Since 2000, Washington, DC’s population has surged, but its power grid has not. Instead of generators, the city added renewables and upgraded aged structures — including many federal office buildings, the city’s largest energy consumers — keeping the lights on while keeping costs down for the city’s poorest residents. Ted Trabue, Managing Director of the District of Columbia Sustainable Energy Utility (DCSEU), tells Nexus Media how they did it. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ted Trabue, Managing Director of the District of Columbia Sustainable Energy Utility. Source: DCSEU

Why is Washington, DC so obsessed with energy efficiency?

Almost 20 years ago, then mayor Tony Williams laid the groundwork to bring in more high-income residents and more corporations to strengthen the city’s tax base. But how do you deliver energy to them? You either build more generation or you help people reduce consumption — it’s going to cost you either way.

We recognized that it’s much cheaper to go after efficiency than to build new generating capacity. In the District, the results are clear: the population has grown by 13 percent in the last five years, yet electricity sales during that time have fallen by 3 percent.

What sparked the shift?

Two decades ago, DC was coming out of a financial crisis. The government was broken, and we had to get our financial house in order. The genesis of the recovery was Tony Williams, and he commissioned a study to look at where the city was getting its revenues. It showed that a small percentage of local residents and businesses were paying the majority of taxes.

Unfortunately, 30 percent of the land in the District is non-taxable because the federal government — or a church, or an embassy, or another non-profit institution — sits on it. Mayor Williams wanted to bring 100,000 new residents over the next 20 years to grow the tax base.

When he said it, people laughed, and yet we grew the population in this town by 100,000 people in less than 10 years. It’s now higher than it’s been in four decades.

A DCSEU contractor installs efficient light bulbs at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a historic DC eatery. Source: DCSEU

How have you gotten electricity use to fall while population has soared?

Throughout the city you have hundreds of units with massive energy bills from systems that don’t work very efficiently — they have little insulation and air sealing, and lights that are old and inefficient.

We design efficiency programs to resolve those problems and then we coordinate contractors to go out and implement the work. We provide technical assistance — jargon for no-cost engineering work — and then give the owners a financial incentive, a rebate, to move forward with an efficiency project.

Through this work, the DCSEU has prevented the lifetime emission of more than 3 million tons of CO2 and created more than $500 million in lifetime energy cost savings.

The costs are generally shared by both DCSEU and the owner of the building, and normally these upgrades have a return on investment of about 2–3 years — and some of the improvements may last another 15 years or more. For example, working with the District government, our engineers, and District-based installers, we recently completed a large project at a homeless shelter. According to the agency that runs the shelter, it now uses 48-percent less energy, saving $30,000 a year in energy bills — money the shelter can deploy into services for the residents.

One of our largest customers — and the largest energy consumer — is the federal government. We did an efficiency project in the Old Executive Office building and we were scheduled to do one in the White House, though we’ve been asked to wait until the redesign has taken place before we go in. We did six solar systems on federal government office buildings last year. We’ll probably do that many or more in 2018.

When we can keep consumption down, it keeps everyone’s rates down, and this is part of the energy justice piece that is so important. Even if we’re not going into your home and doing an efficiency project there, everyone’s rates are affected by the work that we do throughout the city.

Solar panels top the offices of Right Proper Brewing Company in Washington, DC. Source: DCSEU

Can this be copied by other cities growing beyond their energy needs?

We’re talking to a number of communities all over the country right now.

Any city, first and foremost, should take a look at itself. What are your city’s goals and objectives? Not just in the energy space, but also in the economic development space over the next quarter century. A lot of cities would bristle at the thought of growing the population by what Tony Williams was saying.

But people do welcome economic growth, they welcome new businesses, they want job opportunities for their residents that are close to their homes and close to their communities. The businesses will bring the need for energy, and some of that can be locally generated.

You also need to talk about building design and building codes. If you pass a code that says a new building has to be very efficient, from an energy perspective, you’re not putting a big strain on the city’s electric or natural gas system.

That’s one of the things that we’re looking at in DC. Some of our building codes will change in a few years — buildings built here in the near future are going to be amongst some of the most efficient in the world.

This interview was conducted by Josh Chamot, who writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.