What did San Andres National Wildlife Refuge in southern New Mexico — winner of a 2008 Department of the Interior Environmental Achievement Award and a Department of Energy award — pay for electricity in mid-February to mid-March 2011?

Nothing.

In fact, right now, the refuge has a $176 credit for returning electricity to the grid for two billing cycles. In years past, the refuge would have averaged about $300 per month.

San Andres Refuge is hardly alone in its quest for energy efficiency. As part of its climate change strategy, the U.S. [/skipwords]Fish[skipwords] & Wildlife Service has set a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2020, reflecting the broad understanding that use of fossil fuels — including in the production of electricity — is a major contributor to climate change.

The service is reducing its carbon footprint by cutting usage during peak hours, where possible; switching to alternative fuels; and installing EnergyStar appliances, among other moves. Service employees are driving more alternative fuel and hybrid vehicles and using more biodiesel fuels. At least 2.5 percent of the service's electricity use comes from renewable energy sources; that number is expected to climb dramatically in the next several months as projects funded by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 are completed.

More than 20 service facilities have won Federal Energy and Water Management Awards. Many wildlife refuges and other field stations have completed cost-effective, energy-efficient weatherization projects along with projects to make lighting, heating and air conditioning more efficient.

Since 2007, designs for new buildings are 30 percent more efficient in their electricity use than required by code. The service is working to build more net-zero energy buildings that incorporate renewable solar photovoltaic arrays, solar hot water heaters, small wind turbines, geothermal (ground source) heat pumps and EPA-approved wood burning stoves that employ biomass technologies.

The 57,000-acre San Andres Refuge, which works to restore desert bighorn sheep, launched its quest for energy independence in 2005 with installation of a 6,000-watt hybrid solar cell and wind energy system. That met about 80 percent of the refuge's electrical needs and landed the refuge a DOI Environmental Achievement Award. The 3,600-watt expansion in 2010 was meant to cover the higher electric usage during the sweltering months of June through September when the office air conditioning runs full blast, says refuge manager Kevin Cobble. The refuge now has a staff of eight to 10 people working in the office, up from four. The refuge has compensated for the greater electricity use that naturally comes with more staff members by using renewable energy sources and employing energy conservation.

The original 6,000-watt system included a 30-foot-tall wind turbine and solar panels set at an angle along the parking garage to capture sunlight, explains Coby Bartram, the maintenance mechanic who installed the panels. Together with the expansion, the materials cost about $60,000 — money Cobble expects to be repaid in about a decade by utility bill savings.

Down the road, Cobble hopes to convert the refuge's natural gas heating system to a solar electric system. Meanwhile, last winter, the refuge experimented with a "solar shield," in which internal air is piped out, heated by the sun and then blown back into the building. Warmth was not a problem, Cobble says.

This story was written by Martha Nudel for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and is reprinted with permission here.

Photo: Coby Bartram/USFWS