In 2008 the City of McKinney, Texas-renown for its efforts to create a sustainable community, including the first privately developed LEED Platinum office building in the country and a Wal-Mart that uses photovoltaic arrays, rainwater harvesting, a waste-oil heating system, and two wind turbines-asked HDR Engineering, Inc. to help the city create a measurable "green vision" that would rely on metrics.

Located northeast of Dallas-Fort Worth, McKinney is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, and considering the recent federal cash infusion into sustainable energy projects, the city wanted to remain competitive in securing some of the energy-related funding available through dozens of programs, including $3.2 billion for the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program (EECBG); $4.5 billion to the Department of Energy's Office of Electricity Delivery for electricity delivery grid modernization; and $3.1 billion for the DOE's State Energy Program.

But not everyone is McKinney.

"Start with a short list that you can be certain will be implemented-it could be as simple as one public building-but you need to ask constituents what matters to them," explains John Williams, senior vice president and national director of sustainable development. He argues that "if you're not doing things the (Obama) administration feels will be transformational, they're going to spend the money elsewhere."

It's all about crafting a "green" business case when applying for federal dollars. Articulate just what it is about a proposed project that would make it sustainable. Illustrate the following:

  • Net costs and benefits, including economic and environmental impacts. Applicants should assign a monetary value to social impacts as well as assets and focus on life-cycle maintenance costs.
  • The likelihood that sustainability will actually be achieved.
  • How it would create and sustain "green" jobs. "I'm amazed that people think all you have to do is give a number," Williams adds. "Give a more detailed case: Show which jobs would be directly affected, which would be indirect, where they would be located, and how long those jobs will last."
  • How it would influence energy supply disruption. "Show them how you'll use federal dollars to sustain economic activity after a man-made or natural disaster. The feds don't talk about it, but resiliency is very important to them," Williams adds.
  • How it would contribute to higher energy efficiency. "To be a green project, you don't have to do everything," he explains. "You may have a project that saves a lot of water, so illustrate the social impact. It may not save vehicle miles traveled, but that's fine."

"A lot of communities are only changing light bulbs" with their EECBG funding, he adds. "We're encouraging communities to leverage some of that money to use toward a more competitive grant."

He also urges applicants to consider not only the financial return on investment but what he calls SROI, "sustainable return on investment".

SROI assigns a monetized value of non-cash benefits such as reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, health and safety effects, amount of water saved, productivity, and mobility. It quantifies those risks and benefits, translating them into numerical values.

For example, an SROI analysis prepared for Johns Hopkins University's proposed $1 billion medical research campus showed that a "green" design would provide a 72% annual rate of return compared to just 15% using a traditional design. Not surprisingly, the university is proceeding with a "green" design."SROI relies on metrics that are very familiar to decision-makers," he says. "We've found a way to show a value to things that matter to our stakeholders."

American Public Works Association Congress & Exposition
Session: Shades of Green: Calculating Your Community's Sustainable Return on Investment
Mon., Sept. 14, 2009
John Williams, SVP and National Director of Sustainable Development (john.williams@hdrinc.com)
HDR Engineering, Inc.
New York, N.Y.