Going Green: Cities and Energy Management

By: R.W. Robertson, Ph.D.


Cities provide a wide range of services to their citizens and customers. To properly understand the complexity of providing these services and to ensure that they are delivered in an effective and efficient manner some cities have adopted a formal business plan process. Fundamentally, this business plan process is an attempt to document and critically assess the services being provided by the city; review alternatives to the provision of this service; and establish a framework or plan for continuous improvement. As simple and easy as this system sounds, it is very difficult to apply, as many cities remain stuck in the trap of simply responding to the pressure of the day as opposed to strategically creating a path to their own chosen destiny.

The Strategic, Sustainable Approach

One particular area of growing interest to local governments in Canada is related to the significantly increased cost of energy. Specifically, the high price of energy shows up as increased costs in fuel for vehicles (police cars to public transit); heating and cooling costs for buildings; and, in street signals and municipal lighting.

The options to address these types of changes in energy costs and demand – like the options to address most change- require vision, leadership, strategic direction and consistent action plans to implement solutions. Faced with the immediacy of the increase in energy costs many municipalities opt to simply address that issue as opposed to a more strategic, detailed review of the root cause. What actually drives increased costs—what are the actual costs year to year and how can they be managed are all questions which many jurisdictions simply cannot answer. On the other hand, other cities undertake a more holistic view of energy management. In part, this type of review could be seen as similar to the “reduce, reuse, recycle” motto of the environmental movement and it is an important element in any strategic approach to “going green.”

Going Green: Application

On completion of a strategic review of energy use and alternatives available it is important to craft an action plan to achieve improvement results. Examples of specific solutions vary community-by-community based on time, context, and the specific nature of the issue being addressed. Currently, a number of cities have partnered with utilities to identify and promote a range of solutions. The Federation of Canadian Municipality’s website (www.fcm.ca) has a very good list of individual initiatives. In particular the FCM supports sustainable communities and  uses a green municipal fund in part to achieve this goal.

In British Columbia, the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) also supports energy management initiatives (www.civicnet,bc.ca). Indeed UBCM and BC Hydro worked closely to promote the wise use of energy throughout the Province. In BC, the use of hydro electricity is predominant and, as a result, electricity costs remain relatively low and affordable (see Figure 1)

Figure 1energy

Electricity Rates (2006)

Source: http://www.bchydro.com/info Accessed November 1, 2006

In many other jurisdictions electricity is produced by fossil fuel (coal, natural gas and oil) which makes it both more costly and less environmentally friendly. Indeed the cost of fossil fuel is continuing to rise quickly. In North America, electricity costs are expected to continue to increase (see Energy Information Agency http://www.eia.doc.gov/fuel electric) at a rate higher than inflation. As a result, all organizations- including cities- should pay particular attention to energy management.

Case Study: Maple Ridge

One specific method that has been used in local government for approximately ten years with considerable success is available from a small independent provider in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Canada. The provider, Gas Protection Services Inc. (GPSI– www.gasprotection.com) originally developed a system to monitor gas use and to ensure gas leakages were stopped at the source in the event of, for example, an earthquake. Building on a personal computer based system GPSI added a component to monitor and manage electricity use. As GPSI President Stephen Gibson points out “the old adage applies “you cannot manage what you cannot –or do not –measure. In these cases, obviously, improvement options are then limited.”

Initially, systems were installed within the District of Maple Ridge in the Operations Center, in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Headquarters, and in the Pitt Meadows Family Recreation Center. At the outset, the fundamental component of the system is a “what gets measured gets attention” approach. The PC based system monitors energy use 24/7 and identifies and remediates periods of high use. All of the test cases were installed in 1998 and they were monitored regularly by the contractor and municipal staff. The physical systems were connected to a personal computer system and energy use is monitored in real time. At the time, cost of installation was less than $ 2.00 per square foot.

The system produced some immediate and dramatic results. Gas usage could be reduced by as much as 30% and electricity consumption could be reduced by approximately 20%. These results were independently verified and resulted in GPSI winning the Natural Resources Canada “Energy Efficiency Award” in 2004.

The lessons learned in these initial case studies in Maple Ridge are particularly interesting. First, most involved in local government will protest that they have already tried or implemented all practical solutions to manage the demand of electricity. Of course, this may be true at any given point in time but circumstances (for example, the price of energy or available technology solutions) change. As a result it is always important to search for ways to improve.

Second, the system seems “too good to be true”. It is a low cost, high technology solution which is PC based. It is non-intrusive and can be applied as a retrofit to existing buildings easily without disruption to existing users. Further, it had a pay back at the time of installation in Maple Ridge of approximately five years. As noted, the solution can be applied both to a new building and in a retrofit scenario.

In 2006, the same  Energy Supervisor systems were installed in five buildings owned and operated by Hydro Ottawa Limited in Ottawa, Ontario. Obviously, the system continues to prove its effectiveness and it represents another example of the innovation of cities in finding and promoting green solutions.


Managing energy use, including electrical energy use, is important for private and public sector organizations. Increased energy costs make the proper identification of actual costs and the development of strategies to control or reduce these costs critical.

Cities in Canada are actively pursuing improvement initiatives in part supported by organizations such as the FCM and the UBCM. The Maple Ridge example is one low cost method that has been successfully applied and it may be useful for other jurisdictions.

R.W. Robertson Ph.D. was the Chief Administrative Officer for the District of Maple Ridge during the initial installation of the systems. He can be reached at rroberts905@hotmail.com