As energy prices soar, a city finds ways to cut the cost

They're not rocket scientists. But conservation consultants John Pierson and Parthiban Mathavan were able to save New Haven Public Schools $1.1 million in energy costs last fiscal year.

How? By peeking out the window and deciding that a mild winter morning does not require full-blast heat at the 50 schools they monitor.

"We are always dreaming up ways to be more efficient," says Mr. Pierson. Typically, heat or air-conditioning was on 24/7 - even if no one was in school. Stopping that saved $600,000 the first year. "A lot of it is common sense."

Their aims are part of a larger effort that has given New Haven something experts say few other cities have today: a lower energy bill.

Now that natural gas, oil, and electricity prices have jumped significantly, New Haven - with its efficient street-lights and bulk purchases of natural gas - could become a model for other municipalities across the country.

"New Haven is a leader in this area. It is a city that has committed right at the top levels to look at efficiency and clean energy," says Susan Coakley, executive director of the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships in Lexington, Mass. "It is a great example of a city that really got it."

Cities and states around the country have long experimented with conservation and environmental efforts, and each region in the country has its strengths. California is cited for developing innovative energy-conservation plans, Oregon and Washington for a commitment to the environment.

New Haven is not necessarily a haven for yoga-stretching environmentalists. Instead, this old manufacturing town relied on better bureaucracy for savings.

That's something more cities are exploring, says Madeleine Weil, an analyst at Environment Northeast. "This is not to say New Haven was the only city out there, but they were definitely at the forefront."

As the public stocks up on sweaters and commuter passes for what could be the most expensive winter in recent history, some hope the city's efforts will foster a broader ethic of conservation among residents.

New Haven's energy conservation program was created in 1994. The city estimates it has saved an aggregate of $24.7 million since then.

Leaders acknowledge that many of the savings are one-time only, and they, too, are bracing for rising energy costs. But in the past six months, other towns have begun asking city budget director Frank Altieri, one of the program's founders, how to curb costs.

In the past year, New Haven has replaced 11,300 street-lighting fixtures, cutting energy and maintenance costs by half a million dollars per year. They are building newer, more efficient schools that operate at lower costs.

Bill Leahy, associate executive director for operations at the Institute for Sustainable Energy at Eastern Connecticut State University, says the broad reach of the plan is rare among municipalities. He expects towns to struggle in coming months as the heating season approaches. "I don't know any other cities in which bills are going down," he says.

Most of New Haven's savings efforts have revolved around conservation - not renewable energy. But that could change. The day a barrel of oil reached $64 was a turning point, says Mr. Altieri. "I saw that and said, 'We're in trouble,' " he says. "Up until this point renewable energy has not been a big emphasis."

Sustainability is becoming more politically popular. The mayors of New Haven and West Hartford challenged each other to see which city can have more residents sign up for clean-energy options by 2006. New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., along with officials in a dozen other Connecticut cities, also pledged to buy 20 percent of city energy from renewable sources by 2010.

"People are looking for answers," says Brian Keane, president of the Connecticut-based SmartPower, which is leading the national marketing campaign to promote clean energy. "A perfect storm of issues is coalescing."

Although New Haven is considered a leader on the municipal level, few of those involved in the program say it has affected the way residents live. That is probably because most of the program takes place behind the scenes, so few residents even know it exists, says Ed Melchiori, a consulting engineer to New Haven since the program's inception.

The city is developing a curriculum addressing ways that teachers, students, and public-service employees can conserve energy. But the real challenge lies in the disconnect between user and payer.

At home, residents are keenly aware of how their thermostat settings impact their monthly budget. Not so on a citywide level. Some say that has disengaged communities.

"One of the big problems I see with municipalities is they get used to paying the bills, grumble about the price, and don't do a lot to investigate cost and consumption," Melchiori says. "To me, we are not employing any technology that anyone else couldn't employ.... It is a lot of common-sense application of existing possibilities; we just actually applied it."

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