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MEC's Sustainable Tucson Initiatives

1. Introduction

The Tucson-Pima County Metropolitan Energy Commission (MEC) is an appointed, all-volunteer civic commission, jointly established in 1980 by the City of Tucson and Pima County to serve the community on energy matters. During the past twenty-one years, the Commission has actively educated the public on a variety of energy subjects, analyzed technical issues, commented on energy legislation, developed strategic plans, issued recommendations to the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, developed community support, and sponsored many energy-related community activities and projects.

Shortly after its establishment, the Commission's first visionary initiative was a sustainable development project, the Tucson Solar Village Project, now being commercially developed as the Community of Civano. With $900,000 in approved funding from the Arizona Energy Office, MEC led an eight-year participatory planning and design process. After reviewing other sustainable development projects, such as Village Homes in Davis, California, MEC was able to show significant economic opportunities in sustainable development. The potential of solving multiple problems through this approach convinced city leaders to implement Civano in 1994. MEC also argued that a sustainable design model could be adapted for redevelopment throughout the city and thereby benefit all existing community residents.

In mid-1994, MEC initiated Sustainable Tucson Initiatives. For more than seven years, MEC has focused on its mission to act as a catalyst for sustainable development in the community. The Commission believes that sustainabilty is the only feasible approach to population growth (especially in the Southwest) because it balances the requirements for economic development, environmental integrity and social needs. MEC has supported and promoted Sustainable Tucson Initiatives through seed grants and partnerships with other organizations to meet the needs of the wider community for more sustainable approaches to development and quality of life. MEC has successfully leveraged its modest $20,000 annual budgets to begin to make sustainability a part of everyday life in the community. Sustainable Tucson Initiatives includes the following projects and activities:

* Civano Oversight -- Monitor design compliance for Community of Civano development.

* Sustainable Building Codes -- Initiate Sustainable Energy Standard and support development of the Strawbale Construction Code.

* Community Education -- Cosponsor community energy education activities including:

  • Solar and Renewable Resource Adventure
  • Innovative Solar Home Tours & Seminars
  • Women for Sustainable Technology Conferences
  • Renew America Teleconferences
  • William McDonough Public Lecture
  • Tucson Institute for Sustainable Communities (originally, Civano Institute)
  • Tucson Unified School District REAP Projects. Resource conservation projects

* Affordable Strawbale Housing -- Cosponsor and document innovative housing project.

* Livable Tucson Forums -- Sponsor pilot forum on community sustainability goals and indicators.

* Community Strategic Energy Plan -- Facilitate community planning process and plan publication.

* Tucson Coalition for Solar -- Underwrite proposal to facilitate "orderly expansion" of Tucson's solar industry.

MEC's Sustainable Tucson Initiatives has greatly benefited the community through offering many opportunities for community-wide participation and learning. Some initiatives have also gained high visibility. Civano has been hailed around the world (U.S. President Clinton, among others) as a leading model for developing a sustainable future. Pima County and the City of Tucson have become national leaders in adopting energy-efficient building codes and permitting the use of sustainable natural building materials including, adobe, rammed earth, and strawbale construction. The Livable Tucson Forums have led to the creation of the City of Tucson Sustainable Communities Program. Sustainability goals now form the framework for City policies and budget planning. The Affordable Strawbale Housing project won several national recognition awards. The following highlights demonstrate the breadth and depth of MEC's accomplishments as a catalyst for sustainability.

2. MEC Effectiveness

Sustainable Tucson Initiatives is based on the assumption that people will adopt sustainable approaches and solutions when they perceive that sustainable practices are both good for the environment and good for the economy. In some cases, sustainable solutions may be the only approach to a problem. The transition of the original Tucson Solar Village Project into the 1000-acre Civano commercial land development was achieved through bottomline economic arguments which emphasize life-cycle costing, response to emerging markets, and conserving environmental resources.

MEC developed the Sustainable Energy Standard through the local energy code committee. Originally designed to be the minimum energy performance requirement for Civano, the City of Tucson recently adopted it for all new municipal construction. This aggressive standard requires reducing energy consumption by 50% over the 1995 Model Energy Code. The building code initiatives were achieved through community-wide support to create new market opportunities which would reduce the negative environmental impacts of construction.

MEC measures the overall effectiveness of Sustainable Tucson Initiatives by both participation and the degree to which MEC's efforts are extended and multiplied by other organizations in the community. After reviewing its achievements, MEC sees overwhelming evidence that Sustainable Tucson Initiatives has made a lasting impact. Attendance at events has been enthusiastic:

  • Tucson Solar Village Charrettes (250 participants)
  • Solar and Renewable Resource Adventure (1000 attendance)
  • Innovative Solar Home Tours & Seminars (3000 attendance)
  • Women for Sustainable Technology Conferences (1200 attendance)
  • Renew America Teleconferences (150 participants)
  • William McDonough Public Lecture (150 attendance)
  • Affordable Strawbale Housing Project (300 participants)

Community synergy is also highly evident. For example, the Livable Tucson Forum, a small pilot project (which MEC funded and Venture Catalyst developed and facilitated) evolved into the Livable Tucson Vision Program, a major sustainable community indicators project and led the City of Tucson to create the Sustainable Communities Program. The City of Tucson now utilizes the Livable Tucson indicators as a framework for its annual Policy Initiatives.

National recognition of projects such as Civano, the Affordable Strawbale House Project, and the sustainable building codes suggests a heightened interest in replicating Sustainable Tucson Initiatives. In 1998, MEC created a website -- -- allowing internet information access to these sustainability initiatives. Judging by the 57,000 visits to the site within the first three months, it seems clear that people in other communities are learning from MEC's efforts in Tucson.

3. Natural Resource Conservation

Resource efficiency is an important component of all Sustainable Tucson Initiatives. Natural resource conservation is being achieved in various ways. The prototype Civano project will reduce energy consumption by at least 50% over conventional building code requirements, potable water use by 30%, landscaping water use by 70%, and solid waste disposal by 50% . Civano will also reduce carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 21,000 tons per household.

Once enforced, sustainable building codes can significantly conserve natural resources. The Sustainable Energy Standard, originally developed for Civano, can be applied to all new and retrofit construction. By following this code, users will reduce building energy requirements by at least 50% over typical new construction. The Prescriptive Code for Strawbale Construction Code, supported by MEC members in the local building code committee, was facilitated by the Development Center for Appropriate

Technology (DCAT), a nationally-recognized leader in sustainable building code reform. The Strawbale Construction Code permits a renewable agricultural waste product (usually burned-off annually) to be used to build superinsulated walls. The potential combined energy savings and pollution reduction accruing to strawbale construction is enormous. An additional incentive to strawbale construction is the option for sweat equity in the wall construction phase.

The participation rates in the various initiatives also suggest that people are implementing sustainable solutions in their own projects. Increasing rates of strawbale home construction and growing local sales of solar and water-saving products confirm the conservation effects of sustainable practices.

4. Economic Progress

A community energy assessment commissioned by MEC shows that since 1992, the metro area is saving approximately $200 million dollars annually due primarily to investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy in buildings. That adds up to $1billion of additional local capital in five years.

The major land development of Civano and its market impacts on the rest of the community is testimony to the very positive economic potential of Sustainable Tucson Initiatives. Once considered "alternative" and "fringe", sustainable development is now becoming mainstream and supported by both public sector and business leaders. MEC has leveraged its $20,000 annual budgets into community-wide sustainable practices and economic activities. Trends in the local economy have prompted the local community college to identify sustainable technology as an emerging labor market opportunity to develop a multi-campus program. The number of firms active in the sustainable technology and development field is increasing every year.

Another sustainable initiative of MEC is the Community Strategic Energy Plan. MEC determined that approximately one billion dollars in the form of energy payments leave the community every year. The Plan suggests many ways the community can reduce energy imports, develop its solar industry, and reinvest the annual energy savings in sustainable job creation. This argument has grown increasingly attractive ever since Sustainable Tucson Initiatives was started as evidenced by the success of the Tucson Coalition for Solar. The Department of Energy has targeted Tucson as the test market to develop its Million Solar Roof program.

5. Human Development

Greater Tucson has a growing, multicultural population -- currently over 800,000. Sustainable Tucson Initiatives has reached many thousands of people through the various education and demonstration activities. MEC believes that the tenets of sustainability are appropriate and applicable to all sectors and groups of the community. Efforts to involve women in sustainable technology have merited special attention. MEC has supported the formation of Women for Sustainable Technology and their annual conferences.

All MEC-sponsored events strive to address the diverse needs and interests of the public and are held free of charge. In some projects, such as the Tucson Solar Village Project, MEC has openly invited the public to collaboratively set goals and help plan the features of the final designs. In the Affordable Strawbale House Project, over two hundred volunteers physically helped build the houses. The video program, "Community Strawbale Homebuilding" was commissioned by MEC. It documents this award-winning sustainable community project which brought together Habitat for Humanity Tucson, the Tucson Urban League, Pima Community College, the Development Center for Appropriate Technology, and the City of Tucson. The project attracted hundreds of people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, generated a truly exciting community experience, and educated everyone in the benefits of sustainability and strawbale construction.