The city's green guy
by Lauren Silverman
Andrew Brix is sick of living in a poorly insulated house. It's not just the Midwestern chill; there's the principle of not wasting heat and money. Although Brix, twenty-eight, and his two housemates offered to install insulation if their landlord supplied the material, the owner balked. He might not realize he is housing one of the most environmentally conscious tenants in Ann Arbor. Exasperated, Brix says he is ready to pay for the insulation himself.
A U-M economics grad, Brix knows that most people wouldn't invest their own money in someone else's property. But his minor was environmental studies, and saving energy is his passion--both personally and professionally. As energy programs manager for the city of Ann Arbor, he works to help the city and its citizens minimize their energy use.
Tall and fit, with black, thin-rimmed glasses and a crisply pressed collared shirt, Brix would blend right in at the water cooler of a law firm or investment bank. Instead, he works in City Hall, in an office adorned with miniature models of wind turbines.
Brix went on to grad school in urban planning at the U-M. In 2004 he did an internship in the office he now manages.
Most cities Ann Arbor's size do not have an energy office. But Brix's predecessor, Dave Konkle, proved its value through energy efficiency programs that, by the office's calculation, have already saved $8 million. Its initiatives--including converting part of the city's vehicle fleet to alternative fuels and replacing conventional street lamps with super-efficient light-emitting diodes--have helped Ann Arbor win national acclaim, including its selection as one of thirteen cities participating in the 2007-2008 federal Solar America Initiative. Ann Arbor received over $400,000 in Department of Energy funds and technical assistance, plus matching funds to help business owners and homeowners adopt solar energy.
On the job two years, Brix is ambitious to make the program bigger and better. In November, he was excited to find himself in Washington, briefing the House Research &
Development Caucus on Ann Arbor's energy-efficient lighting initiative, which includes replacing more than 1,000 streetlights with LEDs.
Brix says he has a lot of latitude in his job: "I get to go forth and do good things and bring ideas back to management on what we should pursue." He gets some ideas for energy efficiency projects from Ann Arbor residents, but more often he'll be inspired by something another city or larger institution is doing. For instance, the idea for a revolving loan fund for the city's internal energy projects came from the utilities department at the University of Michigan. The city established a separate energy fund that loans money to different departments to pay for energy projects, and the fund is repaid out of the savings in energy spending.
Brix's newest major efficiency project was inspired by the cities of Berkeley and Boulder. Funded by a $1.24 million federal grant, it will allow home owners and business owners to borrow money to make city-approved energy-saving investments, repaying the funds through a special tax assessment. "Most of what's available to home owners [to finance energy improvements] is a home equity loan, which tends to be in the ten percent interest range," Brix says. He is certain the program can offer a much lower interest rate that will attract home owners.
Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Brix wore a Boy Scout uniform with pride and took to heart the club's low impact / no impact mantra.
"It was great to do the extended backpacking trips, just carrying your food and your home on your back," Brix says. While "it was all very well orchestrated--you didn't have to hunt and gather to sustain your life...it did make me think about how I could live directly with the more-than-human world.
"We have this problem with talking about the 'natural world' as if it were separate," he says. "We forget that humans are entirely a part of the natural world. It is all one big system."
Brix describes himself as an environmentalist but not an environmental activist. "I'm not hanging banners off the federal building, that's not my style," he says. "I have to be able to work with utility companies, renewable energy contractors, home owners, business owners, and other people in government, as well as neighborhood organizations and nonprofits."
Brix spends most of his time writing and revising energy efficiency project proposals, but he does leave the office on occasion. He recently took a tour of a few potential wind turbine sites in the area and is putting an educational kiosk in the Ann Arbor Farmers' Market to explain its photovoltaic electrical-generation array. "It's nice to be able to walk by something and say, 'Hey, that's there because of something I was a part of,'" he says.
Brix doesn't own a car--he bikes to work year-round from his rented house off Summit. He's a devotee of the People's Food Co-op and often stops in after work for a peanut butter Bumble energy bar. When Brix and his buddies learned that a truck full of locally grown cabbage and rutabaga was unloading at the Co-op, they flocked to the store with the excitement of kids rushing to an ice cream truck.
"Food is probably the biggest thing I do besides work," Brix says. He and his housemates have a "fermentation fascination," and although they weren't successful with their last batch of cider, Brix boasts about their sauerkraut and pickles.
Besides getting friends together to cook with local ingredients, Brix likes to play music and board games. His favorite game is Agricola, where players try to create sustainable housing and the most diversified farm with limited materials. His housemate Matthew Merins says the only time Brix loses is when they play with a certain friend--one who's a real farmer.
Agricola is "a lesson in time and resource management strategy," explains Merins. Even if it is just a game, Ann Arborites might be reassured that the city's energy programs manager is a champion.
[Originally published in January, 2010.]