Local governments are beginning to put energy-saving rhetoric into practice by auditing their resource use and drafting long-term plans to become more sustainable.

In Mankato, a first step has been programmable thermostats and better insulation on select public works buildings, said Tom Fournier, assistant to the public works director. He said this step alone saved about $4,000 over the last few months of 2008.

The next step is to hire an engineering firm to conduct energy audits on all the city’s buildings to establish a baseline for comparison and find opportunities to cut costs. Fournier said Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy will pay all but $200 of this cost.

“Basically, what we started with was plugging the big holes and we’re going to be working on refining these buildings so they can be as efficient as they can be,” he said.

Other things Mankato has done so far include banning the idling of vehicles while they’re unattended and modifying its computers to power down after they’re not being used for an hour. The public works department has also been switched to a four-and-a-half day workweek, which saves heating costs on Friday afternoon.

Blue Earth County is also seeking to reduce its greenhouse gas emission through the use of building audits.

The county joined ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability, a coalition of about 1,000 local governments that, among other services, offers software to help evaluate energy use. Mankato has also joined ICLEI.

An intern is currently digging up data about energy use and entering it into the software, again to establish a baseline against which to judge progress.

The county is also looking for ways it can replace its petroleum-based chemicals with more eco- and farmer-friendly soy-based products. The new products have to be comparable in price and effectiveness, though.

After it looks after its own efficiency, the county is planning on expanding its effort to the general public.

Both city and county are also bringing up all the things they’ve done over the years that can fall under the umbrella of sustainability.

“We are or have been green in many ways over the years but not in the current fad way,” County Engineer Al Forsberg said of his department.

That includes longtime policies of using gasoline with ethanol, diesel with 5 percent biodiesel, recycling waste oil and re-treading tires that have gone bald.

Mankato continues to re-use millions of gallons of waste water to supply the Calpine gas-fired power plant with cooling water. Calpine then paid to improve the city’s water treatment system.

Mankato City Councilman Mark Frost has been prodding the city to do more than sign environmental agreements.

He said the recent actions are “kind of incremental.”

“It works and it’ll help save money but it doesn’t make us immune to price shocks and we’re at somebody else’s mercy to a large extent,” he said.

So far, local government has only engaged in environmentally friendly action insofar as it saves money.

But Fournier, with the city of Mankato, said conservation can be its own reward. He said the city will take a serious look at efforts to save natural resources, even if it won’t save as much money as it costs.

“The city’s interest is also saving money, but the city’s outlook on energy consumption is changing dramatically,” he said.

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