Charleston and North Charleston go green in their own ways in pursuit of sustainable communities

Colin Jones with Carolina Green Energy Systems attaches a “duct blaster” to the air intake at a James Island home to test for leaks.

David Slade

From the bioswales that naturally clean stormwater in North Charleston’s Oak Terrace Preserve to the geothermal system that heats and cools Charleston’s historic City Hall, both cities have taken steps to go green — but with different approaches.

In Charleston, concerns about climate change prompted Mayor Joe Riley to sign several carbon-reduction pledges, and the city launched an initiative to help residents make their homes more energy-efficient.

North Charleston, meanwhile, has signed no pledges but has put public money behind the creation of neighborhoods where energy efficiency and environmentally friendly features are incorporated in the design, partially because that appeals to young, affluent home buyers. And both cities have sought to make city buildings and vehicles more efficient, to set an example and also to save money.

So, which city is greener?

Is it Charleston, which involved hundreds of citizens in its Green Committee, launched the Green Business Challenge to showcase private energy-saving efforts, and helped win U.S. Department of Energy funds to start the homeowners’ energy-efficiency program CharlestonWise?

“Honestly, I would say there’s not a clear winner,” said Tim Keane, Charleston’s director of planning, preservation and sustainability. “I think both Charleston and North Charleston have an equal commitment to this.”

Or is it North Charleston, where more than two thirds of the solar power in South Carolina is now generated, and where the city’s effort to create Oak Terrace Preserve is creating a community of Earthcraft certified homes?

“We’re greener,” said North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, “and trying to get even more green.”

“We think we’ve set the example with projects we have done, like City Hall, and like Oak Terrace Preserve,” Summey said. “It catches.”

The mayor concedes North Charleston has an advantage in areas like solar power because the city has lots of industrial land available for development.

That’s helped North Charleston attract businesses that boost the city’s green credentials, such as the Boeing aircraft assembly plant that’s home to the state’s largest solar array, and Clemson’s wind-turbine testing facility on the former Navy Base.

North Charleston now boasts a number of corporate, nonprofit and government buildings with solar power — Boeing, Intertech, Water Missions International, Half Moon Outfitters, and the Charleston County jail among them.

In Charleston, the largest solar array is on a private home at 2 Concord St. (currently for sale for $13 million).

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley drives a Prius, and the city’s commitment to sustainability has been on display since 2000, when he first signed a pledge to address climate change.

“Mayor Riley was one of the earliest advocates for sustainable living, so I guess he had the early lead,” said Grant Reeves, senior vice president with the Intertech Group in North Charleston. “Mayor Summey has been fortunate to attract industries with sustainable visions.”

“I think both show how vital and how dynamic city leadership is, compared to the seemingly dysfunctional state government,” Reeves said.

Reeves has been advocating state legislation, the Energy System Freedom of Ownership Act, to allow companies to install and lease solar panels on private homes, making residential solar power affordable without large up-front costs. Utility companies have fought the idea, and North Charleston City Council just passed a resolution calling for the state to approve the legislation.

Reeves said maybe the state will approve it next year.

Meanwhile, Intertech is expanding the solar array on its North Charleston building. Reeves said state and federal tax credits equal to 55 percent of the costs, plus the falling price of solar panels and the rising cost of electricity, have made the project an economic winner.

“We’re filling up the roof space we have available,” he said.

In Charleston, Keane said they also are seeing a growing desire by businesses to create buildings with green credentials such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

“Now we are getting to a point where every developer and prospective business that has that type of ethic is looking at upper King Street and Morrison Drive,” where there is more land for development, he said.

The first building constructed in the city-planned redevelopment of Concord Park, 25 Calhoun, received LEED certification. So did Charleston’s Arthur W. Christopher Community Center.

North Charleston has South Carolina’s first LEED-certified school, North Charleston Elementary, and the first LEED “platinum” building, the Half Moon Outfitters store.

Neither city requires new buildings to have energy-saving features or other green attributes, except in cases where the cities are funding or designing the development, as with Oak Terrace Preserve.

“It was a very conscious effort by the city to build a model, sustainable community,” said Ryan Johnson, spokesman for North Charleston.

The city also installed small wind turbines on the roof of City Hall, and solar water heaters in fire stations.

“Isn’t it exciting?” said James Meadors. “North Charleston has really come a long way.”

Meadors was chairman of the Charleston Green Committee, and his company handled architecture and construction services for 2 Concord St.

He said working on Charleston’s Green Plan was one of his best professional experiences.

“Hundreds of people were involved with the Green Plan and it affected thousands of others,” Meadors said. “It’s changed the way I live my life and how I conduct my business.”