Loudoun urges federal government to retain energy block grants

By Caitlin Gibson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2010

Loudoun County officials say that they want residents and businesses to get excited about going "green," and that with federal funding from a grant program established by President George W. Bush's administration, it is already happening. To keep new projects and programs coming, county officials say, they are hoping President Obama's administration will continue to invest in energy-efficiency initiatives on a local level.

The possibility of losing the Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program, which supports projects and outreach efforts such as the ones outlined in the Loudoun County Energy Strategy, has mobilized local leaders across the country to petition the White House and Congress for support.

Climate Communities, a national coalition led by 15 local government officials, including Loudoun County Supervisor Andrea McGimsey (D-Potomac), launched the Energy Block Grants Work! campaign on Capitol Hill last week to try to save the program. The coalition received the support of Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), but whether the program, which is scheduled to end next year, will receive additional funding is unknown.

The program, authorized under the 2007 Energy Act and funded last year as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, has awarded grants totaling $3.2 billion to local governments across the nation to help develop clean-energy jobs through community projects that save energy, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Most recipients used the grants to implement energy-saving retrofits to government facilities and buildings, according to the National Association of Counties. But Loudoun, which was awarded $2.2 million, instead used $236,000 to create the Loudoun County Energy Strategy, a plan that provides a framework for increasing the energy efficiency of county residences, parks and businesses. Loudoun's strategy is being used by the National Association of Counties as a tool for other communities, Loudoun officials said.

Loudoun's strategy recommends that the funds be dedicated to 10 projects, including education and outreach efforts to engage local residents and businesses. An example is the National Capital Home Energy Makeover contest, which Loudoun launched in partnership with WJLA (Channel 7) in June. The contest attracted 35,000 entries from across the Washington region. This month, three winning residents will receive $10,000 worth of energy-saving improvements to their homes.

The county has also teamed with the Loudoun Chamber of Commerce to promote the second annual Loudoun County Green Business Challenge, which highlights the advantages and savings of energy efficiency. As of last month, 26 local businesses had signed up; the deadline is Sept. 30.

The county's strategy also focuses on energy-efficient development projects. The expansion of the Loudoun County Youth Shelter will include solar panels and ground-source geothermal heat pumps, and the shelter will also serve as an educational facility to teach its teenage residents about energy conservation, shelter officials said. Solar-powered LED parking lights will be used in Scott Jenkins Memorial Park in Hamilton, which will also include electric vehicle charging stations.

The project that McGimsey found "the most exciting" involves applying integrated energy solutions to the Moorefield Station project -- a 400-acre, mixed-use development in southeastern Loudoun -- where the waste heat from the development's data center cluster will be recovered and used to heat nearby residences and businesses.

Beyond the benefit to the environment, McGimsey said, the projects save money, improve efficiency and create jobs. Calculations based on methodology provided by the Department of Energy show that the combined projects will create an estimated 70 private-sector jobs and save more than $125,000 in annual energy costs, she said.

"I come out of corporate America. I'm a businesswoman, and I look at these energy issues as being pro-business and also pro-environment," McGimsey said. "If you save energy, you put that money toward the bottom line of your company."

Nicole Steele, an energy grant specialist for Loudoun, hopes the program will get more funding so the county can push new projects and outreach initiatives.

"We do want to be creative in our efforts," Steele said, "and create something that will be sustainable past these initial funds. . . . We spent a lot of money on the creation of the strategy, which is required, but then if they're not going to continue to fund it. . . . Just one more year, even, would be great."

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