Garages go green in Towson

County Executive Kevin Kamentz charges a Chevy Volt during the demonstration of new lighting and charging stations at Towson garages. (Photo courtesy Baltimore County / November 13, 2011)

He calls them "the concrete palace," said Don Hutchinson, chairman of the board of the Baltimore County Revenue Authority.

The former county executive is referring to the four high-rise parking garages in downtown Towson that the quasi-governmental authority owns and operates.

Now he can call them the "green palace." The authority has installed new lighting that officials say will save more than $500,000 in energy costs over the next four years, and has begun installing charging stations in them for electric vehicles as well.

A web-based wireless system links lighting for the four garages together, and can be controlled with a laptop, desktop or a smart phone — "down to individual lamps," according to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.


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"It is the largest installation of its kind in the parking lot industry," Kamenetz said during a demonstration Nov. 10 on Level G of the Susquehanna Avenue garage.

The demonstration tested the executive's manual dexterity. His hands were too cold for the surges to work properly, Kamenetz said at first, after focusing intently on the keyboard in front of him on the podium.

But he broke out in a huge grin after he managed to douse the overhead lights as planned, and the 40 or so representatives from private industry and state, local and federal government applauded.

The new lighting may quell complaints that 5th District County Council member David Marks has received from residents of Towson's high rise buildings. They look out their windows at night or in the wee hours of the morning and see the bright lights on every floor of the nine-story garages, gobbling up energy when the garages aren't in use, Marks said.

"This is an improvement. It will minimize some of the glare in downtown Towson and hopefully save the county money," he said.

Indeed, based on a pilot program, the lighting retrofits are projected to reduce electricity usage in the garages by 60 to 75 percent, netting projected annual savings of 75 percent and saving more than $100,000 per year, according to the authority.

The lighting system, designed by Wisconsin-based Orion Energy Systems, uses fluorescent fixtures designed specifically for parking garages that are controlled by wireless transceivers and occupancy-motion sensors to minimize energy usage.

This is one of the first parking systems to tie all of its facilities into a single unified system, according to Orion.

The total installation cost of $875,000 was supported in part by a $150,000 U.S. Department of Energy grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and more than $150,000 in rebates from Baltimore Gas and Electric Company.  

The system installer, Beltsville-based Pritchett Controls, qualifies for tax incentives through the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which aided them in providing competitive pricing.

Revenue Authority CEO William "Lynnie" Cook expects to recoup the initial investment within four years, he said.

Kamenetz, after shedding light on the new charging station at the lower end of the ramp, demonstrated how easy it was to use with a white a GM Chevrolet Volt.

"You can do this in suit," he said triumphantly after plugging in the vehicle inserting a credit card — though the station will be free for two years — and unplugging the vehicle.

The Revenue Authority is installing two charging stations in each of the four garages, as well as two on-street charging stations in downtown Towson, to position itself for the future.

There aren't that many plug-in electric cars on the road yet, said authority parking director Wayne Mixdorf, but "we wanted to get ahead of the curve. Even if it isn't used that much right now, it' a visible sign of the movement toward green."

The charging stations may have a promising future. General Motors' plant in White Marsh is scheduled to start manufacturing electric plug-in vehicles by late 2012.

Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, also a former county executive, approved. "We have to get away from depending on oil," he said. "Over 400 million American dollars go to very unstable countries to find oil. This is a great partnership between federal and local governments."

Kamenetz said the "green garages" exemplify the theme of his administration.

"We are using technology to deliver services more efficiently and save taxpayer dollars," he said.

"This is the kind of thing that ought to be done in every garage and office building,' said former Councilman Vince Gardina, who is now director of the county's Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability.

"The upfront costs are high, but it takes minimal time to recover the cost," he said. "This ought to be done everywhere."