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Red state, green Republican: a Q&A with Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard poses with an electric Ford Focus in December. Indianapolis plans to replace its entire fleet with electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles by 2025. (Rich Callahan / Associated Press)

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard poses with an electric Ford Focus in December. Indianapolis plans to replace its entire fleet with electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles by 2025. (Rich Callahan / Associated Press)

INDIANAPOLIS — In December, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard made national news by announcing that Indianapolis would be the first U.S. city to shift its entire fleet, including police cars, to electric and natural-gas powered vehicles, and that it would do so by 2025.

But that was hardly the first move he’d made toward sustainability.

Soon after taking office in 2008, Ballard created the city’s first Office of Sustainability. His administration has conducted energy-efficiency retrofits on 61 city-owned buildings; created bike lanes all over the city; and outfitted the 28-story Indianapolis City-County building with solar panels, wind-powered lights, low-flow toilets and a geothermal chiller.

These days many big-city mayors are moving to reduce energy and water usage. But Ballard, a Gulf War veteran who served more than two decades in the Marine Corps, is a Republican mayor in a conservative state where the coal-mining industry and coal-burning utilities are potent political forces.

Midwest Energy News wanted to know more about what drives Greg Ballard’s sustainability efforts, and his larger vision for sustainability of the nation’s 12th-largest city (responses have been edited lightly for length and clarity).

Midwest Energy News: You created Indianapolis’ first sustainability office.

Mayor Greg Ballard: To be honest with you, I was a little shocked about that. We started it in October 2008. It’s funny that a Republican mayor started that in the city of Indianapolis. And a jarhead to boot, right? That’s probably unique.

I wonder if we could talk about your overall vision for sustainability and how you came to that viewpoint.

Well, a lot of what I did was common sense. That’s the way I see it. If you save energy on a building, you save money at the same time. Shouldn’t we be doing that sort of thing? Same thing with water. So we retrofit 61 buildings across the city and saved money in the process. This building [the Indianapolis City-County Building, where Ballard’s office is located] is 50 years old. Now there’s geothermal and solar associated with it. That’s a pretty big deal.

Now our city administrator, or city engineers, if you will, have to look at these green pieces. They didn’t have to before. Putting that in the process was a big deal. We did things that just made a lot of sense. Bike lanes obviously make a lot of sense. It’s tough to go to any major city in the United States that’s not putting in bike lanes. That’s not only healthy, but it attracts the creative class.

There are a lot of prisms you can [use to] look at this. One of mine is, Are we attracting the young entrepreneurs, the creative class, which is then good for businesses in the city? These younger folks are looking for a sustainable city. They’re looking for cities that have those sorts of amenities in them. They want to see green roofs. They want to see bike lanes. They want to see porous pavement. They want to see the rain gardens.

At Midwest Energy News, we focus a lot on energy, on the electrical system. Where does moving the city on a broader scale toward renewable energy fit into this equation?

Well, we don’t own the utilities, obviously. But Indianapolis Power & Light (IPL) has been very good to us about our post-oil initiative. They’ve been helping us build charging stations, along with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission. I went to the IURC and IPL to talk about this quite a few months ago, and they were [on board] in five minutes. They knew exactly what I was trying to do.

To me it’s always national security. I was in the Gulf War, a 23-year marine–retired as lieutenant colonel. I’ve studied this issue for a long time. It’s bothered me for a long time that we keep sending money to people who want to do us harm. The estimate from a Rand analysis is $85 billion a year to protect that system and infrastructure. If that’s what had to be done to maintain our quality of life, OK. But, what I’m suggesting is that it is moved to such a point that we don’t have to do that anymore.

Most people know me as a rational, pragmatic guy. I wouldn’t have made this move unless I thought we could make the move. I don’t think it’s too early because the technology of cars allows us to do it. We expect to save $12,000 per car per life cycle [in fuel costs]. Forty percent of all the oil in the country is for the light transportation sector–that’s sedans, SUVs, light trucks. We must move the needle on that. That will eliminate our dependence on foreign oil.

We’re going to work with auto manufacturers to try to get a police car that gets at least 40-50 miles per gallon, if it’s not a plug-in. We get 8-10 miles per gallon now, as do most cities across the nation. If I get 40-50, I save over $6 million a year. That’s a big number.

If you talk to environmentalists, the picture they sketch of sustainability will also include moving away from coal, moving away in general from fossil fuels for electricity. How do you see renewable energy fitting into your picture of a sustainable Indianapolis?

You’re from the Midwest; you know it’s a coal area. I know coal is not as clean as everybody wants, but it’s a lot cleaner than it was 30 years ago. I was telling one of my guys this morning that when I went to the Marine Corps and drove back and forth across the country to duty stations, you knew you were approaching a major city 20 miles out because you could see a big brown cloud–everywhere in the country. You don’t see that anymore. And even when I ride my bike, the exhaust fumes of a car that was built in the last 20 years are virtually non-existent compared to a car that was built in the 1970s.

I realize there’s more to go, but I don’t want to dismiss the fact that we’ve moved so far so fast on air pollution and keeping it cleaner. Is there another level we want to get to? I think everybody would say yes to that.

On post-oil vehicles, even if they’re powered by coal, it’s still cleaner than burning gasoline. Wind energy would be even better. I think we’ll get there. We’ve just got to get the technology there. And I think people are working on it. It appears to me they’re working on it pretty quickly.

There are some conservatives out there who treat sustainability as if it were a dirty word. You obviously don’t. For example, you were at the statehouse yesterday making the argument for mass transit. How do you talk to your fellow conservative Republicans about this? How do you make your argument?

I do whatever it takes. To me, I make no secret that mass transit in Indianapolis is primarily about talent attraction. Just like post-oil vehicles are about national security.

The people who are probably more progressive on this, I think they understand what I’m trying to do. But when I execute these things–with a great team, by the way–I don’t get a lot of pushback. I get some. To me this is mainstream now. It’s all common sense.

You’ve been a strong advocate of energy independence.

Actually, I never use the term “energy independence.” I use, “energy choice.” I think we need choice at the consumer level all the way up to the strategic level. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to tell Venezuela that we may or may not buy your oil, depending on your behavior. Right? So we need choices to make sure that one, prices stay down, and two, that we can drive other policies we need.

I never use the term “energy independence” because it implies that it’s just about us. And it’s not just about us. Part of the reason I’m doing this is that I don’t want just America to get off foreign oil. I need China and India to be off foreign oil too. Otherwise they will keep feeding money to people who want to do us harm. So it’s bigger than just us.

You’ve put all that solar on city buildings and some wind. But the citizens of Indianapolis lost the ability to do some of that when they lost the [Indianapolis Power & Light] feed-in tariff policy. It was just a pilot program, I realize, but there had been hopes to grow it. Would you bring your influence to bear on IPL to advocate for the reinstatement of the feed-in tariff or other policies that promote renewables?

I’d have to look at it on a case-by-case basis. I think there’s more of a trend toward renewables. But it’s going to be difficult. It’s not just Indiana. There were a lot of mayors, a lot of Democratic mayors, at the conference [the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting, which was held earlier this month in Washington, D.C.], saying, wait a minute, we run on coal. You guys are gonna kill us with some of these things that you’re advocating for.

People say, dollar for dollar, it doesn’t make sense, that wind isn’t quite there yet. I wish there was a big breakthrough in solar in the near future. I think a breakthrough in solar, and storage and distribution ability would be very beneficial. And I think we’re probably–my understanding is that we’re closer to that than we are with wind.

Another example of a policy various neighboring states and cities have used is a mandatory renewable energy standard. For example, Michigan has a 10 percent standard. That would be a statewide policy. Are you in favor of it and would you advocate for it?

Mandatory is one thing. A goal is something else. You don’t want to hamstring people along the way. I think it’s better to have a general consensus and to move people in that direction. I’ve been leading organizations since I was 23, it’s better to have a goal to bring people along, and put incentives in place to get there. … All that said, I’m not against mandatory things sometimes.

What a lot of environmentalists regard as the elephant in the room is the Harding Street Generating Station. There’s a big effort right now, as you know, to shut that plant down. Since this is widely viewed as a big polluter here, would you use your influence to push for IPL to retire its Harding Street plant?

I think it has to be taken in the larger context of what they do in the area. We have good relationships with IPL. I know where they’re coming from on that and that is the energy of choice right now, if you will. Do we want to move in that direction so we can have better air? Yes, I don’t think there’s any question about that. I think most people are hoping there’s a breakthrough in the ability to clean the coal, frankly. Whether that’s going to happen or not, I don’t know, honestly. And then we’ll have to see what the federal government does. Because the federal government is going to get very aggressive on that very soon. That’s my understanding. So, I’m a little bit ambivalent about that right now.

Another type of program that people talk about as far as cleaner energy are these property-assessed clean energy (PACE) bond programs, where the city floats a municipal bond, then uses the money to pay [homeowners] for weatherization. Then homeowners pay the city back through a property tax surcharge. Could you see Indianapolis getting to be a leader in that, given that there are a lot of older buildings that could be weatherized?

I like the idea. The retrofit piece with existing buildings–the scale of that would be big. But I think we’ve proven as a city that could be done. The 61 buildings that we retrofit–we’re saving a fair chunk of change doing it. On city property we could do it.

Whether it could be cost-effective for a regular house, especially in this cold weather right now…We’ve had some people come in and look at it and talk to us about this. Do we have a full-blown policy on that? Not yet. I’m going to have to go down [and talk to some of his staff] and take a look. I’m glad you brought that up.

Speaking of which, I wonder if there are other indirect policies you like that could influence the private sector to move toward renewable energy.

Well, you look downtown here and you can see the big buildings. These are the guys that take up a lot of energy. And they run off a lot of water, frankly.

Policy-wise, I think we need to be looking at the larger buildings, I’ll put it that way. That’s something that needs to be done.

Are there any other pieces of this larger issue of sustainability that I haven’t asked you about?

Well, I always look at this as a national security issue. I think energy security is national security.  A lot of people see it a little differently, which is OK. I mean, the people who see it more environmentally, they’re gonna be with me anyway.

The way I’m trying to position it is that people understand that we can move in this direction–not just because it’s environmental, but because of the national security issues, and frankly just cost efficiency. I want to keep the costs down and be more efficient. I just think that’s a better way of doing things. Saving energy has its own benefits.

But there’s more to do policy-wise. I know people see me as–you know, you opened up the office of sustainability and everything else. But we have some policy things that we need to take a broader look at. We just do.

Comments (1)

Mayor Ballard is certainly right on the flight of young people. My group of friends at Purdue and I (class of 2010) are all born Hoosiers, but we’ve left the state for more forward-looking and sustainable cities – Minneapolis, Portland, and Chicago. I am very happy to see his efforts though, and I get a little bit excited each time I come back to visit Indy and see a new bike lane or hear further talk on IndyConnect. Keep up the common sense Mayor Ballard!

By Katie Jones on Jan 28, 2013