July 26, 2012 12:00 am

On a mission

When you first arrive in Houston, it appears to be one of the most energy-hungry cities on earth. A sprawl of 10-lane highways crowded with cars and gas-guzzling trucks, it is the heart of a conurbation covering 8,778 square miles – larger than the state of New Jersey.

Air-conditioning blasts through its offices and homes to make them habitable in the brutal Texas heat. Everywhere are the gleaming tower blocks and spacious business parks that serve as headquarters of the companies that make this high consumption possible: Royal Dutch Shell, British Petroleum, ConocoPhillips, General Electric Oil and Gas, Weatherford International, and many more.

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IN Urban Ingenuity

Houston is a big city – the fourth-largest in the US – and a very diverse place. It is also the subject of a concerted attempt to change the face that it shows to the world.

Texas is not, in fact, the most energy-intensive of US states; that dubious honour goes to Wyoming. In terms of consumption per capita, Texas ranks sixth, behind places such as Alaska, Louisiana and North Dakota, according to the US Energy Information Administration. But its inhabitants use almost 50 per cent as much energy as the US average, and twice as much as the residents of Florida.

Brian Yeoman, Houston director for the Clinton Climate Initiative, a non-profit group that works to cut greenhouse gas emissions, argues that those figures give a misleading impression, because the city and the state are producing fuel for the rest of the country, itself an energy-hungry activity. But the fact remains that Texans burn a lot of fuel. As in the Middle East, a lavish endowment of oil and gas seems to militate against being careful in their use.

Houston’s mayor is trying to change that. Elected in 2009, Annise Parker’s priorities for the city are her “sustainability strategy” and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. She talks about making Houston the “green leader” in the US, and says “our vision and leadership can be models for the nation”.

Laura Spanjian, the mayor’s director of sustainability, argues that there is a direct economic motive for that strategy. “People want a city that is more bikeable, more walkable, more livable, more sustainable,” she says. “Employers want to be able to retain and attract the best people. To make sure they can do that, our city is undergoing a transformation.”

The changing face of Houston includes a farmers’ market outside City Hall, urban gardens on rooftops and in vacant lots, a city bike-share scheme, and a $900m investment to expand the city’s downtown light rail network, opened in 2004.

In a bold act for a city often known as the world’s oil capital, the mayor has even bought a small fleet of 25 all-electric Nissan Leaf cars and 15 Toyota Prius hybrids, and encouraged the installation of vehicle charging points.

Another innovation is the Houston Green Office Challenge (GOC), which attempts to turn the dry issues of energy efficiency into something to engage and motivate businesses.

Yeoman remembers a meeting in 2007, under the previous mayor, that showed what might be possible. Leading Houston employers and property owners were gathered to talk about certification for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (Leed), which is run by the US Green Building Council, a non-profit organisation backed by the construction industry.

An executive from Schlumberger, the oil services group, said that to improve staff recruitment and retention, it had decided its offices should meet the Leed standard for energy efficiency, because the younger, technically skilled workers it wanted saw that issue as important. A representative from Shell said it was considering a similar move, and before long every company in the room was thinking about following suit.

“If these oil companies in the sin city of Houston can see the light, then everybody else can respond as well. Banks and insurance companies made sure they were not going to get left behind,” Yeoman says.

The GOC works on Houston’s competitive spirit, seeking to encourage improvements in energy efficiency and other environmental practices from businesses across the city, and giving them a reason to do better even if they do not reach the Leed standards.

Property owners and tenants sign up at www.houstongoc.org. They are then sent a scorecard covering a list of subjects such as energy use, waste disposal and transport to work. This automatically generates a percentage score that the entrants attempt to improve over the following year, with the help of training and other support from the city.

At the Houston Permitting Center, where businesses and individuals go to get the permits they need to comply with regulations such as construction codes, there is a permanent display of environmentally friendly technologies such as solar-powered ventilation fans and water-saving toilets.

The information is all self-reported, with no system of supervision. The principal reward is “great publicity” for the companies that have performed well during the year. They are recognised by the mayor at an annual awards ceremony.

There is also a $3m fund for grants to help businesses pay for efficiency improvements if they are going to save at least 15 per cent of their energy use.

Participating companies, however, say the greatest benefits have often been the ideas it has given them for saving energy and reducing waste, and the motivating effect on their staff.

Smith & Associates, an electronic components distributor, had already been pressured to improve its environmental performance. Its customers, leading big-name computer manufacturers, have for several years been using less energy and creating less waste. Recently, they have started driving that down the supply chain to companies such as Smith.

“We had had an environmental audit in 2008, and it was not very pretty,” says Matt Hartzell, chief operating officer. “That was an awakening.”

The company reached a critical moment when it needed to replace its air-conditioning system. It decided to try a new high-efficiency, water-cooled unit from Carrier, part of United Technologies, the conglomerate.

“That would have been a large capital outlay whatever we had done. We spent more than $1m, although we got a tax rebate. We are looking at a seven-11-year payback. But we expect the equipment to last 25 years, so it is worth it.”

In the spring of 2011, Smith found out about the GOC, which had been launched at the start of the year, and eagerly embraced it as a guide. “It has been invaluable having the city of Houston to benchmark our progress, set goals and targets and standardise our baseline,” Hartzell says.

The company added energy-efficient light-emitting diode lamps, solar panels for the sunshades protecting the parked vehicles outside, and two electric cars to lend to employees each month. Display screens in the reception area show how much power the panels generate.

Other cities have GOCs but Houston’s is now the largest, with 375 participants. And Spanjian is optimistic about the future. “We are making progress,” she says. “What we are doing is changing Houston.”

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