Peoria’s Sustainability Commission

An Interview with Dr. Amir Al-Khafaji

In early 2008, Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis created the Commission on Sustainable Development and Green Technology to lead the City’s efforts to promote green development and technologies. Dr. Amir Al-Khafaji, chairman of the Department of Civil Engineering and Construction at Bradley University, chairs the commission, which is composed of citizen leaders from a variety of fields of expertise. iBi spoke at length with Dr. Al-Khafaji about how sustainability plays in Peoria and the future plans for the commission.

Sustainability is a very expansive term. How do you define it?

The word is a composite of the words “sustain” and “ability.” Thus, my definition of sustainability is “the ability to sustain a quality way of life.” This definition applies equally to the present and the future, rural and urban communities, companies and individuals. It is about our collective responsibility to pursue sustainable and quality living standards. This contrasts the formal definition often cited that sustainability is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition presumes that our current and future needs are identical!

Describe the tenets of sustainability beyond just “going green.”

Green technology and construction are subsets of sustainability. Sustainability deals with population growth, limited natural resources and the impact of human activity on the ecosystem. It is about creating an effective balance between social, economic and environmental concerns. Exceptional economic performance at the expense of the community is not sustainable; neither is protecting the environment beyond our means by suppressing economic activities. Sustainability does not require the “perfect” solution, but a balanced approach.
Sustainability is about ensuring a better quality of life for our entire community, now and for generations to come. This can be achieved by maintaining a balance between the main three dimensions of sustainability:

  • Social Equity, which recognizes the needs of everyone
  • Economic Growth, maintaining stable levels of employment
  • Environmental Concerns, using natural resources prudently.

I believe that sustainability should mean different things for different communities—this is not about one-size-fits-all.

How do the ideas of sustainability apply to central Illinois?

Central Illinois has managed to attract some major businesses that are highly respected in the sustainability space. These include Caterpillar, Ag Lab, AmerenCilco, PDC, CORE Construction, River City Construction, ELM, Farnsworth, PSA-Dewberry and STS/AECOM. Further, R.A. Cullinan and Sons has been driving sustainability through pavement recycling and rehabilitation before it became fashionable.

Peoria is also known for its strong labor unions, which have taken the lead to train the future workforce to meet community needs. TRICON, a leading labor and management organization, is playing a pivotal role in driving many new green initiatives and is committed to the urgent need to develop the skilled workforce to meet future green construction demands.

The current level of construction activity in the area includes more than $2 billion, involving our major hospitals, Caterpillar, Bradley University and others. Each of these organizations is committed to sustainability to enrich our community. The Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standards, part of the Public Utilities Act, will bring about $250 million to the State of Illinois for energy efficiency programs. That money will impact residential and commercial construction in the form of incentives and rebates.

Caterpillar’s Vision 2020 stipulates that the design of new Caterpillar facilities includes sustainable features that enable them to be certifiable under LEED (U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards or the equivalent as a minimum, with a preferred goal of qualifying for LEED Gold. Vision 2020 has impacted the local construction industry and engineering design firms, who are scrambling to meet the new demands to build LEED-certified facilities.

How does sustainability impact those businesses that are not in the engineering or construction fields?

Soaring energy prices have opened new doors of opportunity to explore alternative energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal. The rising cost of energy also presents us with new challenges to adapt to the new reality of sustainability. Emerging green technologies require a skilled workforce, alternative energy sources, new regulations and efficiency requirements. Thus, I see sustainability impacting the social, economic and environmental conditions in our community.

The new thrust to focus on sustainable development in Peoria will help new business development that could drive innovation, produce new jobs and improve the social and economic diversity across central Illinois. New investments in renewable and alternative energy will positively impact financial, social and cultural institutions in our community. To put things in perspective, Caterpillar employs more than 100,000 people, which is nearly the size of Peoria! These employees are engaged across the environmental, economic and social spectrum of the global economy. This is also true of many of the other local organizations involved in sustainability.
How do “sustainable companies” gain an advantage in the marketplace? How can business capitalize on this trend?

Today, we face high energy costs, a slowing economy, inflation and numerous social problems. Thus, many new businesses are focused on alternative and renewable energy, green construction, recycling, efficient machines and devices, limiting carbon emissions and other developments to reduce the burden on the average citizen. In Peoria, capital investments could be directed towards new or existing companies involved in the solar and geothermal energy space. Federal and state grants and other incentives are available to help such new initiatives succeed.

Forbes magazine recently published a story about Steve Fambro, who set out to design a three-wheeled vehicle that would achieve over 200 miles per gallon! With an infusion of $20 million from a business incubator, Aptera is scheduled to begin production of the $30,000 electric hybrid later this year. It is already sold out, while GM has many SUVs waiting for buyers.

A second example involves the Berkeley startup Sungevity, a new solar company. Enter your address on Sungevity’s website, and satellite-imaging software zooms in on your home, calculates the roof’s dimensions, selects appropriately-sized solar arrays and shows what they will look like installed—while computing your return on investment. Once the order is placed, a prepackaged solar array is shipped to the customer’s door and an installation crew is dispatched.

The point is that other companies could be encouraged to develop similar technologies in our community. Green construction and alternative energy sources from geothermal, solar and wind could lead to significant economic growth and vitality in Peoria.

American ingenuity has put a man on the moon and reached the outer reaches of our solar system because of the spirit to explore and the courage to dream. Sustainability is not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to one geographic location, but it does present our Peoria community with both the opportunity to explore new horizons and the challenge to conquer new frontiers.

The Sumerians, builders of the first great civilization on Earth, seized to exist because they failed to manage their water resources properly and mismanaged land use. This resulted in social upheavals and wars to secure additional water resources and fertile land that ultimately wrote their fate. I don’t wish to sound dramatic, but when a community ignores change, it surrenders its right and legitimacy to control its own destiny. Change is on the horizon, and we can ill-afford to ignore the sustainability movement.

How do the added initial costs of sustainable development pay for themselves?

According to the U.S. Green Building Council, the average cost premium for building green is between one and two percent of the initial total cost of a new building. The cost premium is higher for retrofitting an existing building. The average payback timeframe is between 12 and 24 months, and the average payback over the lifetime of a green building is 20 percent of the initial cost of the building. This means the added cost of building green actually produces a windfall for the next 18 years!

The cost of inaction could be substantially greater than the cost of action. Look at what happened to the price of gas and how the rush to buy fuel-efficient cars suddenly dropped GM’s stock price to $9, the lowest in 55 years, while the Toyota Prius is selling for $5,000 more than its sticker price! Consequently, if you were to install geothermal equipment or solar panels to help reduce energy costs, it may not make economic sense today, but it may make sense if your utility bill doubles or triples in a few years. Note that the price of gas has tripled in seven years, and so it makes sense to pay the $5,000 premium for a Prius that we could have bought for much less just a few months ago.

The cost associated with any sustainable development should be carefully justified from the economic, environmental and social angles. Hence, you may not want to install a windmill in your backyard even if it is permissible, because your neighbor objects to the intrusion or because it could reduce your property value. Alternatively, the savings realized from solar panels may be less than those achieved from installing geothermal equipment, which is less intrusive. The implication is that each situation requires judgment and relevant experience. The Sustainability Commission intends to provide technical resources to help our citizens make informed decisions when dealing with green technology and sustainable development.

For businesses, a failure to adapt to the new reality of sustainability and green technology will diminish their abilities to effectively compete and possibly endangers their viability. For example, many engineering and construction firms are encouraging their employees to pass a special exam to become LEED-accredited professionals. The cost involved is minimal when compared with the potential loss of work requiring LEED-certified design and construction. The return on investment varies from one project to another based on geographic location, specified LEED certification and existing versus new building. However, the return may justify the extra cost because of reduced utility and maintenance bills. An added benefit of sustainable facilities is that they are essentially independent of the fluctuation in energy costs.

The world has changed and we must, at a minimum, keep pace. Our community is small enough to start a meaningful dialogue on sustainability and large enough to seek a vision worthy of its traditions.

The case for sustainability seems to require extra layers of interaction, planning and communication among key stakeholders (government, business, private citizens, etc.) How does one handle this need while maintaining a business-friendly, non-bureaucratic environment?

This will be a challenging task because of the competing interests involved, the delicate balance required and the difficulty in finding common ground. In the short term, we hope to introduce a new website and develop a new resource center to help businesses and citizens alike. The first meeting of the Sustainability Commission revealed a wide range of perspectives on how to move forward. However, it was encouraging to learn that our community possesses great talents and vibrant businesses that have already embraced sustainability. Our deliberations will be transparent and we intend to seek community input and guidance.

This will require partnerships among leaders from business, education and government entities. Currently, there is no forum that provides the appropriate platform for such partnerships to develop. The Sustainability Commission can provide a unique mechanism for leaders and citizens to find common ground in the sustainability space.

How do you tackle these sensitive issues without becoming ensnared by opposing political viewpoints?

This is a great question because it deals with the human element of the sustainability equation. I believe that reasonable people can find common ground through frank and transparent discourse. For the Sustainability Commission to succeed, it must appeal to a wide range of businesses and permit opposing viewpoints to be expressed and respected. This is a necessary ingredient for relevant partnerships to develop.

The composition of the commission gives me hope and confidence that it will be possible to bridge any political chasm. This commission is not about one company or one leader dominating the debate. It is about a team effort that could impact our community and its future. Social justice, crime, poverty and economic vitality in any community are inter-related and interwoven. Many leaders from business, government and education have already embraced our commission. However, only time will tell if my optimism and confidence can be justified.
What are the mission and objectives of the commission?

Our mission is to transform Peoria into a sustainable green city through partnerships between business, government and education. Our objectives include business expansion, green innovation, workforce training, relevant research, social justice and worthy incentives for sustainable development. This reflects my personal opinion and will most likely be altered to more accurately represent the shared opinions and judgment of our sustainability commissioners. At this time, I see the commission focusing on the following major areas:

  • Development of a technical resource center
  • Development of permits and regulations pertaining to sustainability
  • Introducing new incentives to promote sustainability.

The center is envisioned to provide the technical resources and expertise to help our community and business make informed decisions. Policies, regulations and permits pertaining to new sustainable development, such as wind, solar and geothermal energy, will need to be formulated. Finally, we intend to develop new incentive programs including property tax relief, awards and recognition, grants, and other types of incentives to spur sustainable development in Peoria.

What are the commission’s goals, both short- and long-term?

President Kennedy once stated that the problems of the world cannot be solved by cynics and skeptics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. On July 14, 2008, our commission held its first meeting, and I asked each commissioner to provide a list of their short-term and long-term goals. The commissioners shared the passion and demonstrated the level of commitment that strengthened my faith in the composition of this commission. I believe our commission has the collective wisdom, resolve and visionary leadership needed to create a new reality for our city. During the meeting, Mayor Ardis outlined the following short-term goals for our commission:

  • Promote green building construction in Peoria
  • Retrofit existing buildings in Peoria
  • Promote research and innovations in green technology
  • Identify best practices and resources
  • Provide the public with needed resources and publications
  • Create training programs for students, labor and industry
  • Promote Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED).

For the long term, Mayor Ardis challenged the commission to pursue the following goals:

  • Develop the first Peoria Sustainability and Green Technology Center
  • Develop an international conference on innovations in sustainability
  • Seek partnerships with sustainable sister cities.

Although these appear to be ambitious goals, I believe they are reasonable and achievable. We have organizations and leaders with the judgment and experience to help make this dream a reality. Additionally, some of the commissioners identified other ideas and goals, such as:

  • Make recycling a priority
  • Create waste reduction programs
  • Reduce energy consumption, especially by large users of energy
  • Decrease water consumption
  • Develop energy-efficient affordable housing
  • Become a center of training for wind and solar power
  • Train workforce for green construction
  • Add photovoltaic systems and wind power to apprenticeship training
  • Certify homes as ENERGY STAR
  • Develop green condominium project on riverfront.

How will you translate your ideas into action? How will your success be measured?

We hope to hold monthly meetings to help develop our strategies and an appropriate action plan. Once the list of goals is agreed upon, we will rely on the expertise of the commissioners to identify relevant organizations as worthy partners. We intend to hold a major conference to provide Peoria businesses with national exposure and the opportunity to partner with eminent organizations recognized in the sustainability space. We intend to develop workshops and training programs to help with skilled workforce development in the diverse fields of sustainability. Ultimately, our success will be measured by the degree to which the quality of life in our community will improve in the next five to 20 years. We can then ask ourselves:

  • Has our economy grown?
  • Has our population grown?
  • Is the unemployment level acceptable?
  • Are there fewer or more good-paying jobs?
  • Is there more or less poverty and homelessness?
  • Is it easier or harder for people to find affordable homes?
  • Is there less or more crime?
  • Has the state of our natural environment improved?
  • Has the water quality gotten better or worse?

Specific metrics could include the extent of success or failure in meeting the specific objectives developed by the commission, which have yet to be finalized. This is also true for establishing appropriate success criteria and measures. In this context, I am reminded of George Bernard Shaw, who once wrote that people of character bend circumstances to their will. Mayor Ardis had the foresight to enlist many quality people in this commission, and we are collectively committed to giving the community our very best. I believe members of this commission share the common desire to build a greener city and promote sustainable businesses to support a diverse community. iBi

Comments

What is your suggestion for an ethical company to compete against an unethical company? Let's say it has been family owned since 1927. I say, even with the loopholes, the family has to go with "Not McCain" because the family won't make over $250,000 per year, but they will create decent paying jobs. What a contradiction? They are in the furniture business. They have decided to go into the solar residential market because of their grand-daughter's idea.

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