Since 2017, Morgantown city council has set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making the city more environmentally sustainable with the advice of the Municipal Green Team.
However, initiatives have been slow in coming despite the council’s support of ecological reforms and the Green Team. With the upcoming city council election, they may slow down further, as some candidates who have not prioritized Green Team initiatives in the past, are running against incumbent councilors.
But even with the support of the current council, ecological reforms face other challenges in Morgantown, among them the slow speed of city government.
“Something that can be accomplished in one year is moving very quickly for the city of Morgantown,” said Jim Kotcon, energy chair of the Green Team.
The Green Team was established in 2007 to advise the city council and the city manager on environmental sustainability. As a result, council often relies on the initiatives suggested by the Green Team to make environmental decisions.
The team focuses on issues relating to environmental sustainability, including energy efficiency measures, recycling, urban agriculture programs and improving city greenspace, which the Environmental Protection Agency defines as “land that is partly or completely covered with grass, trees, shrubs, or other vegetation.”
Greenspace in Morgantown has been a controversial issue since the city council considered buting the 40-acre Haymaker Forest for $5.2 million in June. The plan was abandoned when 47 people spoke overwhelmingly against it at a June 19, 2018 council meeting, according to WV MetroNews.
Work on the Green Team has been more difficult since the team lost its chair, Holly Purpura. Purpura, who also served as the director of the Friends of Deckers Creek organization in Morgantown, accepted a new position in Oregon and moved away from West Virginia.
“Team members have to work much more collaboratively,” Kotco said, “and that leadership void definitely does slow down some of the things we’d like to do.”
In addition to the slow speed city government moves to adopt environmentally sustainable resolutions, Kotcon said acquiring data can sometimes be challenging, as the city does not always have information on hand that the team needs.
“Another drawback is we are working with city staff, who are short-handed and overworked all the time,” Kotcon said.
This year, the team has had two main areas of focus: the municipal recycling program and its climate action plan.
On Aug. 2, 2017, Morgantown resolved to support the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. As proposed by the National Mayors Climate Action Agenda, the city agreed to set a goal of reducing 26 to 28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the municipality by the year 2025.
President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement on June 1, 2017. However, the City of Morgantown has independently decided to commit to the agreement and continue toward its reduction goal.
On Jan. 28, council heard proposals on how to reach their 28 percent goal from the Green Team. The proposals included installing LED street lights, installing solar panels on city facilities, looking at renewable energy credits and converting the city fleet to electric vehicles.
Replacing the city’s approximately 1,700 street lights with LEDs would be a reliable way of meeting the 28 percent greenhouse gas reduction goal but it would be unlikely to be cost effective, according to the 2019 Green Team annual report. Kotcon said this has made the Morgantown Utility Board hesitant to proceed with the plan.
Installing solar panels would cost approximately $1.8 million to reach the city’s goal. The team calculated a payback time of about 40 years for installing solar panels, though that might change to a payback time of 20 years should the state legislature legalize power purchase agreements, which would allow excess energy from solar panels to be sold back to the power grid.
“We’re looking at these things from a very practical point of view,” said Morgantown Mayor Bill Kawecki. “There is a return on these activities.”
Kawecki said the city supported the use of power purchase agreements and wrote to the state legislature in favor of their passage. However, the West Virginia Senate and House of Delegates did not approve power purchase agreements before the end of the 2019 legislative session on March 9, opting instead to pass two bills supporting the coal industry.
Aside from reducing greenhouse gas emissions, another challenge Kotcon said the city and the Green Team face is getting residents to recycle more effectively.
The city uses a single-stream recycling system, where glass, paper, plastic, cardboard and metal are all put into the same bin. Some Morgantown residents say they have trouble determining which items are acceptable for recycling and which are not.
Plastic items are often a problem, as plastic bags can jam the recycling machines. The city only allows bags if they are clear and hold shredded paper.
The Morgantown City Council election will be held on April 30.