N.Va. Park Authority Aims to Set a Green Example

The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority bought lightweight electric vehicles called GEMs, left, this year.
The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority bought lightweight electric vehicles called GEMs, left, this year. (From Northern Virginia Regional Park)
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 6, 2006

The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, not exactly the area's biggest energy hog, has nevertheless spent the past year cutting its electricity use.

The agency's board, which oversees 10,000 acres of parkland adopted an energy-saving policy in the spring partly to save money and partly to live up to its mission to teach people how they relate to the environment.

"When we turn on the light switch or turn on our car, it's an action that has consequences on a local and global level," said Paul Gilbert, the agency's executive director. "A lot of programs in our parks help people understand that."

The agency's latest goal is to become a public example of energy conservation, Gilbert said.

Using the past fiscal year's spending as a benchmark, park staff members looked at their $559,000 energy budget and broke it down to see how much they spent on gasoline, diesel, electricity and natural gas. Then they decided to reduce consumption by 5 percent across the board.

To do this, each of the 21 regional parks, which have such features as swimming pools, golf courses, historical battlegrounds and botanical gardens, created a conservation plan.

The staff members focused first on "the low-hanging fruit," Gilbert said, installing motion-sensor lights, programming thermostats and insulating water heaters.

At some parks, workers started mowing the grass less often and tried "to create a new aesthetic, one that doesn't require the same amount of maintenance," Gilbert said.

The agency made a few big changes, too, including some that required spending money with the aim of reducing costs over time.

Those included replacing some of its 80 cars and trucks with electric cars that cost about $1,000 more. The agency also bought two GEM cars this year, lightweight electric vehicles made by Global Electric Motorcars that replaced pickups on the W&OD trail and at Bull Run Regional Park in Centreville. Officials plan to buy seven more next year.

They also invested in new lights for the Christmas light show at Bull Run park. The show will feature LEDs, which last longer and use about a tenth of the electricity of regular incandescent bulbs. The new lights were more expensive -- about $350,000 instead of $300,000 -- but Gilbert said the agency could use them for several years and save electricity along the way.

"If we didn't have the energy policy in place, we would have probably just gone with the lowest bid," Gilbert said.

Last month, the park authority hosted a green-energy fair at Potomac Overlook Regional Park in Arlington to showcase its efforts and to connect people to local vendors of energy-efficient vehicles, windows and services.

Gilbert said the parks will offer more opportunities to learn about conservation as the agency tests new methods. He imagined such possibilities as solar-paneled golf carts and renovating buildings using recycled materials and other green-building principles.

"As we chip away at this, we'll become more efficient every year," he said.

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