Pure Genius

Charlotte: Coffee grounds on the runway, composting at the Ritz

Posting in Cities

A partnership between Cisco, Duke Energy and Charlotte Center City Partners is part of a city-wide push to conserve energy and teach residents the benefits of doing so.

Last month, Cisco, Duke Energy and Charlotte Center City Partners announced the creation of Envision: Charlotte, a collaboration to make commercial buildings in Charlotte’s urban core more energy efficient. The goal is to use digital smart grid and building automation technologies to reduce energy use by up to 20 percent in about 60 buildings within the inner loop.

Last week, I followed up with Charlotte’s Energy and Sustainability Manager Rob Phocas, to see what else is going on in North Carolina’s largest city.

How would you rate Charlotte today in terms of sustainability?

I wouldn't put us at the top of the pack, and I wouldn’t put us at the bottom. I think we’re between the top and the middle. We have a lot of initiatives underway, including defining what sustainability is for us. Some of the cities that are thought of as more sustainable have a working definition, but we’re not there yet. All our departments are doing interesting programs but we don’t have that cohesive approach yet like Portland does.

How would you define it?

There’s the triple bottom line, and then there’s environmental sustainability. We’ve been focused on environmental sustainability. I think what’s important is how the community wants to define it.

I think one of the issues with sustainability is that depending on who you talk to, it means different things. I was at a conference recently of other urban sustainability directors, and we were all wrestling over what it means for our community. Each city is a little different. The conference was at Park City, Utah. They have three people in their sustainability office, one for each part of the triple bottom line-–environmental, social and economic.

So what are you already doing, and doing right?

We have our energy block grant project—money that came from DoE. We got $6.7 million to develop and implement energy efficiency projects. We’re in the process of doing that now, and the projects range from a small solar installation on a parking deck with an information kiosk (we teamed up with our science museum in town for that), to putting recycling bins on a main street downtown where we didn’t have them before. We are partnering with Center City Partners and Coke and Harris Teeter for a prize patrol. It’s called Get Caught Green-Handed. If you get caught using the recycling bin, you get a prize.

Is the city composting?

City-wide, we’re not. The one entity that was doing some composting was our airport, which was working with the Starbucks locations in the airport and getting the coffee grounds to compost. They also found the coffee grounds are good at getting fire ants down, and there were a lot of fire ants around the lights on the runway. So now they use coffee grounds instead of pesticide. I don’t know if you’ve been bitten by a fire ant--it’s akin to a wasp sting; they’re tiny little guys but they pack a wallop.

Also, the first LEED-certified Ritz-Carlton in the country opened in Charlotte, and they’ve been looking at doing composting on a larger scale.

That’s a big statement, when the Ritz-Carlton starts composting.

They have not only the composting, but they have a rooftop vegetable garden and rooftop beehive. It’s a good example of what you can do downtown. [The hotel also has a bike valet, free parking for electric and hybrid vehicles and employee uniforms made of fabric derived from regenerated plastic bottles.]

What challenges do you face in moving forward with a greener city?

In some cities there seems to be more of an awareness of the environment, and people are more tuned in to environmental issues. One of the things I’ve heard talking to other environmental professionals in Charlotte is that we need to get the word out—about the environmental efforts and the benefits of doing it. So one of our biggest challenge is getting accurate news and information out to our residents

When you have big partners involved, like with Envision: Charlotte, they employ a lot of people, who will take this home to their families and neighbors. The goal is to get these 60 to 70 buildings in the heart of Charlotte to reduce their energy usage, but it’s also an education campaign to not only be energy smart in the building but also at home.

How bad is the pollution in Charlotte?

We are in an ozone nonattainment area, which means we have not been able to meet the federal ozone standard. It’s a combination of our geography and where we’re located but we also have a lot of vehicle miles traveled. Our population is very car-dependent.

Do you pay a penalty for not meeting the standard?

It’s complicated. It's not just Charlotte, it’s several counties around us. The general idea is that when measurements are taken, your average needs to be below 85 parts per billion. If you’re not meeting that standard there is the potential to have your federal transportation funding cut.

There’s a group in town called Clean Air Works! that encourages people to take public transportation or carpool, especially on days with high ozone levels.

One of the things the city has done is look for opportunities to increase bicycle use. We also are switching our buses over to hybrid buses. And we just received a grant from the federal government to move forward with a streetcar project.

If there was one thing you could communicate to all the residents of Charlotte, what would it be?

To move forward on environmental issues, we need to look for opportunities to change behavior and educate ourselves about what we can do at home and at work, and then really make the effort to change behaviors. Recognize that it will take all of us to make these changes, not just larger entities.

We’re also launching a website to let everyone know about energy block grant projects. It’s Power2Charlotte.com.

Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure