commentary (2007-43)

Beyond Bulbs


Knoxville starts to think big about saving energy

by Matt Edens

Historically the incubators of change and innovation, cities have long been more liberal-minded than their surrounding hinterlands. American cities are no exception, as illustrated by the â“urban archipelagoâ” at the heart of the nationâ’s so-called â“Red-Blueâ” divide. Liberal bastion blue America is, in reality, isolated islands of blue swimming in a sea of red. The so-called blue states are, largely, those areas where urban cores and inner suburbs dominate the population demographics. Illinois, Michigan, and upstate New York may be red, but Chicago, Detroit, and NYC arenâ’t.

No wonder, when stymied at the federal level, an increasing number of liberal activists are appearing before city councils seeking legislative action (conservatives often pursue a similar strategy at the state and county level). Berkeleyâ’s city council, for instance, is famous for its foreign policy positions. But lately, cities have been in the forefront of a whole host of liberal causes, from the living wage and gay marriage to climate change and condemning the Iraq War.

Knoxville is no Berkeley. The living wage issue died a slow death before council. The effort to get the city to weigh in on Iraq was likewise DOA. And a recent candidate for mayor, running on what might be called a carbon copy of the Green Partyâ’s platform, barely registered with the electorate. But the city may be bluerâ"and greenerâ"than meets the eye. Did you know, for instance, that Knoxville is now a card-carrying member of ICLEI â" Local Governments for Sustainability, and jumped onboard the Cities for Climate Protection bandwagon?

Since kicking off in September, the cityâ’s Energy and Sustainability Task Force has been busy developing a strategic plan to lower Knoxvilleâ’s energy consumption, costs, and emissions. With oil prices currently hovering just below $90 a barrel, itâ’s a laudable goal, no matter how one feels about anthropogenic global warming. Energy efficiency is simply good policy, whether youâ’d prefer to think of it as cutting government waste or curbing global warming.

Personally, Iâ’m pleased to see that, policy-wise, Knoxvilleâ’s not just looking at changing a few bulbs or buying a few hybrids (not that either would add up to chump changeâ"the city of Ann Arbor, for instance, estimates installing LED street lights will save $100,000 a year). Improving the energy efficiency of city-owned buildings and its vehicle fleet are only the first steps. The task force is also flirting with more far-reaching ideas: everything from â“green buildingâ” initiatives and incentives to changing the way KUB bills its customers. (In Britain, â“smart metersâ” that measure energy consumption in monetary terms, rather than kilowatts and BTUs, have helped homeowners shave an average of 10 percent off energy costs.)

But from a long-term perspective, the task forceâ’s Transportation and Land Use Work Group is where the rubber really meets the road, so to speak. Citywide, transportation uses add up to 63 percent of all energy consumption and 52 percent of all greenhouse gas emission. Not surprisingly, the 107.5 million gallons of gasoline Knoxvillians burn in their automobiles account for the vast majority of both totals: 52 percent and 44 percent respectively. (Diesel fuel, by comparison, is only 11 percent of total consumption and 9 percent of emissions.)

Cutting back on those numbers will get Knoxville a long way down the road to energy efficiency and sustainability. And the key to that, ironically, is getting more people off the road, which wonâ’t be easy in a low density, car-dependent city like Knoxville. But, in its first meeting, the task forceâ’s Transportation and Land Use Work Group didnâ’t shy away from the issue, tossing around terms like â“transit-oriented development.â” The concept, concentrating development in walkable neighborhoods along transit routes, might seem far-fetched. But, remember, it wasnâ’t all that long ago that a lively, living downtown seemed like a pipe dream. And we may be glad for both, next time oil nudges above $90 a barrel.


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