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by Jane Porter
photos by David Blount

In the past few years, visiting the sunflower field along the Neuse River Trail has become something of a summer tradition in Raleigh. The sunflowers in bloom in June and July are upwards of five feet tall and stand bright yellow against the blue summer sky, a perfect visual depiction of the hottest days of the year. 

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The flowers, you may think, are the aesthetic antithesis to Raleigh’s big city buses. But, explains Megan Anderson, manager of the City of Raleigh’s Office of Sustainability, the sunflowers were initially planted with a symbiotic relationship between them and the city’s buses (and other vehicles in its fleet) in mind.

It works like this: biosolids are collected from the nearby Neuse River Resource Recovery Facility, a wastewater treatment plant. These biosolids are then used to fertilize the soil that’s used to grow the sunflowers. Once the sunflowers grow, their seeds are collected and processed in a 46-foot-long tractor trailer, to be converted to biodiesel to power city vehicles.

“It’s a closed-loop system, it’s really cool,” Anderson says.

The hundreds of gallons of biofuel that the sunflowers have produced so far have been used primarily to power farming equipment on-site. The biofuel tractor trailer is mobile and provides educational opportunities all over the city and state. Overall, the initiative is just one piece in the city’s efforts to study the costs and benefits of producing biofuel on city property, and the sunflowers serve the additional purpose of preventing polluting, nitrogen-rich soil from washing into the adjacent waterways.

Raleigh’s Office of Sustainability was established in 2008, and Anderson, its second manager, has been at the helm for two years. Since the office’s outset, the city has secured several grants for sustainability projects that span numerous public departments. Written in to the City Council’s mission statement, and woven throughout the city’s short-term strategic plan, are ways to incorporate sustainable practices into every facet of city government.

“With such explosive population growth, it’s a big deal to us to pay attention to sustainability,” Anderson says. “I have to give credit to our citizens. They want this. We wouldn’t be doing these things if we didn’t have their support.”

Below are a just a few of the ways that Raleigh has “gone green.”

An Anaerobic Digester on the Horizon  

In furthering city efforts to study the benefits of biofuel, North Carolina’s state environmental agency last summer awarded Raleigh a $50 million grant to build an anaerobic digester at the Neuse River wastewater facility. The Public Utilities Department’s project, expected to be complete in about four years, will work by creating methane from the wastewater treatment process. Utilities staffers can then, it’s hoped, find a way to convert that methane to compressed natural gas that could be used to power city vehicles, including buses. This process would be much more efficient than the aerobic process currently used at the site, which, using big fans, consumes a lot of energy in order to create biosolids that are in turn used as fertilizer and soil amendments.

Positive Steps for Pollinators

This June, Raleigh earned its designation as a Bee City USA, alongside more than forty other cities in the country. The designation means Raleigh has made a long-term commitment to creating sustainable habitats for pollinators citywide, and, since we can thank a pollinator for one in every three bites of food we eat, it’s a pretty big deal.  

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“We’ve been doing things in this realm for a long time,” Anderson says, “and this is our chance to tell the public about the projects and partnerships we have going on.”

The Public Utilities Department’s Neuse River sunflower field is one such project, providing a significant habitat for bees and other pollinators. In addition to the three acres already planted, another 55 acres were planted in 2017. The field’s buffer zone is planted with more than sixty acres of clover, and five city-owned acres of land along the Wrenn Road wastewater facility are also planted with white clover. Clover is a low-maintenance plant pollinator species.

Raleigh’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department supports pollinator habitats in several ways. In the city’s many parks, you’ll find native, non-invasive plantings, pollinator and butterfly gardens, and pollinator outreach and education programs that teach citizens how to be pollinator-friendly. Check out Wilkerson Preserve Park, Durant Nature Preserve, Anderson Point Park, Walnut Creek Wetland Center, and Fred Fletcher Park to learn more.

Raleigh has partnered with NC State University, which maintains pollinator habitats all over the city, and the State of North Carolina’s Wildlife Resource Commission to determine the best pollinator species to plant in various locations. For instance, the city is studying the best species of plants that would be able to thrive in the shade under solar panels, requiring minimal maintenance, yet providing a habitat for pollinators at the same time.

Finally, the Department of Transportation, in partnership with Raleigh’s Urban Design Center, has big plans for pollinators at the soon-to-be-open Union Station in downtown’s Warehouse District. With funding in part from a grant from Durham-based Burt’s Bees, city staffers will build a mound of infill dirt from the old rail lines and plant it with pollinator species.

“It’s going to be a beautiful, artistic sculpture, right near the public walkway so people can see it,” Anderson says of the project. “But it will also be a pollinator garden and it will clean up all that soil.”

Solar-Powered Cell Phone Chargers

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If you’ve been to downtown’s Exchange or Market Plaza recently, you’ve likely noticed them: big, red Soofa benches with solar panels that can charge your cell phone while you’re on the go, using energy captured from the sun. A partnership between the city’s Department of Transportation and the Office of Sustainability and NC State University brought a third station to a bus stop at the intersection of Cates Avenue and Morrill Drive, a location that sees heavy student foot traffic. The transportation department has selected other locations citywide to install cellphone charging stations, and these three mobile Soofa chargers are collecting data in the first phase of the department’s pilot project. Look for the Soofas in other pilot locations soon!

Green Buildings

LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a US Green Building Council-proscribed certification system that evaluates how resource-efficient and environmentally sustainable new commercial and civic buildings are. In general, new buildings are scored along a LEED certification program metric system. Building designs earn points on a scale that designates them LEED Certified, LEED Silver, LEED Gold, or, at best, LEED Platinum for their overall sustainability.

Since 2008, city-owned buildings and additions of more than 10,000 square feet in scale must meet the LEED Silver standard, at a minimum. (For reference, the total area of the Raleigh Convention center is roughly 500,000 square feet).

According to city data, there are eighteen LEED Certified buildings in Raleigh, and of those, the city owns three: downtown’s Convention Center on Salisbury Street (LEED Silver), the Transit Operations Facility on Poole Road (LEED Platinum), and the Wilders Grove Solid Waste Services Building on Beacon Lake Drive (LEED Platinum).

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Features of these buildings include LED lighting, geothermal heat pumps and radiant floor heating, reflective white roofs and rooftop solar panels, water-saving plumbing fixtures and rainwater collection cisterns, durable, recycled, local materials such as wool-blend carpeting and bamboo carpentry, landfill diversion methods, and more.

“We’re really proud of our Platinum buildings, because that’s not easy to achieve,” Anderson says. “We wouldn’t have been able to do it without the help of grants.”

Cashing In on Stormwater

Did you know you can petition the City of Raleigh for free money to help manage storm water on your own property?

Since 2009, the city has sponsored a stormwater quality cost sharing program that helps homeowners and commercial property owners recoup the cost of stormwater quality management projects on private property. Eligible projects under the program include harvesting rainwater in a cistern to use for watering your garden, installing rainwater retention devices and rain gardens on your property, installing a green roof, and installing permeable pavers and pavement surfaces. Depending on whether you live in a designated Priority Water Quality Target Area or not, the city will reimburse you between 75 and 90 percent of the cost of the project.

“It’s an opportunity for citizens to make their property more sustainable with a huge help from the city,” says Anderson. “If you help with city stormwater issues, it really helps us all.”

To learn more, check out https://www.raleighnc.gov/services/content/PWksStormwater/Articles/StormwaterQualityCostShareProgram.html for more information on the Stormwater Quality Cost Sharing Program.

the elf unveiling on june 21st

the elf unveiling on june 21st

Electric Vehicle Infrastructure

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In 2009, along with Portland, Oregon and Indianapolis, the Rocky Mountain Institute invited Raleigh to participate in Project Get Ready, an initiative designed to help pave the way for electric vehicles on the nation’s roads. As an EV guinea pig, the city installed 18 charging stations for personal vehicles all over the city, and another 11 for vehicles in the city’s fleet using $300,000 in grants and matching city funds. The city collects data from the stations using Periscope and, through 2012, use of the EV charging stations increased each quarter.

“The experts say Raleigh shows that, if you don’t have the infrastructure, people don’t buy the vehicles because they don’t feel comfortable,” Anderson says of Project Get Ready. “We do have a pocket for electric vehicles now because we were an early adopter, and we’ve seen electric vehicle use spread from Raleigh out to all over the Triangle. We’re such a good network here because we’ve got people commuting all over the area.”


Making Raleigh A Smart City

Last September, the City of Raleigh signed an agreement with NC State that formalizes a joint commitment to exploring opportunities for engagement, partnership, and collaboration related to making Raleigh a “smart city.” Currently, work on smart, new ways to tackle ongoing issues is underway in three different areas: assessing the condition of city pavements and road maintenance, climate control in city buildings, and looking at better ways to address heavy rain, sleet and snow, from a societal and infrastructure-based perspective.

“We’re looking at opportunities to solve big and small problems in the city and matching them up with NC State where we can, kind of like speed dating with different groups on campus,” Anderson says. “We want to find ways to be innovative, pool our resources together, share partners we’re already working with, and work together to go after grants.”

In the age of fossil fuel depletion, climate change, and the rising costs of energy and water, it’s become vitally important to governments and the private sector alike to ensure that, to the best of their abilities, they’re operating sustainably. Compared to other US cities, Raleigh is faring pretty well.

We’re rated four out of five stars on the S.T.A.R. system (Sustainability Tools for Assessing and Rating communities), a benchmarking technique that compares cities across the nation based on the same comprehensive set of 500-plus evaluation measures.

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“We’re really happy about that,” Anderson says. But she acknowledges that there’s more to be done and says that, luckily – with knowledgable advocates on the City Council and on staff, with a volunteer Environmental Advisory Board, and with thousands of engaged citizens – we have the political will in Raleigh to do it.

“We really can make a difference with more investment upfront, and we’re beginning to see the payoffs over time,” Anderson says. “Sustainability is change, and change is not easy, but there’s an opportunity and a challenge at the same time. Even if you have to have a hard conversation, it’s important to feel like we’re all on the same team.”