, of Chevron Energy Solutions, who spoke to the City Council last month about energy audits for buildings.
Terry said the project is still in its infancy and that a RFP may not be ready until early 2013. An energy committee would be created to evaluate each proposal and its costs. But it represents the first step toward changing Decatur’s perception as an industrial town stuck in a 20th Century mindset, he said.
“Everyone has a certain impression of Decatur, and we want to keep those working-class values,” he said. “But let’s try to incorporate the positive aspects of being an energy-wise city and what we can offer people with more technology infrastructure.”
The library recently participated in an energy audit provided by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Other than having a 40-year-old heating and air system that runs up to $90,000 annually in power bills, the glass wall on the library’s north side allows cold to seep in during the winter and heat to expand in summer, Library Director Sandy McCandless said.
The city will pay $317,000 to install a high-efficiency HVAC system that could slash utility bills to around $16,000 annually.
Decatur High School installed a $5 million energy-efficient HVAC system, and the school system is evaluating possibilities for more “green” replacements, said Decatur City Schools Superintendent Ed Nichols, who is considering the energy audit.
“It’s definitely worth looking into,” Nichols said. “If we can find ways to save money on our energy, maintenance and operations costs, that money could be diverted to construction projects and more programs for students.”
DU General Manager Ray Hardin did not return calls for comment.
The public utility company has taken similar steps, transitioning to a power-rate structure that sets electric prices lower in off-peak times and higher during peak usage periods to influence customer consumption.
Cities such as Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Colo., have implemented smart-grid technology that provides real-time, computer-based tracking of energy usage. The information gleaned from smart grid presents infinitive possibilities, Terry said.
A U.S. Department of Energy study estimated converting traditional power grids to smart grids could save $46 billion to $117 billion over 20 years. However, utility experts contend it’s an expensive undertaking.
“A lot of doors open up when you start going down that path,” Terry said. “Advancements that used to take decades can happen in just years. And it’s out there for us, here in Decatur, if we work together and go after it.”
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