Don Preister, Green Bellevue President and Bellevue City Councilman, Ward 5, started Green Bellevue in 2009. Through the organization, approximately 600 volunteers work on a host of different activities including Earth Day and Arbor Day programs, recycling efforts, wildlife habitat cleanup Green Schools and Clean Energy programs. Preister said they also focus on water quality and sustainable gardening.
“This year, we dispersed milkweed bombs with the help of cyclists from Nebraska and Iowa. People participating in RAGBRAI (Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) took the bombs with them and disseminated them along the roadways in spots where the plants have the best chance of taking. The milkweed plant is great for attracting butterflies,” Preister explained.
Green Bellevue has been working to help educate people through its monthly meetings which are open to the public. The last one was on solar energy which is a renewable energy Preister said is becoming much more viable as prices go down and the technology increases.
“Some students at Creighton University did a study in conjunction with the city and county on the Cedar Island landfill in Bellevue. Its 35 acres with a good slope for solar panels to be put on. The students presented that study to both the city and the county so that now we have a good foundation of what we might be able to do,” he said.
Bellevue is also working on a community solar project, so they have been working with OPPD get their approval so the city can move ahead with that project.
“Tim Burke, CEO of OPPD, said he is working on putting something together for the OPPD board to look at and pass so we are just waiting for that to happen,” said Preister.
In the meantime, Bellevue has made some changes to its zoning codes that have streamlined the process homeowners, businesses and those interested in installing solar energy, have to go through.
“In 2011, the city was updating all of its zoning codes and so during that process, we made a number of changes to the boilerplate standard code. We had things put in and made the code more user-friendly,” he said.
Part of the problem was that Bellevue had outdated zoning codes that contained certain height requirements and specific locations of where solar panels could be located. Preister said there were also connectivity and hookup installation requirements that required having more technical engineering work done. He said those requirements have been eliminated.
So rather than having to pay expensive professional engineers to do things, the installer who’s trained and has the background and could do it with the same skill and knowledge, is now able to do it.
One of the things the city did was make it so though you need a permit for solar panel installation, like you do for any electrical hookup, there are no additional fees or charges. Preister explained there’s nothing extensive or difficult that a homeowner or business would have to do.
“Our process has been tested by installers and homeowners who have had them put on since we upgraded the code and they found the process easy, user-friendly and convenient to work,” said Preister.
For its part, the city has already started working with renewable energy.
Green Bellevue has partnered with the city since its inception and worked with the city to install 25 megawatts of solar energy on the new public safety building, located at 1510 Wall Street.
“It’s a retrofit of an old building. Now it’s all energy-efficient with high-efficiency HVAC, added insulation, dimmer switches and motion detectors on the lights and solar panels on the roof generating electricity,” Preister said.
And that’s not all. The city got a grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust to purchase two vehicles and two charging stations with four ports. They purchased the vehicles at less than half the normal sticker price with grant money and rebates.
“And we used the electricity that is generated from the solar panels on the roof to charge the electric vehicles. These are used by the city inspectors as they are driving around the city, during the day, on their routes,” explained Preister.
And students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha are recording and collecting data on the vehicles. Preister said so far, after about a year of use, the city has put just under 14,000 miles on these two vehicles and have used approximately 4200 kilowatt hours. They have saved approximately $1200 in fuel and reduced their CO2 emissions by over 11,000 pounds.
“So we are not just using the electric vehicles by charging them from energy generated from coal. We are actually charging them from clean electricity and getting a pretty closed loop in the energy process. The first step was changing the code that applies to any resident or business and having the city set the example by installing solar panels and purchasing electric vehicles and charging stations,” he said.
The city has given one of the charging stations to Bellevue University who installed it on their campus. Preister said it’s a good way for the city to reach out and expand to help others.
Bellevue also has plans to renovate a second building on its campus.
“We are looking at repeating the original process by installing more solar panels to generate more electricity in that building. We will also install additional charging stations and purchase a couple more electric vehicles, now that we have this experience and can see the cost saving and benefits to the taxpayers,” said Preister.
A lot of the citizens of Bellevue wanted the city to be a cleaner, greener city and that is the main reason Preister started Green Bellevue. Now, the mayor sees the value of the organization’s initiatives and the city council sees the cost savings to the taxpayers.
Preister believes now is a great time to focus on renewable energy with costs decreasing and efficiencies improving. He said the benefits all point to renewable energy being a good way to move the city forward.
“Community solar gardens will be good for those who live in apartments or who live in a house that doesn’t face the right direction or has too many trees. Certain houses have challenges that make it difficult to put up a solar collector,” he said.
And doing it by yourself can end up being expensive. Plus, not everyone knows how to install solar panels. By pooling resources, a larger, more utility-sized scale solar garden can be developed so that the cost per kilowatt is lower than an individual project on a single house would be.
“A resident could get something that has better angles, generation and capacity and have someone else put the package together for them. They would just have to invest in it. Then they could get the benefits of clean solar energy and take advantage of the energy generated from it.