Bright ideas help lower Baltimore's energy bills

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June 14, 2005|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN STAFF

When Baltimore officials needed help bringing down the city's energy costs, they turned to a cartoon light bulb and common sense.

Everyone knows it's wise to turn off the lights when leaving a room, but city officials say this was a new concept to some city employees. Checking each month's bills to make sure everything is correct is a ritual for many homeowners, but Baltimore City government had been charged about a half-million dollars by mistake.

Enter Tighty Lighty, a cartoon light bulb and energy-saving superhero that was rolled out in 2002 to encourage Baltimore City employees to be more energy-efficient. This superhero isn't signaled by a spotlight in the sky (that wouldn't be energy-efficient). Instead, he arrives in city employees' e-mail inboxes, bouncing around and winking as he tightens his belt and reminds them to "turn it off" - part of a energy conservation project that public works officials say will save millions over the next several years.

The savings since 2001 - when energy conservation became a priority - is about $1 million, with much more expected annually as a result of money-saving technology upgrades.

Tonight, Mayor Martin O'Malley will be the first mayor honored with a Leadership Award from the United States Energy Association's Energy Efficiency Forum, which features O'Malley's potential 2006 gubernatorial opponent, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., on its list of co-hosts. President Bush will deliver a keynote address to the forum tomorrow night.

"For some reason, local government and big-city government in the past often got a free pass, and it was assumed that they were run efficiently," said O'Malley. "[The oversights weren't made] out of malice, just out of tradition."

As an extension of O'Malley's approach to reforming the way the city functions, Department of Public Works officials fed energy information into CitiStat, the computer database that tracks municipal efficiency, and found several problem areas.

Reviews of billing and meter-reading uncovered a mistaken $294,000 charge from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and $125,000 in erroneous billing from steam supplier Trigen. Officials also determined that some energy contracts weren't delivering efficient results.

To achieve long-term savings, officials say the city has committed to about $7 million in new contracts to upgrade utilities that they hope will cut operating and maintenance costs.

In 2002, O'Malley unveiled Tighty Lighty. During a news conference to introduce the character, O'Malley described Tighty Lighty as "able to leap consuming copy machines in a single bound; able to locate lost lumens of unused lighting in any office and to spot out-dated, energy-sucking screen savers on computers anywhere." A Citistat intern wearing a Tighty Lighty costume jumped around behind the mayor.

"It was one of his great moments in public service," O'Malley said yesterday.

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