The greening of Butte County

Sustainability Work Team presents report to Board of Supes on ways to make county operations more sustainable

Read the report:
Go to to read the full report of Butte County's Sustainability Work Team.

By now, it should be no secret that climate change is a serious and pressing issue. Despite its obfuscation by climate-change deniers often motivated by a desire for profits based on business as usual, even conservative business publications such as The Economist have come out acknowledging that global warming caused by humankind’s activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, is a reality.

Here in Butte County, officials are taking on the daunting task of reducing county greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, a mandate required by the 2006 passage of AB 32 (the California Global Warming Solutions Act), as well as other sustainability related energy-saving and cost-cutting measures. The county’s Sustainability Work Team—consisting of Public Works Director Mike Crump, Water and Resource Conservation Director Paul Gosselin, General Services Director Grant Hunsicker, Development Services Director Tim Snellings and Deputy Administrative Officer Shari McCracken—presented a sizable sustainability report to the Board of Supervisors at its Aug. 14 meeting.

The report looked at ways the county’s operations—including county offices in Oroville, as well as the Butte County Jail and Butte County Juvenile Hall and other county facilities, such as the Department of Employment and Social Services on Carmichael Drive in Chico—could become “more sustainable, energy-efficient and cost-effective,” as a recent county memo puts it.

The team focused its efforts on the areas of energy usage (electricity and natural gas), water usage, vehicle usage, solid waste and recycling, and climate change.

“The reception [of the report by the Board of Supervisors] was good. They accepted the report,” said McCracken in a recent telephone interview.

Here’s a look at some of the highlights of the team’s report:

Energy usage: The county’s accomplishments to date in this area include the installation of a solar-energy system in 2004, and the development of a landfill gas-to-energy project at the Neal Road Recycling and Waste Facility.

“We’re taking a harder look at our existing solar array,” offered Hunsicker in a recent phone interview. “The county was on the absolute leading edge of installing the solar array [in 2004].

“But at the time, measurement tools were not well established. … While there are advantages to being on the leading edge, the industry was still in its infancy and growing, so we encountered some of those growing pains. As a result, the system is not as robust as contemporary systems because the industry has grown up.”

One of those growing pains has remained an ongoing problem: “Back when the array was installed, the county could not sell excess power back to the grid. [To this day] there are times when we have excess energy—and it’s lost,” said Hunsicker. He cited early contractual agreements and legal constraints that have tied the county’s hands in this regard.

“We need to bring in expertise to help analyze the existing system [and contracts and current laws] and determine what changes are necessary” to bring the county’s solar array up to present-day standards, Hunsicker said.

The report also cites the need for future implementation of a “pilot building"—the selection of a specific county-office building “that can be used to test results used in re-construction projects” to bring buildings up to sustainable standards.

“The purpose of a test building is to enable us to effect change and accurately see what happens, so that if a change is good we can replicate that change in other buildings,” said Hunsicker, acknowledging that the county’s nearly $2 million annual energy bill needs to be reduced. A “financial team” of county employees will be put together to help determine which building will become the pilot building, he said, which he anticipates will be up and running by the end of FY 2012-13.

Water usage: Among the areas that will be looked at with an eye to conserving water are county buildings with “large landscapes,” and clothes-washing and food-preparation facilities inside 24-hour-a-day housing facilities (such as the county jail).

One of the county’s accomplishments so far in this area, according to the report, is the 2010 Library Water Conservation Pilot Project, which resulted in such things as the conversion of toilets from using 1.6 gallons of water per flush to using only half a gallon per flush, and installing weather-based irrigation controllers at the Chico and Oroville branches of the Butte County Library.

“We replaced the controllers for the sprinklers … with Internet-ready weather-station landscape-control units,” Hunsicker said. “Now, if it’s going to rain, they won’t come on. They alter the water use based on weather in the area.”

Vehicle usage: The report declares a need to “[r]educe gallons of gas per [county-owned] vehicle [as well as] vehicles per employee and/or mileage per employee.” Impediments to the accomplishment of this goal include the fact that “[a]t the present time the County does not have the ability to determine each [county-owned] vehicle’s actual fuel usage per mile, due to inconsistent or inaccurate reporting of vehicle mileage when fueling as well as the use of commercial credit cards to fuel various vehicles.”

Actions recommended by the Sustainability Work Team to deal with this issue include the installation of “GPS tracking systems on County vehicles to provide … detailed information on vehicle usage and mileage,” and surveying employees to see if they are reducing their vehicle travel.

Solid waste and recycling: “Educate County staff on best practices,” the report says. These include recycling paper, bottles and plastic, and producing “compost, mulch energy and fuels from organic waste stream” to be used in “landscaping and water-conservation efforts.” Additionally, the report advises the creation of “a system of measurement for each department and [the] develop[ment of] friendly competition with rewards.”

Climate change: This hot-button topic is addressed at length in the report, which acknowledges that the negative impacts on Butte County of climate change include increased air pollution, wildfires, frequency and intensity of heat waves, and flood risk from heavy rainfall, as well as a decrease in snowpack. Additionally, impacts on county agriculture include new or expanded weed and pest invasions, and increased vulnerability of animals to disease.

“We have a legal mandate from AB 32 that requires all counties, cities and special districts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020,” said Snellings in a recent phone interview. A Climate Action Plan [CAP] will be developed to tackle this issue; Butte County is sending out a request for proposals this week to consultant firms in the North State “that have experience writing Climate Action Plans,” he said. The CAP “will cover not only county facilities, but [also] all actions permitted by the county—basically all building permits the county issues.” Snellings predicted a timeline of approximately nine months to complete the CAP, which will include an in-depth public-participation component of the process.

The plan may not even end up being called a Climate Action Plan, said Snellings. “It [the name] clouds the issue of what we’re trying to accomplish. It automatically creates two camps—believers and non-believers.” Calling it an “energy-reduction plan” or a “cost-savings plan” might be more appropriate, he said.

“I’m saying let’s address the mandate that’s set out by law,” Snellings said. “It’s irrelevant what we each personally believe [about climate change]. What matters is how we comply with the law, and that ‘how’ will be our plan.”