Archive for September, 2011

Car Free Day is celebrated around the world September 22 each year.

Chapel Hill publicized the event by offering stickers and prizes to bus riders. The Village Project, which promotes car-free transportation, encouraged residents to write haikus about using alternative transportation.

In short, the day is largely unnoticed in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area. Even in urban areas like Washington, D.C., not much more is done than giving out similar prizes and asking people to sign car-free pledges.

Elsewhere in the world, cities take the day more seriously. Bogota, Columbia became the first major city to restrict all vehicle traffic for a day in 2000. Many european countries’ car free days include a theme, music, culture, Earth Day activities and sports. The European Union even established a fund to support cities’ efforts to promote the day.

Cars hurt the environment by releasing carbon dioxide, ozone and other contaminants. Cars in the United States are a major contributor to the problem. One study found that more than half of the greenhouse gases emitted by cars worldwide come from the United States.


Alternative transportation is natural for many, but tomorrow Chapel Hill hopes to encourage more to give up their cars during the town’s annual Car Free Day.

“The ultimate goal is to reduce carbon emissions and help our planet,” said Chapel Hill Public Information Officer Catherine Lazorko. “Many residents are able to make any day a car-free one, while others of us are challenged to think of other ways we can reduce our carbon footprint.”

While only about 20 percent of the nation commutes to work by means other than driving alone, 32 percent of Chapel Hill residents use alternative transportation according to data from the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey.

Town residents commute to work using the bus at about twice the national average, according to the survey.

“Every day is Car Free Day in Chapel Hill,” said Assistant Director of Chapel Hill Transit Brian Litchfield. “Chapel Hill, Carrboro and UNC have been committed to utilizing public transportation to travel for some time.”

Chapel Hill Transit gives about 7 million rides per year and that number is predicted to increase, he said.

NextBus, a website that uses GPS tracking to show bus arrival times, and the switch to a fare-free system have encouraged many people to use the bus system, Litchfield said. Compared to these year round initiatives, Car Free Day doesn’t encourage many more people to switch, he said.

“We’ve got a lot of folks who are already using public transportation,” Litchfield said. “We tend not to see the large spikes in ridership on these days.”

But Chapel Hill Transportation Demand Management Coordinator Len Cone said the bus is not the whole story when it comes to alternative transportation in Chapel Hill.

“Chapel Hill has had an eye on being biker and pedestrian friendly,” Cone said. “I think people take advantage of that.”

Town residents walk to work at four times the national rate, according to the American Community Survey.

“Once you’ve tried it, you can see the benefits of it,” Cone said.

Chapel Hill was also recently designated bicycle friendly by the League of American Bicyclists.

“We are proud of the roadmap that the Bicycle Friendly Business program provides and how the Town Government of Chapel Hill used it to transform,” said Bill Nesper, director of the league’s Bicycle Friendly America program in a press release.

The Town provides bike checkouts, bicycle workshops and incentives such as prize drawings and giveaways, according to the press release.

As part of Car Free Day, anyone riding Chapel Hill Transit on Thursday can ask for a car free sticker from the driver. By bringing the sticker to the Chapel Hill Planning Department, residents can enter a drawing for gift cards and other prizes.

“We’re trying to say thank you,” Cone said.

For every mile a resident drives, about one pound of carbon dioxide is released and the average commute is 20 miles each way, she said.

“The emphasis is on that,” she said.

While a multitude of incentives exist for homeowners to retrofit their homes with energy efficient upgrades, it is sometimes confusing to figure out what qualifies for an incentive and under what program.

Below is a list of programs and what retrofits they cover.

Chapel Hill WISE Program link

This program provides retrofits that provide the maximum return on investment with the most incentives.

From the website:

50% subsidy (after all other incentives):
• Envelope air sealing and insulation improvements
• Duct sealing and repair
• Outdoor thermostats for homes with heat-pumps

25% subsidy (after all other incentives):
• Heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) upgrades
• Energy-efficient appliances
• Hot water heater replacements
• Re-circulating hot water systems
• Programmable thermostats in gas-heated homes
• Lighting upgrades
• Solar thermal hot water
• Solar photovoltaic or geothermal renewable energy systems ONLY if in combination with energy efficiency improvements estimated to generate 15% or more energy savings.

For a homeowner to receive a subsidy, a home energy audit must be conducted to show that the improvements being made will generate a 15 percent or greater savings on the homeowner’s energy bill.

Duke Energy Incentives

Energy Star Homes – link

Homes that receive an Energy Star certification are eligible for rate discounts through Duke Energy. Rates vary based on time of year and account type. For more information, see Duke Energy’s rate schedule for Energy Star homes.

Smart Savers Program – link

Consumers who install new energy efficient heat pumps, air conditioners and geothermal ground loops can receive rebates through Duke Energy.

North Carolina

Residents can take advantage of multiple incentives from North Carolina including:


Citizens can receive tax credits for a variety of different purchases.

  • An energy efficiency tax credit where consumers can get up to 30 percent back on water heaters, furnaces, boilers, heat pumps, central air conditioners, building insulation, windows, doors, roofs and circulating fans used in a qualifying furnace.
  • A renewable energy tax credit where consumers can get 35 percent back on certain technologies, like solar-thermal and solar-electric installations.

Incentives to promote energy efficiency in Chapel Hill will continue for the next few years, but federal tax credits may soon expire.

“Right now Congress is thinking about other things,” said Tom Simchak, senior research associate at the Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington, D.C., based nonprofit that promotes energy efficiency. “It’s looking like the federal tax credits for home energy efficiency improvements will expire at the end of this year.”

Tax credits that may expire this year include rebates on energy saving insulation, water heaters, doors, windows, and heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems, but a local program may continue until 2013.

“There’s a whole lot more action going on at the state and local level,” Simchak said.

Chapel Hill, with $455,000 from the Department of Energy through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, began the Wise Investments Save Money program (WISE) in March 2011 to offer incentives for energy efficient home retrofits.

“For a community our size, it is somewhat unusual to see a program like this,” said Town of Chapel Hill Sustainability Officer John Richardson. “This is the project nearest and dearest to me at the moment.”

To participate in the program, a homeowner must first have a home energy audit conducted to determine what efficiency improvements will have the greatest impact.

The homeowner can then choose to pursue those improvements, so long as the auditor can show that the efficiency upgrades will have at least a 15 percent impact on the homeowner’s electricity bill.

WISE provides incentives for improvements to duct systems and insulation at a 50 percent subsidy and for improvements to heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, appliances, lighting and hot water heaters at a 25 percent subsidy.

“Our list consists of those measures that give the best bang for the buck,” Richardson said.

Rainer Dammers, a Southern Village homeowner, installed a $23,670 solar energy system and will pay only $6,214 after incentives from federal, state and local governments.

Dammers saved $7,010 with a tax credit from the federal government, $8,285 with a tax credit from North Carolina and $2,071 with a rebate from the WISE program, he said.

Dammers said with incentives, the solar system will take less than nine years to pay for itself.

To be eligible for a solar system rebate from the WISE program, a homeowner must first reduce energy consumption by at least 15 percent.

Dammers’ energy audit showed that he had a few leaky ducts and gaps in his insulation. By fixing these problems, he achieved the required consumption reduction and received 50 percent of the cost back in rebates through the WISE program.

“A 50 percent subsidy is quite significant. You can do more than otherwise you would have wanted to do all by yourself and get better results,” Dammers said.

Before the introduction of the WISE program, Dammers had upgraded his lighting and windows, added storm doors, and applied weatherstripping to his house. Many of these improvements were eligible for rebates at the federal and state level.

Dammers said he would have waited for solar systems to become more cost effective, but he was worried that some of the government rebates might disappear.

“What made my decision was concern with the political shift and the financial struggles on the federal and state levels,” Dammers said. “I’m just concerned that the landscape obviously is not as much in favor with these types of incentives as it may have been a few years back.”

“I view this as an investment in the future,” Dammers said.

Comments on Previous Article

There are stories and there are stories that get done on deadline. This was one of the latter.

The lede was confusing and uninformative. Instead of trying to summarize the article’s content in detail, the lede would have been more effective if it gave some background on the Orange Water and Sewer Authority and why the utility is contentious and important.

OWASA is under increased scrutiny because of its plans to tap Jordan Lake for future water use.

From the OWASA website:

“OWASA also has an allocation of 5 percent of Jordan Lake’s water supply storage capacity, which can yield about 5-6 million gallons per day (MGD). Jordan Lake will become increasingly important to OWASA in the event of severe drought or other emergency – especially during the next 25 years until the expanded Quarry Reservoir is online.”

The utility is paying $12,000 a year to the state for the right to access its allocation in the future. OWASA says that it may lose its future right to access if it does not start the process to formally demonstrate need.

Many residents believe that the utility and the people it serves should focus on conservation instead of expanding the water supply, said Chapel Hill Town Council Member Donna Bell.

“They are concerned that the business needs of OWASA might outweigh the environmental needs of the region,” Bell said during an interview during Monday’s Town Council meeting.

Because of the environmental impact of the utility and the recent debate over Jordan Lake, residents are especially concerned about OWASA’s actions. This is why a possible Clean Water Act violation is a big deal.

The violation had to do with the amount of manganese released, but the effects of manganese were not outlined.

This was an instance of my inability to find an appropriate answer. In humans, excess levels of manganese can harm brain development in children, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But manganese was not released into the drinking water supply, but into a creek. The effects that it has on nature are less well known.

The most striking information that I found was that manganese cannot break down in the environment. It can only change its form or become attached to or separated from particles, according to the same Centers for Disease Control website.

By Brian Fanney

The Orange Water and Sewer Authority outlined a permit violation and infrastructure improvements over the past year in a report to the Chapel Hill Town Council Monday.

The utility is contesting a possible violation of the Clean Water Act committed in December 2010, while beginning to use a water recycling system and dealing with the delays in infrastructure improvements.

While these infrastructure changes have impacted the budget, rate increases are expected to be in line with inflation.

“They exist to provide water to the municipalities at the lowest cost possible,” Town Council Member Donna Bell said.

Possible Environmental Permit Violation

A possible violation of the Clean Water Act occurred at the Jones Ferry Road Water Treatment Plant, where water used to clean filters is discharged into the adjacent creek several times a year.

In December 2010, the North Carolina Division of Water Quality notified OWASA of a possible permit violation. The level of manganese in the released water was higher than 200 parts per million and had released a color that was visible on the banks of the creek, Spokesperson Greg Feller said.

“It was a relatively small amount and it was for a short duration of time,” Sustainability Manager Patrick Davis said.

OWASA is asking the state to rescind the notice because the permit neither includes color restrictions nor a cap on the amount of manganese in water released to the creek, Feller said.

Feller said OWASA is not yet aware if there will be a civil penalty, but the state is considering rescinding the violation notice.

The Mason Farm Wastewater Treatment Plant had no violations this year, according to the report.

Excess Revenue

OWASA collected $2.7 million more than expected in the last 12 months, according to the report.

This was partly due to a delay in UNC-Chapel Hill’s water reclamation system coming fully online. Because UNC-CH used less reclaimed water than expected, it was forced to buy more expensive potable water, Davis said.

“Reclaimed water is used water that comes to a wastewater treatment plant, is treated in accordance with federal and state standards, and is suitable for reuse for allowed purposes under state regulation,” Davis said.

At UNC-CH, reclaimed water is being used for irrigating athletic fields, flushing toilets at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, and in chiller plants, which help cool buildings, according to the report.

Also, a delay in a sewer replacement project caused OWASA to spend less than expected on capital improvements, Feller said.

“This $5.5 million project was (and is) the largest project in our capital program at this time,” Feller said.

OWASA spent $3.4 million less than expected on infrastructure improvements. The total money budgeted for capital improvements for the last 12 months was $9.8 million.

“Usually capital improvement budgets don’t seem to shift a whole lot because capital improvement projects are long range planned things,” Bell said.

The same amount of money will be spent on the project, but more of that money will be spent in the next fiscal year, Feller said.

Budgeted chemical and personnel costs were also lower than anticipated according to the report.

Rising Rates

Despite a budget surplus, OWASA plans to increase water and sewer rates by 2 percent starting in October, according to the report.

Primary reasons for the increase are higher chemical costs and expected increases in maintenance costs for water and sewer lines, drinking water and wastewater plants, as well as other equipment, according to the report.

The sewer replacement will be one of the major maintenance costs, Feller said.

Based on current assumptions about future water sales and future operating, maintenance, and capital improvement expenditures, OWASA expects rate increases over the next several years to be at or near the overall rate of inflation, according to the report.