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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   July 2010

 

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Net Positive

New sustainability director Nick Sussillo wants to push Silver City and Grant County toward greater self-reliance.

 

Story and photos by Richard Mahler

 

 

 


Nick Sussillo cites two pivotal events that occurred along the path that led him to become the first director of the new Office of Sustainability for Silver City and Grant County.

sustainability
As head of the Office of Sustainability, Nick Susillo would like to see Silver City's streets with more bikes and fewer gas guzzlers.

"I fell in love with the mountains and the desert," recalls Sussillo, wistfully citing a four-year stretch of childhood spent in Tucson, while his father was stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. "We were on the edge of a brand-new subdivision north of the base and I would walk into the backyard and beyond it was wide-open desert. You couldn't see another house for miles. That was the most phenomenal playground as a kid."

Circumstances later took the family back to Brooklyn, where Sussillo was born and (mostly) raised "around asphalt and concrete." But, he insists, "I always had an inkling to return to the Southwest."

Fast-forward many years and a middle-aged Sussillo is seated inside the Chicago Convention Center, listening with rapt attention to former President Bill Clinton deliver the keynote address at a conference of environment-friendly builders. "I'm paraphrasing," Sussillo allows, "but what Clinton essentially said was, 'This whole movement toward a green economy is the greatest opportunity for economic prosperity in the US since post-World War II.' That statement was a real eye-opener. The other memorable thing he said was that our country is eventually going to have 'Net Positive' houses that will generate more energy than they use. I had never heard that term used on any kind of national scale. Obviously, he was talking about renewable energy resources."

Three years after hearing Clinton's speech before the US Green Building Council, Sussillo believes we are well on our way toward realizing the ex-president's predictions. If nothing else, the monumental BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has spurred efforts to add solar, geothermal, wind, hydro and other resources to the energy mix.

"I have no crystal ball," concedes Sussillo, his lanky framedressed casually in jeans, loafers and a short-sleeve shirt. "But I would like to see people engage over time in a sustained effort to move the town toward greater self-reliance so that there's a little more resilience to deal with a major environmental event or a second major downturn in the economy."

In his new position, Sussillo seems fiercely determined to make "sustainability" more than the buzzword it has unfortunately become. "Where we need to go is modifying our everyday lifestyles," contends Sussillo, interviewed at a second-floor office in Silver City's City Hall Annex. Visible out the window are scores of scurrying gas-powered vehicles, countless energy-inefficient buildings, and dozens of trucks delivering goods from far away. Sussillo, who bears a resemblance to comedian Steve Martin in looks and demeanor,is calm and collected.He appearsuntroubled by the inadequacies implied by the tableau sprawled below. "These days," he says, "there definitely seems to be more and more emphasis given to the intersection of energy, economy and environment."



This observation certainly rings true in Silver City, to which Sussillo and his wife, Sonnie, relocated from the East in the fall of 2008. The Office of Sustainability was created following a series of brainstorms involving Mayor James Marshall and citizen members of Silver City's Climate Protection Advisory Committee. The latter produced a formal Climate Action Plan for the municipality that included the recommendation that such an office be established. Its goal: more conservation and energy efficiency wherever possible. Soon after, the Town of Silver City and Grant County received grants totaling $466,000 from the US Department of Energy for funding several positions, including Sussillo's.

"One task was to establish this office," the director explains, "and another is to do energy audits for public facilities and 350 homes in the area. The residential retrofits will average around $100 per house and consist of picking low-hanging yet productive fruit."

By this Sussillo means incandescent light bulbs will be replaced with compact-fluorescent bulbs, leaky doors and windows will be caulked and weather-stripped, water heaters will be wrapped in insulating fiberglass blankets, attics will be insulated, and clotheslines encouraged. "There is no income restriction on using any of these funds," Sussillo adds, "and there will be no retrofit cost to the homeowner."

His office is currently hiring staffers who will carry out the project. Sussillo cites estimates that about 50% of all energy consumption in the US is associated with buildings — mainly homes — and notes that many Grant County residences were built long before today's efficiency standards were in place. What's more, he points out, a fair percentage of the county's 14,000-plus homes are now sitting empty.

The new office is also evaluating the energy efficiency and conservation needs of town and county government facilities. It's coordinating public-education activities designed to increase community awareness of fast, inexpensive ways to increase home energy efficiency as well as tax incentives and "green building" rebates.Other activities will include implementation of a renewable energy project, assistance in developing local "green jobs," and help in implementing a countywide solar-energy financing district. A related project calls for construction of a solar-power generating parking structure at the downtown visitor center, along with an electric-vehicle charging station.

"I believe we're going to create something exciting here in Silver City and Grant County," says Sussillo, who often commutes to work on a bicycle. "This all ties together my own interests and plans for the house Sonnie and I are about to start building on the outskirts of Silver City." (In September, the Sussillos will break ground on a new home that's designed to meet the Earth-friendly standards of Build Green New Mexico.)



Nick and Sonnie Sussillo moved to the area after making four visits to friends who lived here. Sonnie, in particular, was fed up with the congestion, noise and rat race of Washington, DC, where the couple had been based for many years. She convinced her bosses at the Federal Communications Commission to allow her to become a telecommuter, most engaged in online training services. Her husband planned to take an informal sabbatical from work and play a hands-on role in constructing their new house.

"I thought I'd look for something after our home was built," he explains, "but then this job came up." It seemed like a good fit. He applied and was hired, embedded in Silver City's Department of Community Development under the supervision of its director, Peter Russell, and Town Manager Alex Brown.

Sussillo brings to the position a graduate degree in community planning and nine years of experience in the District of Columbia managing low-income housing initiatives, including several neighborhood revitalization and "green" building projects. Prior to this, he was a healthcare consultant in the DC area and held various positions related to housing and social services, particularly for the elderly. An electrical engineer, Sussillo spent 17 years as an Air Force officer and Navy civil servant overseeing management and engineering of various technical military projects.

"After moving to Silver City," says Sussillo, "I went to the Viva Verde Festival," held in June 2009. "From that, I was introduced to the climate committee and learned about their efforts to establish this office."

 



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