From The Editor | July 13, 2016

How To Incentivize Green Infrastructure

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

With any luck, our future will be a greener one. It’s been made clear that operating in a way that ignores environmental impact won’t be sustainable for much longer and that in order to change unsustainable practices, green methods will have to become good business.

None other than climate change activist and former Vice President Al Gore himself told Wired recently that we are now “winning” the war on climate change thanks to a shift in business practices.

“When renewable electricity becomes cheaper than electricity that comes from burning coal or gas, then that changes everything,” Gore said. “The marketplace makes it the default option, and you get what you saw in the world in 2015 — 90 percent of the new electricity generated in the world last year was from renewables.”

By making environmentally-friendly practices business-friendly too, they become favored by commercial enterprises and tree-huggers alike. In a recently announced project, the Water Research Foundation (WRF) is applying this logic to green infrastructure implementation.

The project, “Incentives For Green Infrastructure On Private Property: Lessons Learned,” will produce a resource guide to help utilities develop or refine incentive programs to encourage green infrastructure and low-impact development (LID) on private property. It is currently in the request for proposal stage, with WRF pledging up to $150,000 to the winning proposing team.

“Many utilities have expressed concern over limitations on the amount of public property available in areas where green infrastructure can make a cost-effective impact,” WRF said, adding that costs and ongoing maintenance also pose problems for utilities hoping to implement green infrastructure on public property. “Incentive programs have encouraged green infrastructure on private property over the last five to 10 years for retrofits or designed treatment above and beyond minimum ordinance requirements. Lessons learned and recommendations from these programs… can be used to design or redesign more efficient and effective programs to encourage implementation over a greater area.”

Minimum requirements for green infrastructure and LID vary by municipality and they are usually triggered during development or redevelopment only, WRF explained. The hope is to find ways of encouraging sustainable practices even when they are not required by law, based on what has worked in the past.

“The purpose of this project is to assess the effectiveness of existing programs and draw out lessons learned and recommendations for future programs across a variety of utility and municipality frameworks,” WRF said.

According to WRF, the most common incentives that are used include utility fee discounts or credits. Grants for additional infrastructure or awards and recognition programs used for marketing are also potential tools.

While the ultimate style and layout of the guide will be determined by the winning proposing team, WRF envisions a useful and easy-to-navigate resource that lists the successes, failures, recommendations for change, and possibly recommendations for new incentives or programs.

“We’ve encouraged the addition of infographics and tools that program managers can use in gaining support for development of the program based on existing programs,” the foundation said. “We expect a synthesis document, not just independent case studies. The use of bins or categories in assessing the effectiveness of programs will assist end users to identify what may work best for their needs.”

For WRF, the time has come to rethink how the work of utilities and the goals of private development should overlap.

“Utilities and municipalities are increasingly doing more with less,” WRF said. “In addition, the effects of climate change — including droughts and record flooding — increases in regulatory requirements, and community attention to the environment are driving the need for innovative, yet tried solutions.”

With this tool in hand, utilities may finally convince us that doing what’s best for yourself means doing what’s best for all.