Nothing went exactly as planned last year, but it still feels important to celebrate the small wins and look forward to brighter days ahead.

For Neal Denton, sustainability planner for the Environmental Services Division of Santa Fe's Public Utilities Department, the wins include completed audits, certifications and long-term planning he hopes will eventually help the city meet the goals of its 25-year sustainability plan.

In 2021, Santa Fe residents will begin to see some of the fruits of that labor.

Just like the rest of us, the sustainability office had to forgo fun last year and cancel all events and educational programs. The upshot was more time to focus on unglamorous, behind-the-scenes tasks like taking stock of the city's progress toward its sustainability goals.

Despite two high-level vacancies for a sustainability officer and a building codes specialist hampered by a hiring freeze, Denton says his staff was able to achieve a lot last year.

"We're lucky, we did not have to sideline anything really important because of the impacts of COVID-19. That can't be said for every city," he tells SFR, noting the city now plans to fill the two jobs.

To start, the office commissioned an energy and water efficiency audit of 38 city facilities that resulted in recommendations to install 17 new solar arrays on city buildings and upgrade 9,000 light and 800 water fixtures. Denton says the changes will save the city 20% on its utility bills.

The city also earned two national certifications last year that help define metrics of success and identify places to improve, says Denton.

Santa Fe achieved SolSmart Bronze certification from the US Department of Energy for streamlining its solar permitting and zoning rules. The city also earned a LEED for Cities Gold certification from the US Green Building Council in June after Denton's staff spent three years collecting data on the city's energy, waste, water and transportation systems and creating a community-wide greenhouse gas emissions inventory.

"The LEED certification gives us recognition for the work which has happened to date while setting the path for the prioritization for the next five years plus," he says. "Sustainable Santa Fe's 25-year plan set wide overarching goals such as carbon neutrality by 2030 or a zero-waste goal, but the LEED for Cities certification is much more quantifiable and precise in terms of the strategies that cities can and should use to achieve those goals."

Last year, Santa Fe got legislative and Volkswagen settlement funds to install electric vehicle charging stations at public buildings; 17 new charging stations will provide power for 34 cars.

Retrofitting the city's street lights with high efficiency LEDs is another project the city plans start this year. The city will also complete construction of a biogas cogeneration system at the wastewater treatment plant that will allow the facility to produce 94% of its own electricity.

At the top of the list for 2021 is an initiative to bring down the price of rooftop solar for low-to-moderate-income homeowners who have suffered financial hardships due to COVID-19.

Everything is cheaper in bulk, whether you're buying toilet paper, rice or solar panels. By bringing multiple homeowners together to negotiate the price for solar panels and installation, the new program will offer a better deal than what's currently available to the individual consumer.

Officials are also exploring financing options that would allow the Public Utilities Department to back up loans for lower-income participants.

"This project is designed to remove the upfront cost from the solar loan for low-to-moderate-income homeowners…while making sure the monthly payment is lower than their electricity bills so that these homeowners are immediately saving money," says Denton.

It's a model that was successfully pioneered in Philadelphia. According to the Solarize Philly website, the initiative has signed up over 6,000 households and won contracts for solar panels on 677 homes since 2017.

Denton says he plans to approach the Santa Fe Public Schools board to offer the program to the district's 2,000 employees, the majority of whom earn salaries at the lower ends.

"Teachers are dealing with challenges like they've never seen before," says Denton. "This is a way that we envision helping the members of our community who have really stepped up for our students."

Teresa Seamster, a former school administrator and the chair of the Northern New Mexico group of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, says the nonprofit has managed solar bulk purchasing in other parts of the country and will work with the city on the Solarize Santa Fe program.

"Staff and level one teachers are generally pretty underserved—they don't earn very much money, are often from minority groups and they are well educated," says Seamster, "so you've got people who already know about solar and are real interested, they just don't have the cash to pull it off."