Chatter among the group of about 30 first-graders overtook a large classroom in the basement of Lee Elementary School, but with one hand raised and a finger placed over her bright smile, Barbara Buffaloe was able to silence the room.
“Who here shuts off their lights before they leave a room? Who doesn’t leave the TV on when they leave the room? Who shuts the water off when they brush their teeth?” These were just some of the questions Buffaloe began to ask the students. Hands shot up after every question and students gave thoughtful answers about their energy use. A few were quick to spill the beans on their parents’ habits. Buffaloe then told the students about their magic power to help the environment.
“You know what you all have that could help get your whole family to turn off the lights or TV when they leave a room?” Buffaloe said. “You all have pester power. So use this power to bug your parents into using less energy.”
Buffaloe, the sustainability manager for the City of Columbia, was giving her annual Earth Hour presentation to elementary school students across the city that day. Earth Hour is an annual event where cities across the world turn off their lights to save energy. Buffaloe explained basic ways to help the environment at home, how the city saves energy by going dark for an hour and why Columbia started a sustainability contest known as the CoMo Energy Challenge.
The challenge serves as a campaign for Columbia’s slot in the Georgetown University Energy Prize. This competition measures the amount of energy used by 50 other cities across America and ranks them over the course of two years. Ameren is helping the sustainability office see the total energy use for different regions of the city. By looking at these numbers together, the office of sustainability can figure out how to help residents save money on utilities. Columbia began competing in January of 2015 and continues to better the community’s energy usage and its overall quality of life.
James Cole, the sustainability educator for the City of Columbia, works closely with Buffaloe by helping her brainstorm new ideas to save energy. He said that watching her get Lee Elementary first-graders engaged with saving the planet gives him hope for a better future.
“We are the first generation to feel climate change and the last to probably do something about it,” Cole says. “That is my motivation behind my work: looking at the future generations we are leaving behind.”
Ann Mehr, an art teacher with Lee Elementary’s expressive arts program, has attended several of Buffaloe’s previous presentations. Mehr said that she takes a field trip with her students to visit the city government building at least once a year. While they are here, they visit with Buffaloe, tour the sustainability office, learn how the building is powered and what recycled materials were used to create artwork displayed in the lobby. She also contributed to Buffaloe’s presentation on the environment by pointing out the student projects using recycled material.
“It’s wonderful that as a government employee, Barbara reinvigorates people, specifically our first graders, to get excited about sustainability,” Mehr says. “Saving the world feels great.”
Although recycling a plastic bottle or shutting off lights when one leaves a room may not seem world-changing, these small efforts can add up, especially for a city as large as Columbia. Columbia is currently ranked 14 out of 50 cities competing for the Georgetown University Energy Award of $5 million. Some of the cities ranked above Columbia include Aspen, Colorado, and Knoxville, Tennessee.
Some of the things Columbia is doing to reduce its energy use includes encouraging businesses use systems that shut off lights when they are not necessarily needed, install more efficient lights and regulate the temperature levels of buildings. One of the city’s actions includes allocating a $300,000 proposed budget to help reduce the city’s carbon footprint and make the city more sustainable according to an article in the Columbia Missourian.
Buffaloe has worked to allocate this proposed by budget by reducing energy use in city buildings and making the city government more energy-efficient. This has helped the city save over $120,000 a year on its own operations, and acquiring a more efficient server for its computers.
Buffaloe’s positivity and passion for saving energy dates back to her early childhood in Springfield, Illinois.
“My family and I would do really simple things like turn off the lights when you left the room or recycle soda cans,” Buffaloe says. “I loved spending my time outdoors and doing whatever I could to help it. My life was very environmentally focused.”
From 1998 to 2002, Buffaloe attended the University of Missouri, where she majored in architectural and environmental design. Buffaloe made it her goal to work for an architecture firm focused on adaptive reuse and apply her ideas of reusing older buildings instead of constructing brand new ones. After graduation, she went on to work for Pyramid Architects as a computer-aided design technician. Eventually she made her way back to Columbia, where she earned her MS in Environment and Behavior, began working as a housing and design specialist for MU and became a board member on the U.S. Green Building Council.
After working for a few years at the university, Buffaloe decided that she wanted to get involved in the local government. She began volunteering with the Environment and Energy Commission.
In 2010, the City of Columbia decided to create a sustainability office and hire a sustainability manager to help fight against global warming.
“I knew from the moment I saw this position appear that I wanted to be that person,” Buffaloe says. “And when I got the job, I thought I must have done something right to get it.”
Buffaloe has been on the job for six years. In that time, she has helped Columbia push forward with several short and long term goals when it comes to sustainability. One example of these goals includes reducing 20 percent of the city’s energy use by 2020. “Although large goals like that are great to strive for, I also like to focus more on the smaller, short-term goals that will eventually get us there,” Buffaloe says.
With a little under a year left in the CoMo Energy Challenge, Buffaloe said that she isn’t just looking for ways to better energy consumption in the community for the coming year. She is also looking beyond the competition to ensure that Columbia will continue to improve, especially with energy use and recycling.
Buffaloe tries to attain her sustainability goals at home too. With her husband and two young children, Buffaloe practices better ways to save energy. From simple recycling to properly insulating their home, the family looks to save as much energy as possible while still maintaining a comfortable living environment.
“I hate to brag, but we did not have air conditioning for our home until about a couple of years ago.” Buffaloe says. “We figured out how to use our curtains to keep ourselves both warm and cool throughout the year, but decided to invest in air conditioning simply because a few summers ago it was unbearably hot and I was pregnant.”
By teaching kids across Columbia the importance of sustainability, she hopes to help upcoming generations become more passionate and excited to help save the world, one step at a time.