Fairfax County has pledged to reduce the energy consumption of its facilities by 20 percent per square foot over 10 years as part of an operational energy strategy adopted by its Board of Supervisors on July 10.

Developed by county staff over the past four years, the strategy sets targets that the county must meet to improve efficiency and sustainability in areas such as energy and water use, green building, electric vehicles, and waste management.

“Fairfax County’s Energy Strategy will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, lower utility bills for county buildings and promote an energy conscious culture within the county’s workplace,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova said. “…It is important that we all do our part to be leaders in energy efficiency to help support and protect a healthy environment well into the future.”

Fairfax County environmental coordinator Kambiz Agazi and other county staff members started working on an operational energy strategy in 2014, but the final draft did not take form until last year when the Board of Supervisors called for staff to develop specific goals that reflect the updated Environmental Vision adopted on June 20, 2017.

According to the background in the Fairfax County Operational Energy Strategy, Fairfax County first adopted an initiative titled “Environmental Excellence for Fairfax County: A 20-year Vision” in 2004.

Known as the Environmental Agenda, the document established environmental stewardship as a key responsibility for the county and addressed issues related to growth and land use, air quality and transportation, water quality, solid waste, and parks, trails and open space.

The county supplemented the Environmental Agenda, which was revised in 2007, with an energy policy adopted in 2009.

The policy directed the county to promote alternative sustainable energy options, waste reduction and recycling, fuel-efficient and alternate-fuel vehicles, on-site energy generation, and other energy efficiency or conservation measures, but it failed to establish specific objectives or steps that the county should follow to fulfill those ideals.

When Fairfax County adopted the Environmental Vision in 2017 to replace the Environmental Agenda, county staff used the opportunity to fill in the gaps left by the 2009 energy policy, Agazi says.

The resulting 33-page document outlines goals, targets, and actions in 10 focus areas: energy use and efficiency, water use and efficiency, green building, innovative energy solutions, electric vehicles, goods and services, waste management, awareness and engagement, utility cost management, and reporting and collaboration.

Among the county’s top priorities is to reduce electricity and natural gas use in existing county facilities and operations with the goal of cutting it down by 20 percent from 2019 to 2029, or about 2 percent each year during that period.

“We know that energy consumption, particularly electricity, is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases for county government operations,” Fairfax County public information officer Brian Worthy said. “So, the strategy puts an emphasis on reducing electricity use.”

According to Worthy, electricity use represented 51 percent of the county’s total energy use in 2016 but accounted for 65 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions produced that same year.

Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, and nitrous oxide contribute to rising surface temperatures on Earth by absorbing infrared heat and trapping it in the atmosphere.

The Fairfax County Operational Energy Strategy calls for a 20 percent reduction in the amount of water used for all new construction projects or major renovations, noting that about 2,300 kilowatt hours of electricity are required to pump, treat, transmit, and distribute 1 million gallons of potable water.

In addition, the county aims to earn at least silver Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certifications for all new facility construction, additions, and renovations that occupy an area greater than 10,000 square feet.

The U.S. Green Building Council, which developed the LEED rating system, certifies buildings based on a variety of factors, including materials and resources, location and transportation, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, and indoor environmental quality, according to the USGBC website.

Along with encouraging the use of more environmentally friendly products and services, the operational energy strategy instructs Fairfax County do divert at least 3 percent more waste to recycling compared to its 2016 rate of 50 percent by 2030.

The strategy calls for the county to reduce its fossil fuel consumption by implementing a rooftop solar pilot project at its warehouse on Industrial Drive in Springfield with the expectation that the new installation would generate enough electricity to match the building’s expected annual electricity consumption.

Finally, the operational energy strategy directs the county to install charging infrastructure for electric and hybrid-electric vehicles at 20 major government facilities by 2025 while purchasing enough electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles to make up 5 percent of all government passenger vehicles by 2030.

According to Agazi, Fairfax County’s vehicle fleet currently has 118 hybrid-electric vehicles, which can be sustained by electricity for 30 to 40 miles before switching to gas if not charged.       

Fairfax County has touted its new operational energy strategy as “ambitious,” estimating that it will lower greenhouse gas emissions by 533,000 metric tons and save more than $82 million over 10 years in utility costs, but some environmental advocates and even county officials criticized the strategy for not going further.

The Board of Supervisors adopted the operational energy strategy by an 8-2 vote with Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust and Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck opposing the motion.

Storck explained his opposition in an emailed brief of the July 10 full board meeting, saying that he believes having an operational energy strategy is important but did not support the plan as proposed.

“The plan as presented does not go far enough to ensure Fairfax County’s role as a regional leader and to advance cost savings, real climate change initiatives, or resiliency planning,” Storck said. “As a county, we can do much better.”

The Mount Vernon supervisor also said that the strategy does not establish enough accountability measures to ensure that the county actually achieves the goals it sets.

According to Agazi, the county facilities covered by the operational energy strategy account for only 1.5 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions produced in Fairfax County. Fairfax County Public Schools constitutes another 1.5 percent of emissions, making residents and businesses responsible for the remaining 97 percent.

The nonprofit Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions, a coalition of faith leaders dedicated to addressing climate change on a local level, argues that the operational energy strategy should have set higher standards for the county.

Targets like implementing a solar pilot for one warehouse or aiming for 5 percent of the county’s electric fleet to be electric or hybrid set the bar “ridiculously low,” FACS executive director Meg Mall says.

FACS has called on Fairfax County to create a countywide climate plan that would address energy and other environmental issues for the whole county regardless of source.

Even if the county does not have the jurisdiction to regulate tailpipe emissions, for example, it could do more to encourage residents and businesses to adopt more sustainable, environmentally friendly practices, according to Mall, who suggests that the county hold more events like the LED light bulb exchanges that took place throughout this past spring.

Mall volunteered at the Reston Regional Library exchange on May 14 and says the line of people looking to swap their incandescent or fluorescent bulbs for LEDs wrapped around the block.

“It’s not all about mandates,” Mall said. “When you look at what other counties are doing, they’re doing things like convening, and they’re doing things like educating the community, educating residents, and investing…This idea that their hands are tied in terms of moving the needle outside county operations is really not true.”

Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova convened members of the county’s business community and academia for a private sector energy task force in 2012. The task force presented recommendations on energy-saving initiatives and policies to the board in September 2012.

FACS has been advocating for the county to convene another task force to tackle energy efficiency in the private sector.

“There’s a lot the county could be doing in its position as a leader to facilitate these discussions with the private sector,” Mall said.

According to Bulova’s office, the Environmental Showcase hosted at the Fairfax County Government Center on July 22, 2017 was intended to follow up on the private sector energy task force’s work.

The goal of the showcase was to explore “how the private and public sectors could work together to achieve mutual environmental goals” as county staff discussed the Environmental Vision and progress it had made with regards to greenhouse gas emissions and energy use reduction.

“Following the conclusion of my Private Sector Energy Task Force in 2012, there has been a strong commitment from the business community to energy efficiency and innovation, especially during the redevelopment of properties,” Bulova said.

Agazi defended Fairfax County’s new operational energy strategy, noting that it was intended to be “a living document” that can be changed and improved in the future.

The county’s energy staff will give a presentation on the strategy with updates to the Board of Supervisors’ environmental committee on an annual basis.

“Where tweaks are needed, we’re going to be making tweaks, but it’s definitely a first step and demonstrates leadership from the board,” Agazi said. “It also is a document that is going to ensure that we get our own house in order. It’s much easier to go out to the community and have a conversation with the state of Virginia when you have a strategy in place that you are funding and implementing, and I think this document does that.”

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