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Palo Alto takes a unified approach to shattering carbon-cutting goals
Pulling data from myriad sources into a single management system equips city to intelligently monitor sustainability efforts

The city of Palo Alto, Calif., is well known in technology circles as the home base for high-tech companies such as HP, Facebook, and VMware. Thus, it's rather fitting that the city government embraced information technology to help meet the City Council's challenge of shrinking the town's carbon footprint.

Initially, the city's 13 different departments worked independently to meet their respective assigned carbon budgets, using spreadsheets, various allocation methods, and calculation tools to track environmental data such as consumption of water, electricity, and natural gas. Not surprisingly, this go-it-alone approach proved insufficient; the city determined a unified approach was necessary. To that end, the city implemented a third-party energy and environmental management SaaS offering from Hara, which has proven instrumental in monitoring the city's 160 ongoing projects pertaining to areas of sustainability management, energy consumption, and water and natural-gas use.

City staffers manually input past and present data about various sustainability-oriented projects, but much of the other data flows into Hara via outside systems. For example, hundreds of meters track consumption of electricity, natural gas, and water, which is delivered into Hara via SAP's utilities billing module. The purchasing data for paper and other tracked consumables is downloaded into Hara through the city's SAP financial system.

Fleet fuel usage data is collected each time a vehicle refills at the city's municipal service center through RFID technology in each vehicle. That data flows into the fleet management system, which in turn generates input files for the Hara system.

All of that data can then be sliced and diced in any number of ways to determine progress at a granular project-by-project basis or at a broad level, such as how many gallons of water have been saved citywide between 2008 and 2009. "We are now able to monitor the progress of each project and its costs, as well as isolate the appropriate meter readings, purchasing data, etc., to evaluate the effectiveness of each project," said Karl Van Orsdol, sustainability team and energy risk manager for Palo Alto. "Each [project] report allows all departments to see how quickly and effectively the project is implemented and what the impacts are. Departments can then use this to implement their own initiatives."

By comparing project reports, city employees were able to determine that adopting intelligent power strips was a more effective way to reduce PC power consumption than was an approach requiring active participation from employees.

The wealth of data available to city employees also helped track the long-term effectiveness of, for example, print-reduction projects. Those initiatives included setting printers to print double-sided by default and encouraging staff and city council members to access reports in digital form instead of hard copies. These efforts resulted in a 25 percent reduction in paper use in 2009 over that of 2005.

All told, the city of Palo Alto reaped tremendous gains for its various sustainability projects, and a significant portion of that success can be credited to having a tool to track all those projects from a single pane. By the end of 2009, Palo Alto found that it had shattered its goal of reducing GHG emissions by 5 percent from the 2005 baseline, instead achieving an overall reduction of 12 percent. Specifically, the city slashed electricity consumption by 8 percent, natural gas consumption by 25 percent, solid waste consumption by 22 percent, paper consumption by 25 percent, and employee commute time by 31 percent. In terms of tax dollars, the city saved $550,000 on electricity, natural gas, and materials.

Of course, technology alone did not help reduce Palo Alto's carbon footprint. "The greatest challenge is organizational, not technical. [It] centered on working with departments to take responsibility for their energy management and convincing senior management that this diffused responsibility was the most effective approach to attaining efficiency," said Van Orsdol. "When you are using a GHG management tool to transform the organization in its thinking about and managing energy, complete support from the executive offices is critical."

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