Leah stands next to a display at GreenFest

Bees, School Supplies, and Solar Panels – Why Montgomery County’s New Sustainability Program Manager Loves Her Job

Jun 07, 2016

How are protecting honey bees, donating gently used office supplies to schools, and installing solar panels connected? They are all part of Montgomery County’s efforts to maximize the sustainability of government operations. They also are all part of the amazing diversity of topics I have the pleasure of working on as the County’s new Sustainability Program Manager for the Department of General Services.

What do we mean by sustainability?

It’s a big word with a broad definition – meeting the needs of the present while ensuring that future generations can meet their needs. For Montgomery County government, it means finding innovative ways to provide the same high level of service to residents and businesses while minimizing resource consumption, protecting the environment, saving costs, and making Montgomery County an even better place to live and work.

 

Leah catches critters in a stream

Collecting stream insects and crustaceans to monitor water quality.

 

The Solar and Advanced Energy Initiative is a good example. The County is installing 6 megawatts of solar on 14 of its facilities – that’s enough energy to power 600 homes. A private company, SolarCity, shoulders the costs for installation and maintenance and the County pays SolarCity for the electricity. We are getting our electricity for less money than we would pay the utility, and at the same time we are using County properties to generate clean, environmentally-friendly electricity. This initiative will reduce greenhouse gas emissions as much as taking 870 cars off the road or planting 100,000 trees. Not only is this project a win for the environment, it supports a local business, generates jobs, and saves $11 million dollars of taxpayer money over the next 20 years.

Another example is the County’s leading-edge use of combined heat and power – a way to save energy by using waste heat from on-site power generation to heat buildings. The County is currently testing its first combined heat and power system. Ultimately, the plan is to use this technology to not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also to provide uninterrupted public services during power outages.

Given these big and bold initiatives, it’s no surprise that Montgomery County is well-known nationwide for its environmentally friendly projects and policies. And as a resident of Silver Spring from 2002-2012, I know Montgomery County first-hand as a great place to live and work – with fantastic libraries, schools, parks, and public transportation.

So when I heard the County was looking for a Sustainability Program Manager, I knew I had to apply.

 

Leah standing in front of a waterfall

Hiking in West Virginia.

 

About my job

The position is part of the Office of Energy and Sustainability, created in 2014 to implement green government initiatives. It complements the outward-facing Office of Sustainability in the Department of Environmental Protection, which works with residents and businesses for a more sustainable community. You can learn more about my office and some of my colleagues – including Division Chief Eric Coffman, Capital Energy Projects Manager Michael Yambrach, and Energy Program Manager Chris Weatherly – on our website.

Working with such an amazing group of colleagues has been the most rewarding experience since I started the job in April. I am especially excited about the chance to work with so many different people – police officers, bus drivers, architects, librarians, and maintenance technicians to name a few. I knew I could learn so much from working with people across so many disciplines and that even small changes in daily behavior, multiplied by the power of 10,000 employees, can have a tremendous positive impact on environmental health.

Prior to joining the County, I spent 18 years working for the Izaak Walton League of America, a national nonprofit conservation organization with headquarters in Gaithersburg. I started with the League right after graduating from Yale University with a degree in Political Science and Organismal Biology. As Save Our Streams Coordinator and later as Clean Water Program Director, I taught volunteers how to monitor and restore streams and wetlands. I also managed large-scale restoration projects, raised funds, managed social media, and produced educational books and videos. One of my favorite projects involved social marketing research to increase the number of homeowners converting their turf grass to native plants. I had the pleasure of partnering with Montgomery County’s own RainScapes Rewards program, which provides rebates for installing rain barrels, rain gardens, and other conservation practices.

As Sustainability Program Manager, my mission is two-fold: share the story of the County’s sustainability leadership and help integrate sustainability into the operations of the County Government.

Sharing the story includes maintaining an active Facebook page and Twitter account; working with print media, radio, and television; writing for blogs and newsletters; producing eye-catching posters and other educational materials; and presenting at conferences and events. If you have any ideas for getting the word out about our efforts to green County government, please let me know.

 

Leah sampling water

Demonstrating proper water chemistry monitoring techniques at a volunteer workshop.

 

Getting my feet wet

Integrating sustainability into the everyday business of County employees, and departments is a much larger task. This is where the bees and the school supplies come in. In my first few weeks on the job, I worked with the Montgomery County Beekeepers Association to train the property managers of County facilities about the importance of bees as pollinators of our food supply, the temporary and relatively harmless nature of honey bee swarms, and how to protect people while also safeguarding bees. I also had the chance to help deliver gently used binders and other supplies to Montgomery County Public Schools. The engineers and architects from the Department of General Services spent months collecting supplies they no longer needed. The donation kept hundreds of binders and folders out of landfills and helped children in need be fully prepared for school.

Future projects are likely to include additional large scale solar installations, energy and water efficient buildings, an increasingly greener fleet, increased biodiversity on County-owned lands, more environmentally-friendly purchasing, and programs that help employees make small, but significant, behavior changes like turning off unneeded lights and using refillable water bottles.

 

Leah holding her daughter along a trail

Introducing her daughter Asha to the great outdoors early.

 

The County is leading by example and I strive to do the same when it comes to making sustainable choices at work and home. I am well known for always having my reusable water bottle by my side. I drive an all-electric Nissan Leaf (when I can wrest it away from my husband), compost food waste, have a natural forested yard, am a relentless recycler, and keep lights and appliances off and unplugged when not in use. My husband is a master of reuse and recycle – friends and family are often amazed at all the ways he can repurpose used objects. Although I admit I put my foot down at his suggestion of lining our garden beds with unwieldy 50-pound concrete test canisters discarded by Dulles Airport.

I am looking forward to collaborating with my new friends and colleagues to brainstorm and implement new ideas – and to support each other – in this effort to help our County government be even more sustainable.

Leah Miller is the Sustainability Program Manager for Montgomery County. While she still owns a home in Silver Spring, she currently lives in Columbia with her husband, their 18-month-old daughter, and their 21-year-old foster son. She is an avid hiker and occasionally dips a canoe paddle or a fishing line in the water – in Montgomery County and elsewhere.

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