Billings becomes first city in Montana to earn LEED Gold certification

Montana’s largest city achieved designation through green space, water and solid waste projects

By: - December 1, 2022 6:44 pm

A LEED Gold certification pin given out a celebration announcing that the City of Billings was the first city in Montana to earn the certification (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Billings isn’t just the only city in Montana to achieve LEED Gold certification – a recognition by the U.S. Green Building Council about how the state’s largest city puts sustainable practices in place. Billings is the only city that has turned the award into a celebratory cake.

On Thursday, leaders from around the city and state marked the achievement for the city, which underwent a certification process that took several years to complete, as a local committee conducted surveys and developed ways to make the “Magic City” even more sustainable. The international program aims to improve “sustainability and the standard of living for residents.”

The certification also works as a sort of calling card for leaders to attract other environmentally conscious business to the city. And leaders gathered at the Billings Logan International Airport to celebrate the news, which included a cake with an image of the LEED certification.

A cake that has the LEED Gold certificate designed on it was used as the centerpiece for a celebration on Dec. 1, 2022 by the City of Billings (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

For example, Billings considered its green spaces, efficiency, solar power and how it was treating its solid waste when working toward the certification.

Only 125 cities worldwide have achieved the designation.

“A lot of cities make pledges and promises, but this is about accountability and leadership,” said Hilari Varnadore, LEED vice president for cities.

She said part of what led to the city’s certification included its use of space, conservation of natural resources, and even maintaining lower-than-expected transportation times, suggesting that residents work and live in the same places. This is important because sustainable cities have residential properties close to parks and grocery stores, while also being centrally located to business.

“But now comes the hard part,” Varnadore said.

Now that the city has completed its LEED evaluations and certification, it will begin the process of partnering with leaders, businesses and some organizations, like public utilities or groups concerned with trails, in order to keep designing projects and improving sustainability.

LEED Vice President Hilari Varnadore presents the Gold certification designation to Billings Mayor Bill Cole (right) at a ceremony at the Billings Logan International Airport on Dec. 1, 2022 (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

“This was a project years in the making,” said Billings Mayor Bill Cole. “Largely, that’s been an untold story. Well, that changes today. Billings was LEED before LEED was cool.”

Cole harkened back to some of the ways the city had engaged in LEED principles before the idea to become certified came to the forefront. For example, the MET Transit Center, which went online in 2010, was the first transit center in the country to achieve LEED certification.

Projects like those helped make the case for certification. A group, led by local architect Randy Hafer, identified 168 projects throughout the city that demonstrated the city’s commitment to LEED principles. Cole told the audience that these projects have helped save 9.4 million kilowatt hours every year at a savings of more than $800,000 with $2 million of rebates and incentives from NorthWestern Energy.

The city was able to go through the process with a grant from the U.S. Green Building Council, given in April 2021.

The city received financial assistance, education resources and technical support to help Billings achieve LEED Certification. The grants are funded through a partnership of USGBC and Bank of America, and Billings was one of 15 cities to receive the $10,500 grant.

Billings’ projects

Billings was also a pioneer in methane conversion at its solid waste landfill. Billings continues to siphon off methane gas, the byproduct of decaying garbage. Montana-Dakota Utilities uses that methane from the landfill and converts it into a fuel that helps heat homes and run generators. The city, in turn, gets a 15 percent fee for the gas.

And the city is currently engaged in a $130 million water storage project on the West End that will help store more water for Billings’ residents.

When the Yellowstone River flooded earlier this year, the City of Billings had to stop its wastewater treatment system, which left the city with only about 10 hours of water reserves left. The water reserve system and treatment plant were originally designed in 1918 and were in need of updating to keep up with urban growth.

A new project in western Billings will help store several months’ worth of water, and since the water will use gravity to flow, it will save as much as $300,000 in costs associated with pumping the water.

In addition, the city has begun starting to convert trash-hauling trucks to compressed natural gas.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.