Grand Rapids officials making progress on 2020 renewables goal

Feb 14, 2013

The mayor of Grand Rapids wants all of the electricity for the city's operations to come from renewable sources by the year 2020.

I recently met up with Grand Rapids Fire Captain Tony Hendges to check in on the city's progress.

He led the way down a dark stairwell to the basement of the Leonard Street Fire Station. There’s some exercise equipment on one side of the room. On the other side are a bunch of large white metal boxes and lots of new pipes coming out of them: a geothermal system.

The city installed this system back in June. It's a system that pumps fluid deep into the ground to capture heat and redistribute it through the building. It works the opposite way in the summer to remove heat from the building.

“So over here you can see we have the glycol solution that is circulated through those closed loops,” says Hendges.

The closed loops run from here to 300 feet below the ground. Hendges reads the thermometer. It says the water and antifreeze solution coming into the station is about 65 degrees.

“And then that water gets circulated, again through that coil and the station air gets forced through that coil and heated it up,” he says. 

This is the first winter with the geothermal system. So Hedges doesn’t know exactly how much energy they’ll save yet.  But he says he can already tell it’s better than the old system that burned natural gas.

“So for us in the fire department it was great. It allowed me to replace the units that we were going to replace anyway with a much more efficient system. It’s gonna save us money. It’s green, and it aligns us with all the city’s initiatives on going green,” he says.

Nearby, Haris Alibasic smiles big. He heads the city’s Office of Energy and Sustainability. The office is charged with implementing Grand Rapids' 5-year sustainability plan. The plan sets up detailed environmental, social and economic targets.

Upstairs, in the fire station’s sweet-smelling kitchen, Alibasic says the plan is unique because it ties in directly with the city’s budget. Each city department has sustainability targets that fit into their budgets.

“Whether that’s police, fire, water, sewer, parking, everyone is doing his or her own best to kind of meet those targets and really promote sustainability within our organization. That’s the ultimate goal,” says Alibasic.

The sustainability plan was key in securing a nearly $2 million grant from the federal government to invest in these kinds of projects. There’s a second fire station with a geothermal system. The water department building has an array of solar panels on the roof.

And now, Alibasic says they’re considering a large-scale solar panel project at an old landfill site.  

“Every renewable energy project we look at has to have a payback for the organization so we just don’t invest in renewable energy for the sake of investment and saying this is a good environmental and social aspect but it starts with the basic economic premise,” he says.

Right now, 23 percent of Grand Rapids’ electricity comes from renewable sources. Alibasic says they’re on track to meet the goal of 30 percent renewable by the end of this year.

He admits the mayor’s goal of getting all of the city’s electricity from renewable sources by 2020 is “aggressive.” But he thinks the challenge is helping drive real change in city operations.