Schenectady County

Water pump biggest Schenectady polluter

Guess which government function creates the most pollution.
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Guess which government function creates the most pollution.

It’s not the vehicle fleet — even though it uses thousands of gallons of gasoline a year.

It’s not the city’s buildings, which go through tens of thousands of dollars of electricity even after switching to power-saving bulbs.

It’s the brand-new pump that pulls drinking water out of the aquifer and sends it to every house in the city.

Even though the city recently replaced the electric pump with one that would use less power, it still creates more pollution — by using electricity produced in coal-burning plants — than the city’s entire vehicle fleet.

The surprising results of months of research were announced by Dana Swalla, chairwoman of the city’s Energy Advisory Board.

She said the data provided by National Grid proved that residents should conserve water if they really want to reduce global warming.

“One thing people don’t like to talk about is meters. That’s one way to get people to use less,” she said, adding that she was offering that idea as a personal opinion, not as a recommendation from the board. The board has not yet drafted its advice on how the Schenectady City Council could meet its goal of cutting pollution by 7 percent by 2012. Recommendations are due out in the spring.

Swalla said she didn’t expect water pumping to be a major issue when the board began collecting electricity and other fuel usage data.

“I expected the vehicle fleet to be first. That was the most surprising thing for me, but we learned we serve not just the city of Schenectady. We’re pumping water for other communities as well,” she said.

Those communities might be willing to pay a little more for their water so that the city could buy its water pumping electricity from green sources, she said.

“I think green tags is the way to go,” she said, adding that a public relations campaign might also convince Schenectady residents to accept a slight increase in water rates in return for knowing that the water would be pumped without adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

FLEET AND LIGHTS

The city’s dump trucks, plows and police cars made it to second place on the most-polluting list. City council members have been all too aware of how much gasoline their fleet runs through, and have had several debates on whether to buy more expensive hybrid vehicles when gas-guzzlers need to be replaced. In each case, they’ve been convinced to stick with all-gasoline cars because the hybrids cost so much more that the city wouldn’t save money in the long run.

Just like the water issue, Swalla said, it comes down to which is more important: saving money, or saving the planet.

“There’s the financial part, and then there’s the, let’s call it the moral part,” she said. “Hopefully there will be a technology that makes it cheap, but if you really believe global warming is an issue … .” Her voice trailed off.

“All we can do is try to influence policy,” the GE engineer said. “It’s not going to be easy.”

Another hard nut to crack will be the third service on the pollution list: streetlights.

The city’s streetlights use as much electricity as all of the municipal buildings put together, Swalla said.

“That was a big shock. We are a well-lit city,” she said.

But she doesn’t see an easy fix.

“Apparently the technology is not available,” she said.

According to Siemens Building Technologies officials, who are helping the city save money through several big-ticket equipment changes, there’s no streetlight bulb that will both conserve electricity and save the city money. The bulbs are just too expensive, and many can’t provide the kind of light that’s needed.

The board has not yet put together its data on heating and cooling costs, but Swalla is hoping there will be a major improvement there. The city made many infrastructure changes through its $3.1 million Siemens contract.

“We’ll soon know how much of our goal we’ve met,” Swalla said, referring to the goal of reducing pollution by 7 percent in the next four years. “Siemens took care of a lot of the low-hanging fruit.”

Unfortunately, that means the board has to come up with ways to solve the hard problems.

“It’s not going to be as easy as Siemens,” Swalla said. “It’s going to keep getting harder. And you know, 7 percent is just a start. Some people are saying 50 percent by 2050. That’s not going to be easy.”

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