When it comes to energy, less really is more if it gets the same job done. As our country works to maximize every watt, amp and BTU, it’s worth noting that Kentucky is playing a major role in leading the way.
Consider our schools, which have long been a pioneer in reducing energy costs. In 1992, for example, the National Society of Professional Engineers recognized one of Kentucky’s elementary schools for incorporating geothermal heating and cooling in its design. Now, a fourth of our schools have these systems in place, which is one of the highest percentages among the states.
We took the next major leap forward several years ago when we opened the nation’s first two schools that generate as much energy as they use over a calendar year. Right behind them are 200 others that have an ENERGY STAR rating, which is awarded to those facilities using 20 to 30 percent less energy than would be expected. Overall, the state now has more than 350 ENERGY STAR buildings, which is a 900 percent jump from five years ago.
School officials are always looking for ways to cut costs, often with the students helping as they learn about energy efficiency. Last year alone, they identified more than $15 million in energy savings, according to the Kentucky Department for Energy Development and Independence.
Beyond the facilities themselves, the state is taking other steps to cut energy use. On the road, the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection now has several plug-in hybrids among its fleet, as do the University of Louisville and the local governments for Lexington and Louisville.
Both U of L and the University of Kentucky are also putting significant resources into alternative-energy research. A few years ago, U of L received the single-largest private donation any public university in the state has ever received to kick-start a new wave of study in this area, while last summer UK opened the Renewable Energy and Energy Storage Research Building. Like many of our elementary schools, it too meets stringent environmental standards, featuring such innovative touches as treated windows that have the same insulating rating as brick.
In addition to housing research on such things as biofuels, the facility also hosts a partnership with a leading federal research lab that is looking for ways to improve automotive batteries for hybrid and electric cars. As more and more vehicles rely on an electrical outlet rather than a gas pump, we want to be at the forefront of this cutting-edge field.
Outside of government and education, we have seen success in our homes as well when it comes to cutting energy costs. The Kentucky Home Performance Program has helped more than 1,000 homes in the last year alone, which was the fifth-best rate in the nation. Those who take part see their energy costs drop by a fourth on average.
Another innovative program gaining national attention has re-purposed some of the assembly lines used by our houseboat industry. Instead of building boats, they have built highly efficient homes that cost less than $100,000 and operate on just $1.65 a day. Families moved into the first two early last year.
All of these energy-saving measures have an obvious benefit on the environment, and with Earth Day early this week, we can point to other areas where we’re making progress as well. Last month, the state held its 15th annual Commonwealth Cleanup Week, which in 2012 saw more than 28,000 Kentuckians taking part. They collected 65,000 bags of trash then and cleaned about 5,500 miles of highway.
Elsewhere, the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund recently announced that its latest acquisition now puts it in sight of protecting 80,000 irreplaceable acres, while an ongoing waste-tire collection program has removed 21.6 million tires from across the state since 1998.
During the recent legislative session, the General Assembly took steps to help these trends along. One new law gives utilities more incentive to use biofuels to generate electricity, while another sets some needed guidelines for vehicles converting to natural gas, something that has become a growing trend because of the fuel’s low costs.
As these examples show, we have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time when it comes to boosting energy efficiency and reducing our impact on the environment. Further technological advances will undoubtedly lead to even more gains in the near future.