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Super efficient apartments could bolster Kansas City’s reputation

It’s been two years since Ashok Gupta, program director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, moved from New York to the Kansas City area, where his wife is from.

He got to keep his job with one of the top environmental groups, and gained a ringside seat for the Kansas City area’s efforts to boost energy efficiency.

Those efforts are still a work in progress, with plenty of issues to be addressed, such as finding ways for low-income residents to save energy. But Gupta has seen the launch of a public-private-utility effort, and he is particularly excited about one building project on the horizon.

The big joint effort, the Kansas City Energy Initiative, was unveiled in June. It challenges owners of large commercial buildings to compare their energy use with similar buildings in the U.S., and then look for ways to save energy to ensure they’ll be in the top 25 percent of building efficiency. Owners of 175 buildings have signed up.

And Kansas City Power & Light has broadened its rebates for residential and business customers in Missouri and hopes to eventually extend them to Kansas now that a state law has changed that will allow the program.

Since July, KCP&L’s Missouri customers have bought 1 million energy-efficient light bulbs, which were cheaper because of the utility’s rebates.

But there’s one project that has especially fired Gupta’s imagination and that could stir ripples across the country: Jonathan Arnold’s plans for a new apartment building in the River Market.

Arnold, the owner of a local imaging shop, hopes to break ground in July for a 274-unit apartment building that will slash typical heating, cooling and lighting costs by more than 80 percent. It also will forgo lumber for framing and use materials that will allow the building to last more than a century.

That’s a revolution for apartment construction, a building sector that typically doesn’t think much about the long term, because ownership often changes. Instead, there’s an emphasis on keeping building costs low, and saving energy isn’t a priority because utility costs ultimately are borne by tenants. Toss in some other elements of Arnold’s project, such as being close to the coming streetcar line and having a rooftop garden, and Arnold’s building seems destined to get attention and serve as a model elsewhere.

“It will put Kansas City on the map” for energy efficiency, Gupta said.

Energy efficiency — from using more insulation to installing fluorescent and LED lights — has long been viewed as the best and most economical way to avoid building more power plants. But its features often are about as exciting as a tube of caulk and take time to pay off. With relatively low electricity costs in the Midwest and the drop in natural gas prices, energy efficiency has struggled to arouse much interest.

But that picture is shifting as electricity rates rise here and elsewhere, making it more economical to spend money on homes and buildings to slash energy bills. Looming federal regulations to reduce greenhouse gases are also triggering interest in using energy efficiency to help utilities meet the mandates. In the Midwest, which has relied on coal-fired plants, energy efficiency, one way or the other, is headed for a bigger role.

In the Kansas City Energy Initiative, the city of Kansas City, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and KCP&L joined forces in an effort to make the area a leader in the nation for energy efficiency. They focused on commercial, government and other institutional buildings and their heavy energy usage.

The goal is to reduce the city’s electricity consumption by 5 percent by 2030, and the area already has had some successes.

The city of Kansas City has for years been shaving its electricity use by better managing its buildings’ heating and cooling equipment and installing more efficient lighting. It also recently installed more efficient motors to pump drinking and waste water.

Its electricity consumption, compared with 2000, is down 21 percent while community wide consumption rose 14 percent.

The energy initiative was hoping to enlist 200 buildings and might fall short of that, with about 175 participating so far. Still, its backers say they are pleased.

“It’s a good start,” said Dennis Murphey, chief environmental officer for Kansas City. “We’ve got a lot of stuff going on.”

In the private sector, one big example of progress is MC Realty Group, which manages 13 million square feet of office space, warehouses and nursing homes. It has worked to slash energy costs in about half of its space, aiming for a 2-year payback in energy savings on its upfront costs and sometimes beating that.

The effort is given a hand by KCP&L, which has been offering business customers up to $250,000 in rebates annually for more efficient heating and cooling equipment and other improvements.

The amount of electricity saved so far is enough to supply 13,000 homes, and that savings could double by the end of the year. Residential customers are also providing a big chunk of the savings, largely by taking advantage of rebates for more efficient lighting, and heating and cooling equipment.

“We have a very balanced portfolio,” said Kim Winslow, director of energy solutions at KCP&L.

Still, figuring out how to get consumers to do more is an issue, in part because of the difficulty of getting the work done. One approach being discussed is to offer different packages of improvements such as insulation or caulking at a set price that would come with a list of pre-screened contractors to do the work.

Another problem is that improving a home to use less energy has little effect, if any, on a home’s resale value. Until that changes, many believe the residential sector will struggle when it comes to boosting energy efficiency.

“It’s the most critical piece,” said Warren Adams Leavitt, executive director of the Metropolitan Energy Center in Kansas City.

Beyond the nuts and bolts, a narrative is forming that energy efficiency can play a part in the image of Kansas City, helping spur a city’s growth and attracting new residents.

“You need things to stand out,” Ashok said. “You need a signature.”

Another aspect of the narrative was announced Monday, when KCP&L said it would deploy 1,000 public chargers for electric cars by summer. That’s the most ever installed by a U.S. investor-owned utility in the country, which will make it much easier to drive an electric vehicle in the area.

“This helps brand us a progressive city,” said Chuck Caisley, a spokesman for KCP&L.

Exhibit A in that branding could be Arnold’s super efficient apartment building, on the city’s coming streetcar line.

Its 80 percent reduction in typical energy use will earn a special passive-housing certification for the building. Besides having thick walls and being super insulated, the building will be situated in its location to improve energy gain. Triple-pane windows will help some more with the energy savings, and make it quieter inside.

The reduced demand for energy means heating and cooling units also won’t litter the roof. Instead, the space will be used for rooftop gardens.

Arnold, concerned about gentrification in the remaking of downtown Kansas City, also plans to set aside 20 percent of his building’s units at lower rents for “workforce” tenants.

“We hope this will prove a more viable model,” he said.

To reach Steve Everly, call 816-234-4455 or send email to severly@kcstar.com.

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