Graham Kilmer
MKE County

County Needs Creativity, Money to Reach Carbon Neutrality

Getting county government to carbon neutrality will also require major investment.

By - Jun 9th, 2023 02:53 pm

Milwaukee County will have to get creative in years to come if it wants to meet its goals for carbon emission reductions. That includes making the government’s operations carbon-neutral by 2050.

In recent years a handful of Milwaukee County officials have been working on developing a roadmap for getting the county government to carbon neutrality. The work began after the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors passed legislation authored by Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson committing the county to the goal. Nicholson also recently successfully passed legislation that will give the county a lens for evaluating infrastructure projects by their climate impact.

In June, the Sustainability Task Force reviewed an early draft of an emissions report developed by the county’s consultant Energetics Inc. The report evaluates the county’s current emissions and provides a business-as-usual forecast. The early draft report showed that if the county conducts business as usual it will meet all its emissions goals by 2037. But that’s far from the case.

The consultant essentially developed a linear regression of recent emission trends for the government. But what was missing from the analysis was that much of the existing emission reductions have been driven by the county’s major reduction in its building footprint over the last decade. Beginning under former county executive Chris Abele, the county began to sell or end leases at a number of properties largely in response to the fiscal crisis caused by out-of-control pension costs and annual budget deficits.

“So I believe that’s going to change, quite dramatically, in the final report,” said Gordie Bennett, the county’s sustainability director.

In 2022, the county’s Behavioral Health System exited the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex at the Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa. This move was part of a years-long overhaul of the system as it transitions away from a centralized, institutional approach to care to a decentralized, community-based approach. But the move, Bennet said, meant the county left a building that was “using quite a lot of energy.” In fact, exiting the building could lead to a several percentage point reduction in emissions in 2022.

“The fact that some of the reduction is due to reducing our portfolio may make it more challenging in the future to achieve similar reductions,” Bennett said.

Also, it’s not something that can go on forever. The county has core services, Bennet said, and it can’t simply year after year reduce its footprint to make emissions reductions. That said, the county has already invested millions in energy and fuel efficiency initiatives, Bennett said. The draft emissions report notes that the county invested $9.2 million in energy efficiency projects across 82 county buildings that have reduced the county’s energy costs by $1.2 million annually.

“I’m proud of the fact that the county has achieved about a 25% reduction in emissions since 2005,” he said, that year being the benchmark year from which the county is aiming to reduce its emissions.

The Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) is in the very early stages of eventually electrifying its fleet of buses. The county has purchased 15 battery electric buses (BEBs), thanks in large part to the prodding of former County Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb, Sr., and will operate 11 on the new bus rapid transit service called Connect 1 and the other four as a pilot program on traditional fixed bus routes.

Fleet electrification will be one of the more expensive parts of any climate plan. BEBs cost approximately twice as much as a diesel bus and require significant additional infrastructure investments.

Though, Bennett doesn’t think all the low-hanging fruit for emission reductions have already been plucked just yet. And not everything is in the county’s hands. Some of its emissions reductions occurred when We Energies changed its energy source at the Valley Power Plant from coal to natural gas.

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Categories: Environment, MKE County

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