Monroe County is proving that going green is not only good for the planet, but good for the taxpayers who pick up the tab when it comes to the county's gas and electric bill.
The county recently completed $2.1 million in federal grant-funded projects ranging from retrofits to county-owned buildings to purchasing hybrid cars. The work resulted in the county saving 1.4 million kilowatts of electricity, 1,708 gallons of gas and $179,000 in taxpayer money, according to Rhonda Haag, Monroe County sustainability program manager.
It also reduced the county's carbon footprint by 992 metric tons of carbon, Haag said.
In a matter of eight months, the county has saved $54,394 by installing more efficient lighting and air conditioning systems and controllers at the Freeman Justice Center in Key West.
The grant, funded by federal stimulus money, paid for six hybrid cars, which Haag said is "big savings when you are talking about going from 15 miles per gallon to 45 miles per gallon."
The funds also were used to install solar water heaters on 15 Habitat for Humanity homes on Big Pine Key. The success of the county's program led other Big Pine Key homeowners to install solar water heaters in their homes, Haag said.
The county also replaced older lighting systems at ballparks and parks in the cities of Key West and Islamorada.
"The lighting is more energy efficient and brighter," Doug Gregory said of Key West's ball fields. Gregory oversees Monroe County Extension Services and is liaison for the county's Climate Change Advisory Committee.
The grant also paid for an energy audit of Marathon government offices and facilities and covered the costs of installing 250 energy efficient streetlights in that town. Some of the lights installed on Sombrero Beach are dimmer to help prevent sea turtle hatchlings from being distracted away from the sea, Haag said.
Outside of the grant funding, the county also saved $5,000 a month in electricity by simply shutting down the air conditioning system at the county administrative offices in the Gato Building in Key West for two hours a night, Gregory said.
"That's a big savings for not having to incur any expense at all," he said.
Because the projects have been so successful in terms of energy and cost savings, the county elected to make Haag's position a full-time job. Also, since the county is saving nearly $100,000 annually in energy costs from the projects completed under the grant, the county set up a $200,000 sustainability program budget for this fiscal year, which started in October.
The funds will be used to implement other energy saving projects, and future budgets will continue to be funded with the cumulative savings, according to Haag.
County Administrator Roman Gastesi has made green projects a priority, and the county has taken the initiative when it comes to global climate change, as the Florida Keys are one of the lowest-lying areas in the United States. Monroe County is the first county in the state to address the effects of sea level change in its comprehensive land use plan, and established a Climate Change Task Force, an advisory committee that will make recommendations to the County Commission.
Three of Monroe's four hospitals, 65 percent of its schools and 71 percent of its emergency shelters are on properties that -- in some spots -- would be below sea level given a rise of 1 foot, according to the plan.
Scientific models are projecting 3 to 7 additional inches of sea level rise by 2030 in four Florida counties, and 9 to 24 inches by 2060. Without steps to protect buildings and land, a foot of sea level rise would cause an estimated $2 billion in property damage, government officials said at a conference.
The county hosted the "sea level" conference in Key Largo in December. The event was attended by elected and government officials from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
The next regional conference will be held in Jupiter on Dec. 6 and 7.