Orlando: A Model for Urban Sustainability

Orlando: A Model for Urban Sustainability

Orlando, Florida, sets a cardinal example for how to move a city toward resilient systems, operations and development.

Spring 2020 | Written by Kiley Jacques


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“Our vision is to transform Orlando into one of the most environmentally friendly, socially inclusive and equitable, and economically vibrant communities in the nation.”

— Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer

We strive to achieve the triple bottom line of people, planet and prosperity,” says Chris Castro, Green Works Orlando director of sustainability, in reference to the city’s comprehensive sustainability plan. He attributes its success, in large part, to Mayor Buddy Dyer, who launched the Green Works Orlando initiative back in 2007. It outlines goals to enhance quality of life, generate diverse economic growth, and create equitable access to resources and services, and it has since become the driving force behind the city’s every move.

According to Castro, Orlando is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, with 1,000 to 1,500 people moving to central Florida every week. He notes the city’s cross-generational appeal, saying it is Millennials’ number one choice, while Gen Xers rank it among their top five picks and Baby Boomers put it among their top 10.

“Orlando is known for its progressive ideals, openness around diversity and stance on sustainability and climate change—these things appeal to generations now looking for somewhere to grow their families,” he says. “They want a place that embraces equity and inclusion, and that has a good job market and growing economic development.”

The city’s allure has much to do with the wide-reaching measures it has taken since the inception of Green Works Orlando. Castro points to seven focus areas and corresponding goals: transition the electric grid to 100% clean energy; create a market for high-performance, green building development in commercial and residential sectors; build a local food economy that embraces urban agriculture; transform to a zero-waste future; enhance livability with natural systems and ecology; develop programs around water quality; and reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles and implement multimodal transportation solutions.

Of course, tourism is a major factor influencing Orlando’s sustainability plan. Castro claims the city is the most visited tourist destination in the Americas; it hosted 75 million visitors last year. As a result, agencies are pushed to scrutinize their capacity to function at that scale. “We have to start thinking about ways to sustain that type of economy,” Castro notes. “The energy usage and number of toilet flushes that come from those 75 million visitors is impossible to quantify, but they have a huge impact on our resources. There are unintended consequences of a tourism economy.”

Orlando’s Lake Eola is actually a sinkhole approximately 23 feet deep, located 100 feet east of the fountain.

The volume of people, in combination with the city’s myriad moves to keep pace, is something that positions Orlando to be a prototype city. “We want to understand how to leverage those 75 million visitors to learn about sustainability, resilience and inclusiveness—so they can take that knowledge back to their own communities and make it a part of their culture,” Castro explains. “Our ability to influence the rest of the world is probably greater than any other because of the amount of tourism happening here. It’s a unique opportunity.”

Solutions that have set Orlando apart include achieving Gold-level certification under LEED v4.1 for Cities. Key to earning that certification was the energy performance of the city’s buildings, which, in 2007, were contributing to roughly 75% of Orlando’s carbon footprint; an estimated 25% was coming from the transportation sector.

“We realized that buildings, and our ability to squeeze out inefficiencies and ramp up high-performance development, is one of the most cost-effective and impactful strategies for us to address the climate crisis,” Castro says. Today, every new city facility must achieve LEED certification—whether a fire station, community center, administration building or public arena. They have been following this course of action since 2010. Currently, LEED Silver is the base model for all new municipal buildings.

In 2016, the city took out a $17.5 million green bond to retrofit 56 of its most energy-intensive facilities—upgrades were made to the automation and HVAC systems, real-time data monitoring capabilities, and interior and exterior lighting. That investment has resulted in $2.5 million per year in energy cost savings; those savings are helping to repay the bond debt.

“We did a performance contract that cities normally enter into with the private sector,” Castro explains. “Because of our expertise and ability to buy tax-exempt equipment, we were able to make the numbers work so the ROI is seven years or less.” They are actually saving more than the repayment schedule required.

This type of financing is known as a Revolving Energy Fund (REF), which revolves the cost savings back to the REF for future projects—there are no outside funding sources. In this case, the REF helped finance deep energy retrofits in 27 facilities, resulting in an average 31% efficiency improvement. “It’s a very compelling strategy that the U.S. Department of Energy has recognized as part of their Better Buildings Challenge,” Castro notes.

Left: Chris Castro, Orlando’s director of sustainability and resilience, poses in a residential front lawn growing okra and other organic vegetables. Center: Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer holds local tomatoes grown at the South Street Urban Farm in downtown Orlando. The city’s “Grow-A-Lot” program has helped turn vacant city lots into urban farms and community gardens to address food insecurity and spur a local food economy. Right: Chief customer officer Linda Ferrone leads the sustainability and emerging technologies for the Orlando Utilities Commission.

Similarly, with backing from PACE Funding—a leading energy efficiency, water conservation and renewable energy finance company—the city has made over $18 million worth of clean energy investments. “That has resulted in roughly 1,000 improvements throughout the community in a two-year period,” says Castro, adding that there are a handful of PACE providers, as well as banks and lenders, that are doing energy efficiency lending. “That’s tens of millions of dollars to lower the energy use and emissions output in the city.”

Like New York City and Washington, D.C., Orlando has implemented building benchmarking, energy audits and a transparency policy that requires buildings over 50,000 square feet to be monitored for energy and water use. It is the first city in Florida to have passed the ordinance, and it is now helping others to replicate the work. Castro says this has created a market driver for improving buildings. “Now more than 1,000 buildings are required to report their energy use to the marketplace; it becomes another information data point for making informed real estate decisions.”

On the energy supply side, Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC), the municipal electric and water utility, is adding renewables to the fuel mix. They are currently on track to transition 10% of the electric grid to solar energy by 2025. Of special note is OUC’s community solar program, which allows residents to digitally subscribe to solar farms to offset energy use at an individual building or apartment.

Over the past six months, they have also launched a residential rooftop solar co-op to help residents bundle their demand and lower the cost per co-op member through economies of scale. More than 50 homeowners have signed contracts, and approximately 720 kilowatts in new rooftop solar energy has been added. “The beauty is that it is helping to build capacity through a distributed energy resource,” Castro notes. “It’s not just decentralized solar farms, but also home solar panel installations.”

Among the city’s more innovative methods for harnessing solar power is its growing number of floating PV arrays, which take advantage of the many water bodies—primarily stormwater retention ponds—surrounding Orlando. Working with the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), the city is testing the efficiency of floating solar and how it can be expanded to serve the country. They are also looking at the effects on wildlife. “If we find that it is not damaging, then it opens up all of the natural lakes and waterways too,” says Linda Ferrone, chief customer and marketing officer of OUC.

The Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC) staff installs the first floating solar array in the southeast. The 31-kW floating solar array is located at the OUC Gardenia Operations Center. OUC was the first utility in Central Florida to build a large solar farm and was one of the first in the nation to offer “community solar” in their portfolio.

The city has also secured $3.2 million in capital improvement funds to invest in rooftop solar at critical facilities meant to assist during grid outages or during emergencies. It is in the process of installing PV arrays on the rooftops of 10 city buildings. “Some of the things we are doing are meant to benefit us over the next couple of years; others will be of benefit in 10 years and beyond,” says Ferrone. “You have to rush at the short-term projects—those things are important to get us as much solar as possible, and quickly.”

Though OUC is a separately governed city-owned utility, it works closely with the city to help achieve the mayor’s proclamation of having 110% renewable energy citywide by 2050. Their utilities-scale solar program includes plans to add two more solar PV arrays, which will produce 108.5 additional megawatts for the grid. They are also experimenting with storage solutions; lithium ion batteries are the convention, but Ferrone notes they are short-lived and full of toxic materials that make proper disposal difficult. “We are looking at hydrogen—it is the perfect energy storage [solution] because there is no byproduct and it never wears out.”

OUC is working with a U.S. Department of Energy grant to install hydrogen storage units in conjunction with a new floating PV array; the project includes setting up a microgrid to study how hydrogen storage can work. They are also studying solar flow batteries, as well as combinations of storage options to marry the differences—although lithium is short-lived, it ramps up quickly; the other options are longer-lasting.

Electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure is another of OUC’s contributions to the city’s energy-related efforts. It is working with the Transportation Department to determine ways of cleaning up the system. “Orlando is one of the top 10 EV cities in the country, and the only one in the Southeast—all of the others are on the West Coast,” says Ferrone. “We got excited about EVs about eight years ago, when the Electrify America grant came out. We stretched ourselves to get a lot of charging stations around the city, and we never really stopped that effort.” Currently, they are focused on adding EV infrastructure along hurricane evacuation routes and major highways.

Ferrone says OUC has made a commitment of $45 million toward EV market transformation by 2030. That includes the addition of EV hubs, grid preparation, public education and incentives for companies with large fleets. The agency also partners with Lynx, a transit authority EV bus program; it has funded eight buses to date and anticipates a total of 150 will serve the city within six years.

Orlando also has the first EV rental car initiative, Drive Electric Orlando, available at its airport. Castro says it doubles as a VIP pass—theme parks like Disney and Universal honor it with an offset fee and free charging. Charging is also free at the hotels, and some offer free valet parking to EV drivers.

“At the end of the day, we want to make Orlando the EV test-ride city of America,” he says. “Imagine getting all of our tourists to try an EV for the first time, and then they return home and maybe change their purchasing habits. That is our goal.” There are currently 358 charging stations around the city, and plans are to add another 150 this year throughout city parks, recreation centers, parking garages and more.
Alternative modes of transportation include the soon-to-be-expanded SunRail commuter train that runs up and down the I4 corridor, and the Virgin high-speed rail, which operates from Miami to West Palm Beach and is set to reach Orlando in the next two years. Bike and multimodal trails are proliferating throughout the city—there are over 350 miles of bike lanes and urban trails, as well as enhanced micromobility solutions, such as bike- and scooter-share programs and car sharing.

Waste—particularly organics—is yet another significant target area. Two programs address food waste in landfills. First is the backyard composter initiative, whereby residents sign up for a free compost bin that is assembled and delivered to their door. “The more waste we can take out of the landfill waste stream, the more money we save for taxpayers, which is what pays for the free composters,” says Castro. “It’s an innovative model of avoided cost to cover the cost of composting units. We now have over 8,000 households composting.”

Second, they’ve designed a collection program for commercial food waste. Businesses are given a 65-gallon cart on wheels; when full, it is taken to a waste-to-energy biogas facility that turns the organics into renewable natural gas, which is then turned into electricity that is sold on to the grid. This process creates both electricity and a fertilizer additive—the biocake, or leftover material, is turned into field fertilizer.

The city also has a program for recycling cooking grease, which is a storm- and wastewater pollutant. Orlando provides free containers to residents; 3,000 gallons of grease were collected last year alone. All of it is turned into biodiesel, which the city buys back and uses in its fleet of public transportation vehicles. It is a closed-loop system and part of Orlando’s increasingly circular economy.

The traditional recycling market is struggling with contamination, as people clog the system with nonrecyclables. Orlando is working with Recycle Across America to standardize its recycling labeling. Its airport and public schools are the first in the country to deploy the new labels. To encourage businesses to adopt the strategy, the city is granting them free access to the labels. Additionally, an app called ORL Collects allows users to search any given product to see if it can go into a home recycling bin, and if it can’t, shows where it can be properly disposed of. “One tool is not going to solve this,” Castro notes. “It’s myriad strategies that we need to address the waste issue.”

Left: A view of Walt Disney World’s iconic 5-MW solar farm in the shape of Mickey Mouse. Disney is a major investor in renewable energy, with the recent installation of a 50-MW system that now helps power half of Walt Disney World parks and resorts in Orlando. Middle: The city’s “Grease Fighter” stands next to one of its grease traps to raise awareness about eliminating household cooking grease from entering stormwater and wastewater pipes and preventing overflow issues. The city provides free grease containers for all residents and has 17 neighborhood center locations for residents to pick up and drop off their used cooking grease. The cooking grease is later turned into biofuels for the city’s fleet vehicles. Right: The city of Orlando enabled front-yard farming in 2014 by amending its landscape code. Today, nonprofits like Fleet Farming are providing year-round services to convert homeowner lawns into edible landscapes.

Among Orlando’s multipronged tools for building resiliency are its collaborations and the actions they set into motion. For example, in October 2019, over 30 governments in East Central Florida joined forces to develop a collaborative—the East Central Florida Regional Resilience Collaborative (ECFR2C)—to improve the region’s resilience and collectively address climate change.

“I think it’s important to showcase the priority that this has become for our entire region,” Castro says, noting that Orlando is leading the charge. He also points to the Citywide Performance Tool (CyPT) report, an engineering study by Siemens to determine the technologies needed to achieve 90% GHG emissions reductions by 2040 and net zero emissions by 2050, as well as the technical feasibility of achieving this goal. The city also recently completed a Solar Ready Design Guide, a resource to help the Capital Improvements team navigate the road to solar-ready buildings throughout the city.

The ways in which the city of Orlando is transforming itself, in the words of Mayor Buddy Dyer, “into one of the most environmentally friendly, socially inclusive and equitable, and economically vibrant communities in the nation” are innumerable. By all measures, they are having the desired effects.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about the model is the way it edifies residents and visitors alike. From EV charging stations at the resorts, to solar trees and sculptures in the public parks, to the soon-to-be floating PV at the airport that every tram passenger will hear about through an audio recording, Orlando’s leadership on urban sustainability is underscored by the visibility of its efforts. As Ferrone says, “There are so many things we can put in front of people’s faces that will leave an impression.”

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