Community Engagement

Global issue, local impact: Reporting on sustainability

As communities express increased interest in utility sustainability efforts, public power entities are finding that data can be an important asset in creating understanding about utility plans and programs.

Gathering data, not dust

It would have been easy for the 30-page report on greenhouse gas emissions at Kirkwood Electric in Missouri to become one of those studies that is stored away in a binder to gather dust on a conference room bookshelf, rarely getting further attention.

But Kirkwood Director Mark Petty and others there thought it could be more than that, and in the decade since the Baseline Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory was produced, the report has helped identify and guide three significant and popular projects at the utility and has been a vehicle for broad customer connections, which may be one of its most valuable byproducts.

“We wanted to be sure it wasn’t just an academic exercise. So, we really used the numbers and the details about where our emissions were coming from,” said Petty. “And we involved the community at every step, which paid off in several ways.”

Rather than gather dust, the report laid the groundwork for a statewide wind energy project that resulted in major energy cost savings and fueled projects to shift the city to electric vehicles and change traffic management in an effort to cut emissions and improve the flow of vehicles, all projects applauded by many of the approximately 28,000 residents of Kirkwood, located just southwest of St. Louis.

The report developed detailed data about GHG emissions by the municipality, along with specific recommendations, with extensive involvement from citizens. It called for a sustainability task force and mentioned public involvement in three of its five recommendations.

These recommendations included “Bring city and citizen leaders together to analyze and coordinate future efforts for sustainability within municipal operations and throughout the community,” and to form a team to “streamline the data collection process to effectively monitor progress of government-specific and community-wide reductions.”

Petty noted that outreach should involve informing the community about the utility’s environmental footprint and what plans are in place to address any concerns; seeking community input; using publicly generated ideas effectively; and, importantly, showing how any concerns were addressed.

“It is important to provide information and get input, but then move past the discussion stage and take action — and let people know that you have,” Petty said.

From data to action

Rebecca Tolene, vice president for the environment at the Tennessee Valley Authority, noted that TVA has stepped up efforts to get public input on its integrated resource planning.

“Their interest has grown, and that dialogue has become more important to us,” she said. “And we have found that the more people know about how energy is created and the balancing act we have in providing affordable energy and maintaining environmental stewardship, the better.”

Tolene said that TVA has significantly increased the opportunities for public input about sustainability efforts, while also learning to avoid being overly attentive to the “loudest factions.” Meanwhile, Brian Child, vice president for enterprise planning, who oversees the production of TVA’s IRP, said that the agency process included about four months total of public input on the latest 20-year plan, which was approved by the board last August.

“For the 2019 IRP, we held a number of scoping sessions, then got input on the draft report at seven public meetings and took advantage of technology by offering a webinar on the topic and a new interactive report on the website. We received over 1,200 public comments on the draft report,” he said.

From the outset, TVA relied on a diverse, 20-member working group from each segment of its stakeholder base. It included representatives from utilities in the region and economic development, environmental, industry and community groups, state governments, and academia. The group met 14 times throughout the process.

It also fine-tuned the public sessions by streamlining the comments and then allowing for an open house period, when interested people could meet TVA leaders and specialists face to face for a dialogue.

Simple and relevant

American Municipal Power, Inc. (AMP), which serves 135 public power utilities in nine states, developed a tool to assist members reporting utility emissions to the public. After three years of use, AMP then assessed the use of the tool, with an eye toward streamlining relevant information and updating emissions data sources, according to Erin Miller, director of energy policy and sustainability for the Columbus, Ohio-based wholesale provider of energy supply and services.

The template for reporting emissions associated with energy supply is part of a Sustainability Reporting Tool developed through funding from the American Public Power Association’s Demonstration of Energy & Efficiency Developments (DEED) program.

“We simplified the member sustainability reports to cover three primary pollutants: CO2, NOx, SO2,” Miller said. “Also, instead of using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Emissions & Generation Resource Integrated Database 2016 data, we use the PJM market emission rates and the emission rates from the AMP assets that our members subscribe to, both of which are updated annually.”

Miller said she observed an increased interest in the tool by members, noting that many customize it to meet their specific needs. For example, some members’ commercial and industrial customers with sustainability, emissions or carbon reduction goals have requested information about their energy supply and overall sustainability efforts within the community.

Tolene noted that businesses considering a new facility or expansion often now want to know about the local utility’s carbon footprint, and financial institutions increasingly are interested, likely because they are examining how forward-thinking some utilities and municipalities are about their environmental impact and how their solutions affect finances.

Petty also noted that municipal and elected officials are increasingly likely to seek sustainability information, and utility officials should encourage their knowledge about it to get their support and help in informing the public.

Taking advantage of media interest

At a session on communicating about environmental issues during the APPA’s 2019 National Conference, panelists recommended strenuous efforts to engage customers, noting that interest in sustainability increasingly cuts across demographics and political affiliations. The panelists emphasized that talking about public power’s community ownership helps remind customers that they have a voice in decision-making and are part of the two-way communication between public power utilities and their customers.

At the panel discussion, Steve Roalstad, communications and marketing manager at Colorado’s Platte River Power Authority, said that the joint action agency extensively promoted a plan to develop a 50% non-carbon portfolio by 2021, along with a report suggesting that a zero net-carbon energy mix could be achieved. He said that promoting those sustainability efforts resulted in media coverage that, if done as paid placements, might have cost half a million dollars.

Petty agreed that stories about the environment gain media attention. The utility got positive coverage when it published its sustainability report in 2008, and the projects that grew from the report get even more attention today.

For example, recent efforts at the state level proposing the collaborative project to bring more wind power to Kirkwood and other state utilities — an initiative that had its roots in the report and was fueled by Kirkwood — has been covered by the media in a favorable light, noting how it will save Kirkwood customers $1 million annually and nearly $13 million statewide, while significantly cutting GHG emissions.

The media is quick to report on projects such as solar plants or wind farms and other visible efforts to cut GHG emissions, Tolene said. “That sort of project gets a lot of attention.”

Petty has found that social media can play a critical role in describing utility efforts and in getting feedback from the public. “It can give citizens the information, but also an opportunity to comment, and can be a good place for synergy to develop about an issue with opinions being debated and a consensus forming,” he said. “Things can become clarified when we present good information and clearly talk about these issues and get feedback.”

Closing the loop

Tolene noted that because of heightened public interest in its sustainability efforts, TVA has made it a priority to assess the comments from the public and respond to their queries, though doing so poses a challenge given the volume.

“We receive thousands of comments a year, and we try to bundle them in connection with the issue they address, but we still have work to do in that area. We are studying ways to have this process be more of a two-way street,” she said, noting that it is critical to inform the public about how their concerns are addressed, especially as interest in sustainability continues to grow.

“Previously, customers were interested in issues such as their rates and our policies about the waterways. But now they want to know about our carbon footprint and are expecting to have a say in how we address it in the future.”