Obama’s Commitment To Green Buildings

baggerloch
A hole in the ground waiting to become a building (image by extranoise, CC 2.0 licensed)

Obama has a lot of plans, as shown on whitehouse.gov, his public website. But one of his points, on the Urban Policy page, is the following:

Use Innovative Measures to Dramatically Improve Efficiency of Buildings: Buildings account for nearly 40 percent of carbon emissions in the United States today and carbon emissions from buildings are expected to grow faster than emissions from other major parts of our economy. It is expected that 15 million new buildings will be constructed between today and 2015. President Obama and Vice President Biden will work with cities so that we make our new and existing buildings more efficient consumers of electricity.

It’s interesting that one of the most significant parts of his energy plans (buildings use 40% of the energy in the U.S., so this could have a giant affect on our country’s energy use) is in this Urban Policy section. I assume this is because of the “green jobs” aspect of building green. Tradespeople jobs are a great way out of poverty, and we’re going to need a lot of new tradespeople, with new skills, to transform the housing and commercial building stock to be highly efficient.

Green Shopping For DIYers

Main Street #6 (Superior Appliances)
Are They Energy Star Certified? (Image by kevindooley, CC 2.0 licensed)

In the national consciousness “green is the new black.” But what if you want to do a little work around the house – paint the kitchen, retrofit with some compact fluorescent lights, build some shelves? How much of a challenge is getting materials and advice for a green DIY or remodeling project? My friend Rich Wingerter decided to find out a few weeks ago, and went on a little shopping trip. He recounts his experience with Green Shopping on his blog The Greens.

“My take is that many green products are within hailing distance of their traditional (let’s say “polluting” cousins). If you can do a remodel with green materials and spend no more than, say, 5% above what you would have spent anyway, then you will probably profit from the results. Are there enough green options comparable in price to reasonably do a green remodel in the Silicon Valley area? To find out, I went shopping. I wanted to find out what kinds of green building materials I could buy and not blow my (theoretical) budget. “

Some highlights:

At Orchard Supply Hardware (a California chain) he asked about sustainable lumber:

I was told that they don’t sell this kind of lumber, and that they didn’t know anything about it. They directed me to the commercial desk, on the theory that maybe they had something for contractors.

At Orchard’s commercial desk he asked about green materials in general:

(Explaining, of course, that I was talking about eco-friendly products, not objects painted green). Blank stare. Crickets.

Rich fared better at Kelly Moore Paints and Lowe’s. Did Kelly-Moore have green products?

Yes, they did, and they didn’t go blank when I asked. … They had an option with a zero-VOC, as well, and gave me pricing so I could compare with the default versions. In addition, they carried Yolo Colorhouse® paints, which are zero-VOC base.

How about Lowe’s?

Joe Roche, a Regional Commercial Sales manager, understood what I was looking for. Joe was good enough to walk through part of the store with me. We went to the lumber section and looked for certified lumber. We didn’t immediately spot any, but Joe said that they often have it even if it’s not marked. He said that they had done a LEED-certified project, and they had to special order the lumber so that it all came stamped.

Rich went on to find some low-e windows and a number of Energy Star appliances at Lowes. In his post he also compares the prices of traditional and green materials, such as the paint at Kelly Moore and some of the Energy Star vs. non-Energy Star appliances.

Rich’s conclusion is:

While companies are trying to market green building materials, and in many cases probably have them in stock, the word hasn’t really filtered down to the sales floor.

Rich’s focus on this blog and on his site Green Making is green building in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is building not only an information base, but also a community site for builders and buyers who want to build green. It’s a great resource for everyone interested in green building and zero net energy homes, especially those of us in the Bay Area. I recommend taking a surf through and putting it on your bookmarks.

Have you had a “green shopping” experience? Have you been able to get good advice on a green DIY project from a local or chain hardware or building supply store? How about bad advice? Please share your stories in the comments – we’d love to hear them!

Zero Net Energy Homes Part 3 – The Federal R&D Agenda

A House
House, ready to become zero net energy (Image by Panoramas, CC 2.0 licensed)

In October 2008, a number of federal government departments and research organizations collaborated to produce the Federal R&D Agenda for Net Zero Energy High Performance Green Buildings (PDF). It’s a fascinating document, its origins driven primarily in response to two energy policy laws passed in 2005 and 2007 (during the Bush administration). In particular, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA 2007) created an Office of Commercial High Performance Green Buildings and a consortium on a Zero Net Energy Commercial Buildings Initiative. This consortium produced the R&D agenda.

The EISA 2007 act also includes a $250 million program that the DOE and other agencies are administering with the goal of “all new commercial buildings to be so efficient in energy consumption and in on-site renewable energy generation that they offset any energy use from the grid,” part of the Energy Independence & Security Act (EISA) of 2007 passed by Congress and signed by President Bush last year.

Noting that buildings represent about 40% of U.S. energy use, and 40% of our greenhouse gas emissions, the report says:

Buildings present one of the best opportunities to economically reduce energy consumption and limit greenhouse gases.

And we already have in hand technology and techniques to get a good start on this:

From an energy perspective along, high performance building technologies can already reduce building net energy consumption on average by 30-50%. New technologies to achieve net-zero energy – buildings that over a period of time produce as much energy as they consume – must be developed and integrated holistically into building design to make buildings more self-sufficient.

For the remaining 50% of the job, the report defines six areas of research and development that are needed:

  • Improving our ability to measure the performance of buildings, and design integration

    Credible performance measures, combined with tools, performance data, and design guidelines, will create market demand for emerging building energy technologies, economies of scale, and reduced capital costs.Designing for effective daylighting, ventilation, and passive solar energy management, for example, could yield energy savings approaching 40%, without advances in individual technology efficiencies.

  • Developing building technologies and strategies to achieve net-zero energy

    Energy-efficient and direct-use renewable energy technologies – in the forms of cost-effective materials, components, subsystems, and construction techniques – still have enormous potential for energy savings at costs lower than acquiring supplies from traditional or renewable power sources. At the same time, renewable power and other supply technologies also have enormous advancement potential.

  • Improving water use and water retention
  • Improving the energy footprint of building materials and building activities
  • Improve occupant health, safety, and productivity
  • Enable these new technologies to be put into use in practice

    Adequate information and communication flows are critical to achieving energy and resource goals. Substantial technology transfer efforts will be required to penetrate all facets of the building and construction sectors.To enable a future where truly integrated design is the rule, rather than the exception, the process by which buildings are planned, designed, constructed, operated, and demolished requires a radical cultural change.

I recommend taking a look at this report – it’s quite interesting reading. As a government-sponsored work, it is naturally somewhat conservative, but even so it holds out a lot of hope – and suggests numerous avenues to pursue – for significantly reducing the energy demand of our commercial and residential buildings in the U.S.

Zero Net Energy Homes Part 2: Some Beautiful Examples

Cannon Beach zero-net energy house
Cannon Beach zero-net energy house

In lieu of a longer post today, I thought I’d provide links to examples of some of the amazing homes people are building today to achieve zero net energy:

Ten Energy Predictions For The Next Decade

Snow on the San Gabriel Mountains (photo by Jerry Thompson1)
Snow on the San Gabriel Mountains (photo by Jerry Thompson1, CC 2.0 license)

On December 30 of last year (six days ago), my wife and I were in Pasadena, CA visiting the Greene and Greene exhibit at the Huntington Library. It was one of those glorious and rare smog-free days in the LA basin. The air sparkled, you could see for miles in every direction, and mountain range after mountain range was visible – all the way out to the snow-covered San Gabriels. Nowadays, the air is only ever this clear around the Christmas holiday, when the freeway traffic is substantially reduced and a lot of factories shut down for the week. It got me thinking about how the future – say ten to twenty years hence – may be unrecognizable in both dramatic and mundane ways. For example, smog-free days may no longer be rare in LA, once the economy has shifted off fossil fuels. (I suspect the traffic will remain, unfortunately!)

Like LA’s typical skies, the energy future is murky in the short term – this year and 2010 – and I’ll leave those predictions to others. But the big trends – sustainability, carbon fighting, and technological breakthroughs – enable us to make better sense of the mid- and long-term. Therefore, In the spirit of the New Year, the incoming administration, and the tipping point that the world has come to about climate change and sustainability, here are ten things I believe are very likely to happen in the next ten years.

  1. Residential solar PV will be cost effective in most U.S. locations (via a combination of price reduction, new design thinking, much more efficient homes, and a carbon tax on fossil fuels).
  2. Home energy storage – via batteries, hydrogen reforming, fuel cells, or other technology – will be available and installed in 10% of new homes in California, for when the sun don’t shine.
  3. More than 10% of new homes in California will be zero-net energy.
  4. 50% of new residential construction in California will be zero-net energy “ready.”
  5. The current LEED standards will be considered obsolete.
  6. More than 20% of peak grid electricity will come from excess capacity from residential solar PV.
  7. There will be general consensus that efficiency and frugality alone will not provide enough CO2 mitigation to prevent major climate change – we will need a technological solution to actually reducing atmospheric CO2 or artificially cooling the earth.
  8. There will be a mid-priced carbon fiber, plugin hybrid passenger car in production that gets more than 75 miles per gallon. The company making it will be the “next GM.”
  9. 10% of the cars on the road will be powered by 100% renewable energy and will be essentially non-polluting.
  10. New technologies for capturing carbon from the atmosphere will be available, powered by excess solar capacity.

What do you think? Am I off base here? Too optimistic? Too pessimistic? Let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts, challenges, and predictions for 2018.

Zero-net Energy Series Coming Up

Over the next few weeks, I will be publishing a series on “zero-net energy” residences (related to predictions 1-6 above). This area is about to explode. We already have all the technology, and some people have the experience, to build “zero-net energy ready” houses cost effectively. And although there’s currently a premium to get to zero-net energy, over the next ten years this premium will go to zero, and probably it will be cost-effective to get to positive-net energy – where the house is generating more energy than it needs! Talk about a world-changing situation – it really is possible to have energy too cheap to meter, but it’s going to come off our roofs, not from a nuclear plant or one of those imaginary fusion reactors.

Green Building, Carbon Footprint, and Santa Explained

Santa and His Sleigh, Compressing Space and Time
Santa and His Sleigh, Compressing Space and Time

In the last week or two I came across a number of interesting energy-related resources, blogs, websites, and talks that I wanted to share.

  • I was happy to run across Barry Katz’s new blog, The Future Is Green, because Barry, a home builder, is where all home builders need to get in the next 5-10 years. He’s committed to building zero-net energy homes and remodels. His web site has examples of the some of the work he’s done so far.

    In fact, the homebuilding industry can do something that not even hybrid cars can do. It is entirely possible, using currently available technology and materials, to build homes that consume zero-net energy. And not only zero net energy, but energy positive enough to recharge our plug-in hybrids. Such houses exist already. If we can build one, we can build many. (From Barry’s post, What We Need Now.)

    Barry’s also writing a book on green remodels, which should be useful for people like me who live in a house that’s already been built.

  • Saul Griffith, of Makani Power, calculated his current carbon footprint, and then his “allocated” carbon footprint as a global citizen. In this talk at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference earlier this year, he walks through those numbers – which are both scary and heartening. His calculations suggest that we need to throttle our energy usage at about 15 terawatts (TW) for the entire earth. As he puts it:
  • My life today is 18 horsepower, my new life should be three horsepower

    I found the section on the energy available for us to use – the total solar flux, the tidal power of gravity, nuclear, and geothermal – extremely interesting (about 30:30 into the recording).

    There are only four sources of energy – sun (85,000 TW), gravity (tidal – 3.7 TW), geothermal (constant flux of 32 TW), nuclear. All photosynthesis is 90 TW, which is the major argument against biofuels.

  • Science Daily reports on some research by Larry Silverberg, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at North Carolina State University, regarding Santa Claus’s ability to “travel around the world in just one night on his reindeer-pulled sleigh and deliver toys to all the children.”
  • “He understands that space stretches, he understands that you can stretch time, compress space and therefore he can, in a sense, actually have six Santa months to deliver the presents,” Silverberg told Reuters.

I hope you enjoy these links – let me know your thoughts, especially about the Griffiths talk if you have a chance to listen to it on your iPod – or on your computer at work.

Amory Lovins in Portola Valley

Amory Lovins
Amory Lovins. Image via Wikipedia

(Sorry for the dearth of posts recently – family events, as well as me having a cold have impacted my ability to put two words together effectively.)

On Monday I got to see my hero Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute address a large crowd at the inaugural address in a new series of Green Speakers in Portola Valley, CA. The talks are in honor of their new, very sustainable Portola Valley Community Center. (They are hoping to be the first LEED Platinum-certified community center in the country.)

Lovins’ talk covered much of the same ground as his Stanford address in September 2007 on Energy Efficiency In Buildings (part 1, part 2). In particular, he presented as examples his home in the Rockies, the Davis energy efficient homes built in the late 80’s and some buildings in Thailand, built in the 90’s. These are great examples, but he’s used them quite a bit, and seems not to have updated his examples recently.

One of my tasks – to get back to my core purpose in this blog of illustrating “profitable applications of green energy (including efficiency) using integrative design” – for the next few months is to find up-to-date examples of the application of Lovin’s and RMI’s ideas and theories and list them here.

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A Building That Creates More Energy Than It Uses

Mesa Verde

This is a great example that aligns perfectly with the topic of this blog, “Keeping the lights on.”

In its most recent “Environmental Lovins” blog post, Monica Sanford and Maria Stamas of the Rocky Mountain Institute describe “passive design,” the techniques for building structures that work for humans within the natural constraints of the environment. Buildings sited for optimal use of daylight, equipped with thermal mass to keep them cool in summer and warm in winter, using passive ventilation systems, and so on, can use significantly less energy than “normal” buildings.

Consider the Anasazi Indians. They constructed high-mass adobe dwellings in southern-facing caves in the American West. In the winter, when the sun follows a lower path, their designs harnessed the sun’s direct heating energy, and during the summer, when the sun follows a higher path, rock overhangs blocked heat gain and the sun’s harsh rays.

Though they didn’t realize it at the time, the Anasazi employed passive design — using the sun’s energy to light, cool, heat and ventilate a building’s interior.

Sanford and Stamas go on to provide a lot more background on passive design and its benefits for building owners, occupants, and the global environment.

As an example of the power of passive design, especially when combined with renewable energy sources, they pointed out this office building under construction in a suburb of Paris which will create more energy than it uses.

Patrick Getreide, who is leading the Energy Plus project with partner Marc Eisenberg, said: “It will be the first building in the world to be ‘energy plus’ and carbon zero.”The proposed building, which will be more than 70,000 sq m and house up to 5,000 people, will produce enough of its own electricity to power all the heating, lighting, and air conditioning required by tenants. It will also generate carbon credits which it hopes to trade for money in the future.

Energy Plus building visualization
Energy Plus building visualization

Getreide acknowledges that this isn’t the cheapest way to build a building (yet), but anticipate that tenants will end up paying about the normal rate for premium office space in their location. And of course, they won’t have energy bills.

By using integrated design, including solar PV collection, optimal siting, and a cutting-edge form of insulation, the team expects electricity consumption per square metre of office space per year of 16 kilowatts, lower than any other building in the world of this size. Most modern buildings use between 80 and 250 kilowatts per square metre, while older ones often use up to 300 kilowatts.

Because commercial real estate is a conservative industry, this project required investment from non-traditional sources, including former President Clinton’s Global Initiative and support from several governments. Rocky Mountain Institute is a key advisor on the project as well.

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Feds drop some pocket change on the California Clean Tech Open

The California Clean Tech Open, a three-year-old competition for clean technology startups, got a nice little present from the Department of Energy the other day – a $100,000 grant focused on sustainable building technologies.

The Clean Tech Open focuses on an annual “Business Plan” competition, where clean tech entrepreneurs compete for the six top prizes of a $100,000 “startup in a box” including office space, cash, and services. They’ve already awarded over $1.2 million in prizes, and over three-quarters of their winners are still in business and have raised nearly $70 million in funding.

The DOE grant, part of their Zero Net Energy Commercial Building Initiative (CBI),is intended to help the Clean Tech Open initiate a clean building category in the competition. Despite the relatively small amount of the grant (for now), it’s a significant milestone. This is the first disbursement in a $250 million program that the DOE and other agencies are administering with the goal of “all new commercial buildings to be so efficient in energy consumption and in on-site renewable energy generation that they offset any energy use from the grid,” part of the Energy Independence & Security Act (EISA) of 2007 passed by Congress and signed by President Bush last year.

Lara Abrams covers this in much more detail at her Clean Tech Report blog.