Article Features Karalee Browne

Beacon Award-Winner San Rafael Makes Sustainability a Priority

Karalee Browne is a program coordinator for the Institute for Local Government’s Sustainability program and can be reached at

In 2010 the City of San Rafael became the first participant in the sustainability recognition program known as the Beacon Award: Local Leadership Toward Solving Climate Change. Three years later San Rafael won the first Beacon Award. The League recognized San Rafael’s silver-level accomplishments at the 2013 League of California Cities Annual Conference & Expo. The city’s achievements included:

  • Agency greenhouse gas reductions of 19.2 percent (2005 to 2010);
  • Community greenhouse gas reductions of 8.1 percent (2005 to 2010);
  • Agency electricity savings of 5 percent;
  • Outstanding efforts to promote energy efficiency in the community; and
  • Participation in 35 activities in the Institute for Local Government’s 10 Sustainability Best Practice Areas.

The Formula for Success

San Rafael’s sustainability efforts are rooted in environmental protection and began in the early 1980s when it was first recognized as a Tree City USA, which is part of a national urban forestry program. Today the city has more than 54,000 street trees and adds 40 street trees a year to its green canopy. San Rafael has built a strong track record over the years in sustainable land use by preserving hillsides as open space, restoring and expanding wetlands, encouraging mixed-use infill development and adopting green building requirements.

To answer the question of how the City of San Rafael won the first-ever Beacon Award, one must look to its culture and willingness to consider and apply innovative solutions to a range of community concerns.

The city’s elected officials, staff and residents foster a relationship based on mutual respect and cooperation. Its components include open communication between elected officials and the community, ongoing education and high expectations. San Rafael epitomizes community-based planning. Engaged residents and businesses work with city staff and elected officials to examine constraints and opportunities as well as the short-term gains and long-term impacts of decision-making. The leaders focus on the big picture but take an incremental approach, partnering with the community to minimize the risks and costs associated with innovation. As a result, the community has a clear vision and a comprehensive strategy, which recognizes that one solution or approach can provide numerous benefits and address multiple problems.

The city’s leadership on conservation and environmental issues has attracted open-minded, forward-thinking residents who respect the environment and are committed to participating in efforts to preserve it.

San Rafael’s full-time sustainability coordinator, located in the City Manager’s Office, supports a network of committees, teams and partners that help prioritize and implement the sustainability initiatives. The coordinator assists in facilitating three teams:

  1. The Employee Green Team includes staff from each city department. It meets monthly and develops activities to encourage staff or influence city operations to be more sustainable in the areas of waste reduction, recycling, water conservation, energy conservation and purchasing;
  2. The Employee Commute Program Committee encourages staff to reduce single-occupant commutes by carpooling, biking and using transit; and
  3. The City Council Subcommittee on Sustainability includes two council members who help set policy direction and prioritize staff time and projects related to the city’s adopted Climate Action Plan.

The efforts of these teams culminate at the Climate Action Plan Update Forum, a quarterly public meeting to update community members about and share resources toward implementing the city’s Climate Action Plan. These groups and meetings are carefully designed to be fun, interactive and substantive to keep the participants on track and motivated.

The Role of the Climate Action Plan

“The danger of plans is that they often sit on the shelf,” says Kate Colin, a San Rafael City Council member. “We are always asking ourselves, ‘Where do we want to take our community?’”

San Rafael adopted its Climate Action Plan in 2009. The goals are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020 and to achieve an ambitious 80 percent reduction by 2050. The city has made steady progress toward meeting its goals. Between 2005 and 2010, the city reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 8.1 percent or 30,329 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. (A carbon dioxide equivalent is a term that translates different types of greenhouse gases into carbon dioxide, based on their climate-warming potential.) While the economic downturn and state policies contributed to these reductions, a significant drop resulted from local efforts to conserve energy and water, reduce vehicle miles traveled and divert waste from landfills.

To implement its Climate Action Plan, San Rafael relies on three guiding principles:

  1. Maintain a steady pace. Whether resources are abundant or limited, San Rafael identifies a few achievable goals to implement each year from its long-term sustainability strategy. As a result, the city’s sustainability efforts remain consistent and achievable;
  2. Borrow and share expertise and resources. From funding proposals to ordinance development, the city both shares and borrows expertise to help move projects forward. It relies on city staff and the community to take ownership of sustainability objectives and programs, thus expanding its expertise and resources; and
  3. Cultivate and complement community-based programs. The city approaches sustainability as a communitywide effort — with its residents, businesses and local government all serving as equal and important partners.

By following these guiding principles, San Rafael has achieved a number of remarkable milestones. The following examples illustrate the accomplishments that helped contribute to San Rafael’s success in the Beacon Award program. These examples also describe the city’s plans to preserve its assets and create a more economically and environmentally sustainable community.

Converting Waste to Energy

To complement its long-standing curbside recycling program, San Rafael implemented a curbside composting program in 2010. The city adopted a zero waste goal and strategic plan in 2011. The strategic plan includes a recycling and reuse ordinance that requires a minimum of 70 percent of construction and demolition waste be recycled rather than disposed in a landfill. This, in part, has resulted in waste being only 2 percent of the city’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

The city is now partnering with its waste hauler, Marin Sanitary Service, and wastewater service provider, the Central Marin Sanitation Agency, on a food waste-to-energy project. Pigs and peacocks have been on-site at the Recycling & Resource Recovery Center for years, naturally composting the extra food scraps brought into the facility, but now there’s a new machine in town. In 2014 the sanitation agency unveiled its new “big blue machine,” which processes 50 tons of commercial and residential food waste from the city’s restaurants and businesses, thus keeping it out of the landfill. The processed food is sent to the sewage treatment plant, where it is converted into biogas for use by the wastewater treatment plant. This allows the agency to use less natural gas at the plant, which results in a reduction of 1,723 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents and a savings of approximately $350,000 per year.

“Direct engagement is the key,” says Kim Scheibly, municipal contract and communications manager for Marin Sanitary Service. “We really work with our customers to help them understand what they are becoming a part of.”

Focusing on Energy Efficiency

From 2011 to 2013 San Rafael converted its traffic signals and 740 streetlights to light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which use approximately half of the electricity of the previous lights. The streetlight retrofit alone reduces energy usage by 189,500 kilowatt hours (kWh) each year, which saves the city approximately $24,000 annually. San Rafael funded the project through a no-interest loan from Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) and is paying it back over approximately five and a half years with the savings generated by the project.

The city replaced a chiller unit of its heating and air conditioning system at San Rafael City Hall in 2013. In addition to securing zero-interest on-bill financing, the city received a $10,000 rebate from PG&E for the project. It is expected to reduce energy use by 68,291 kWh and save 361 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually.

Providing Renewable Energy

Community choice aggregation programs offer a way for cities and counties to provide residents and businesses with electricity purchased from a third-party provider and delivered through existing distribution and transmission systems. San Rafael joined the Marin Energy Authority, California’s first community choice aggregation program, in 2010. As a result, 50 percent of the electricity for agency facilities (and most of the community) comes from renewable energy sources. The city plans to subscribe in the future to the authority’s Deep Green Program, which will provide 100 percent renewable energy for all San Rafael agency buildings and operations.

San Rafael is currently leading an effort to help agencies in Marin, Napa and Sonoma counties obtain discounts on purchasing solar photovoltaic arrays for municipal facilities through the Solar Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Fund group-purchasing program. The program provides funding and technical assistance to participating agencies to help install solar at a discounted rate. Agencies that successfully complete projects will then return a portion of the savings back to the fund for development of future renewable energy initiatives.

“Our short- and long-term goals are wedded,” says Cory Bytof, San Rafael’s Volunteer and Sustainability Program coordinator. “We are trying to create a cultural shift in the region by partnering with neighboring cities that may not have the opportunities or resources. It’s just a more efficient way of doing things.”

Adopting Green Building Standards

This is not the first time San Rafael has promoted sustainable policies throughout the region. In 2007 San Rafael led a countywide effort to adopt green building standards for both new construction and remodeling projects. The model ordinance was considered one of California’s most rigorous at the time. Three years later the new California Green Building Standards Code (CALGreen) was adopted, creating similar requirements throughout the state. True to its history of leadership, San Rafael adopted the voluntary option of the CALGreen Code, which requires more stringent green building measures that reduce the use of water and energy as well as the volume of waste going to landfills.

Addressing Emissions Related to Transportation

Like many other California cities, San Rafael has an ongoing issue with traffic congestion. More than 60 percent of the city’s community greenhouse gas emissions and 40 percent of the agency’s emissions come from private vehicles driving on local roads and state Highway 101, which runs through the city. To address the emissions that the city government generates, it launched a creative employee commute campaign, offered an alternative four-day work schedule for some city employees and began encouraging employee carpools, ridesharing and bicycling to work. Since 2005 the city has seen a reduction of employee commute-related vehicle miles traveled and has cut greenhouse gas emissions by 37 percent (or 499 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.)

In another effort to address greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, San Rafael is planning for two stations of the new Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) line that will be located in the city’s major employment areas. The SMART train, to be completed in 2016, is expected to reduce community greenhouse gas emissions by 180 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

As a complement to the SMART stations, San Rafael is partnering with several transit agencies and other local jurisdictions to leverage transportation grants to develop bicycle and pedestrian paths into and throughout the city. When complete, the SMART project will include one of the longest, continuous bicycle and pedestrian pathway systems in the nation.

The city has made improvements to encourage biking and walking and adopted its Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan in 2011. With full implementation of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, San Rafael expects an estimated reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of 1,269 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents — comparable to taking nearly 276 passenger vehicles off the road each year.

Community Involvement is Key

The community is San Rafael’s secret ingredient in its sustainability formula. Community-based organizations, such as Sustainable San Rafael, advocate for sustainability programs and collaborate with the city on educational activities and initiatives. The city leverages and supports community-based programs, such as Resilient Neighborhoods, a carbon reduction and community-building program challenge that addresses climate change through neighborhood eco-teams. The program, run entirely by community volunteers and interns, encourages teams or families to sign up and pledge to take easy, everyday actions to reduce energy and carbon emissions. While the program is offered throughout the county, San Rafael offers direct support by providing interns and administrative resources. More than 50 households participate, representing 150-plus residents. This program has helped reduce greenhouse emissions from the residential sector by 493,000 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents each year.

San Rafael Vice-Mayor Damon Connolly sums up the city’s approach concisely: “You must truly involve the community. Much of the desire, ideas and momentum come from them. They are such a big part of everything we do.”

“When I tell people on our teams that our city has a Climate Action Plan and that we, the residents, account for more than half of the city’s carbon emissions, they are shocked at first,” says Tamra Peters, director of Resilient Neighborhoods. “But when they reduce their own household carbon emissions and see their efforts add to the city’s overall reduction, they understand that we are all in this together and they have just done their part. It’s empowering.”

“Climate change is a challenge so big that we can solve it only by acting together,” says Bill Carney, president of Sustainable San Rafael. “Local government provides a forum for citizens to help create communitywide programs that can start to make a difference. These actions show higher levels of government that we’re serious about reducing greenhouse gases.”

The Beacon Award Program Celebrates local achievements

A statewide program sponsored by the Institute for Local Government and the Statewide Energy Efficiency Collaborative, the Beacon Award program recognizes California cities and counties that are voluntarily working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save energy and adopt policies and programs that promote sustainability.

The program features two types of awards:

The Beacon Award recognizes an agency’s comprehensive approach to addressing climate change. To win a silver, gold or platinum Beacon Award, participating agencies must complete specific, measurable achievements in six areas.

The Beacon Spotlight Award recognizes the accomplishments of cities and counties participating in the program as they work to complete the requirements necessary to win a Beacon Award. Cities and counties are honored with silver, gold and/or platinum Beacon Spotlight Awards for undertaking sustainability activities in 10 best practice areas and for achieving measurable energy and greenhouse gas reductions.

To learn more about the Beacon Award program; for additional program information and details on San Rafael’s activities, visit

Links to Additional Information 

The Beacon Award program
The City of Rafael’s achievements in the Beacon Award Program
The City of San Rafael
The City of San Rafael’s sustainability activities
For more information about ILG’s Sustainability Best Practices Framework

This article appears in the July 2014 issue of Western City
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