If you’re like me, you have seen the GE and IBM “Smart Grid” commercials and perhaps other promotions espousing the benefits of the smart grid. You probably agree that having a smart grid sounds like a fantastic idea, but you wonder how are we ever going to reach the smart grid utopia that is being promoted?
The existing power grid in the U.S. transmits and distributes electricity that traditionally has been produced by about 10,000 centralized generating plants that are inherently inefficient. They’re long-lived assets that cannot and are not replaced often due to costs and regulations. Thus, targeting the grid would seem to be a bountiful shortcut to energy efficiency gains and reduced consumption, but this is no small task either.
According to the Department of Energy, there are over 157,000 miles of high voltage transmission lines but construction of and investment in new facilities has continually decreased while electricity demand has continually increased. Newly developed renewable resources often don’t match population and industrial density so there is a desperate need for new transmission capacity. However, local opposition and litigation regularly stalls new projects, costs outpace investment returns and permitting can take years. Distribution infrastructure is even more highly regulated and controlled by thousands of different state and local government and utility operators making coordinated investments and improvements difficult.
If the infrastructure is too costly and time-consuming to replace in short order then the bridge would seem to be enabling, add-on technologies that make what we’re stuck with more efficient. Currently, the grid is a jumble of one-way streets with crossing guards that forgot there walkie-talkies. It needs to be a network of two-way highways with automated systems connected by real-time dynamic communications. Right now, a utility often doesn’t know you lost power until you call them. Meanwhile, consumers lack information about peak and off-peak usage and details about their energy usage. The smart grid would derive much of its benefits from automation and the collaboration of market participants, but we have little proof of concept to go on. This video provides a good overview of the issues:
The primary theory of smart grid technology is that consumers will actively reduce electricity demand/drive energy efficiency. A new project/large-scale test by Xcel Energy will provide worthy insights as to whether a nationwide smart grid is an achievable goal.
In the process of turning Boulder, CO into “SmartGridCity,” the company has spent millions installing 200 miles of fiber optics communications cables, 16,000 “smart” meters. You can read more about it in the NY Times here.
There are currently few, if any incentives for utilities and customers to better manage and reduce electricity consumption. Compounding the problem is that each state’s public utility commission (PUC) has their own ideas and authority so the evolution will happen in a piecemeal fashion. Aside from that, if you’re a capital intensive utility can you afford to sell less electricity? Many are saying “likely not,” by continuing to oppose the distributed generation model (consumers have their own generation sources; solar, wind, etc. and sell excess power back to the grid). The utilities need new revenue models and the consumers need transparent, dynamic pricing information along with their smart meters so that are engaged and motivated to make energy consumption decisions.
Later this week (Oct. 9th, see events), the U.S. Department of Energy’s “Solar Decathlon” educational competition and exhibition opens on the National Mall in D.C. Every year, applications are solicited around the world and 20 university-based teams are given $100,000 of start-up capital to “design, build and operate the most attractive and energy-efficient solar-powered house. I was reminded of the event by an alumni bulletin from my alma mater, Penn State.
A multidisciplinary team of 17 students and faculty from the colleges of earth and mineral sciences, engineering, and arts and architecture has spent months developing their design and preparing the structure for judging in D.C. A previous Penn State entry in 2007 won fourth place and team members from this year’s entry, “Natural Fusion,” think they can do even better this year. “We came very close to third place (in 2007),” said team member Thomas Rauch. “We were in contention until the last day of the competition. That ending left a sour taste, so we are excited to participate again, and we feel that we have a real shot at first place this year.” They’ll have to withstand strong competition from other schools in the U.S. as well as students in Germany, Spain and Canada. Here’s a time lapse video of Penn State’s construction (with high energy soundtrack accompaniment.
As the name of the competition implies, the homes must be powered exclusively by the sun and they will be judged in 10 categories:
As you can see, to be successful, the homes must be attractive to live in, environmentally sound and energy efficient while still providing all the creature comforts of modern life. This might seem like a daunting task, but it is attainable – and these are college students –who are very creative. A 2007 team was unphased when they wanted to use a geothermal heat pump but wouldn’t be able to excavate the National Mall; they just designed their house with a rooftop pond! The combination of young innovators and more solar power portends a bright future.
Good luck to my fellow Penn Staters on the “Natural Fusion” team!
With the support of the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations and the Real Estate Board of New York, Mayor Bloomberg announced a new, innovative program to train building superintendents in energy efficiency best practices. According to projections cited this Crain’s article, building owners could save $230 million per year in operating costs as a result of program.
The 1,000 superintendents in the pilot project will take a 40-hour course that teaches low or no-cost methods to reduce energy usage, improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions. In a pilot project, supers and building managers learned HVAC maintenance techniques, motion detector installation and methods for sealing windows, among other things. Given the number of aging, inefficient buildings in NYC, there is plenty of low-hanging fruit that can be addressed by this program – hopefully the initial year is a success. One concern I had is how much it would cost to administrate (given the city’s current budget constraints) and luckily the program is being funded from an existing union managed training fund (i.e. no incremental cost to taxpayers or employers).
Mayor Bloomberg has been gradually rolling out green initiatives and he had this to say about One Year, One Thousand Green Supers; “Eighty-five percent of the buildings in our city are going to be in active use for at least the next 20 years, and while many people think of green buildings as new buildings, the fact of the matter is making existing buildings more energy efficient is the greater challenge to our economic and environmental health.” In my opinion, this is a logical multi-pronged approach to take.
According to San Jose Mercury News, Serious Materials – a cleantech startup in Sunnyvale, CA, was funded to the tune of another $60 million this week, bringing its total raised amount to a whopping $120 million. Venture capitalists (VCs) have increasingly focused on cleantech investments, raising billions over the last few years to invest in the sector. Serious Materials is unique in that it has been around since 2002 and has five manufacturing plants producing tangible products and employs about 250-300 people. In previous years much of the VC funding was plowed into Web 2.0 platforms, tech/software startups and biotech R&D – intangible assets and human capital – rather than macro-driven companies with immediate profit potential.
Serious Materials is developing and selling energy-saving windows, drywall and other products such as lighter-weight, environmentally friendly noise reduction coatings. The company says their products have “the potential to save billions of pounds of CO2 annually,” while offering fast payback periods for their customers. As a result, they don’t need to rely on tax credits or other policies to achieve success.
Up to 50% reduction in heating and cooling costs, enables users to recover additional cost within two years in many climates
Qualifies for $1,500 tax credit discussed in this post
Thin film technology in SeriousGlass provides transparency and infrared reflection to simultaneously block summer heat, retain winter warmth, eliminate UV rays and maximize natural light
Available in a wide variety of finishes for virtually any design consideration
Uses 80% less energy to produce than traditional gypsum drywall
Made of 80% recycled materials (including from steel and cement plants)
Fully reutilizable and safely disposable at end of life (ex: can be pH additive for soil or raw material for new EcoRock or other building materials)
The most mold-resistant (by 50%) and lowest emitting drywall (60% less dust)
QuietRock – commercial and residential soundproof drywall that is acoustically equivalent to eight sheets of standard drywall
ThermaRock – super insulating wall board that is 380-800% more insulating than standard gypsum
QuietHome Doors – soundproof doors; 2-1/4” model is THX-Certified
Quiet Windows – highest STC (Sound Transmission Class) rating of any windows on the market and they are Energy Star rated as well
Coatings – ultra-low VOC coating compounds for computers, cars and other transportation applications
More information can be found on the company’s website.
I don’t know about you but every time I charge a cell phone or use a laptop I wonder why we don’t have better batteries. It feels like a technological conspiracy that computer processing speed has doubled every 18 months for decades but battery life fails to do the same or come even close to that. If it had, we’d be flying around in battery-powered airplanes and maybe even sailing battery-powered cruise ships. Maybe the consumable nature of batteries prevents faster advances, but our existing batteries can be pretty inefficient, wasteful and often toxic.
I don’t expect the high seas to be filled with battery-powered ships anytime soon, but some very interesting developments are being made on a much smaller scale – the nanoscale in fact. This CNN article leads with the idea that you might be able to recharge your cell phone as long as you were walking. Nanoscale materials are very small; one nanometer equals one billionth of a meter and the scientists featured in the article are using structures that are 100 nanometers and smaller. These structures can be engineered with many interesting properties and performance characteristics such as efficient energy transfer.
The act of me typing this article right now is a release of energy stored inside my body but it is effectively wasted. Sound and heat are generated but the keyboard can’t harness the kinetic energy. In the future it may be able to. Zhong Lin “Z.L.” Wang and his team at Georgia Tech are utilizing the piezoelectric effect (“…the ability of certain materials to generate an electric potential when a stress is applied to them. For instance, if you compress a crystal, it temporarily changes shape, causing the ions inside the crystal to polarize and produce a voltage drop.” The electron flow then produces an energy output.) present in environmentally friendly zinc oxide nanowires to make solar cells and nanogenerators that can utilize energy from any mechanical movement. In the walking example, the body produces 67 watts of mechanical energy that can be converted into 11 watts of electrical energy. The smaller amounts of energy produced by blood flow, breathing, etc. could be used to power medical implants such as glucose meters for diabetics.
In researching a topic for this Italy-focused post, I came across a Jetson Green article about Casa 100k, the flexible Italian housing solution to achieve affordability and sustainability in a stylish package. Conceived by Mario Cucinella Architects in Bologna, the less is more aesthetic results in a thoroughly modern integration of green building methods.
The prefabricated structure minimizes costs and waste and the individual homes have small footprints and are clustered together for efficiency and low environmental impact. With only 100m² (just over 1000ft2) to heat and cool the prototypical house could operate off-grid, drawing power from solar panels and small vertical axis wind turbines. Using passive solar thermal glass curtain walls and a geothermal heat pump HVAC system for example, makes the homes so efficient that they may even produce enough excess energy to sell back to the grid. Additionally, roof gardens provide insulation, greenery and environmental benefits and contribute to the home’s stormwater management system.
Since nobody wants a home identical to their neighbor’s, many of the internal and external building components can be modified. Interior walls can slide, be removed or bent to create unique floor plans. Meanwhile, the exteriors can be fitted with a variety of interchangeable components that match the overall design while creating variety through balconies, staircases, decks, etc.
Alas, Casa 100k is only a concept for now but the architects have exhibited in Italy and the U.S. – it is only a matter of time before this project and others like it get built.
In my previous “Got Water…” post, I discussed at length the freshwater issues facing the world in the coming years. Dean Kamen, the well-known inventor of the Segway and a number of medical devices, has made solving the water predicament his latest mission. In this recent article, he echoed my sentiments about the potential water crisis: “In your lifetime, my lifetime, we will see water be a really scarce, valuable commodity,” he said.
Dean has been working on the Slingshot for over 10 years and he and his team at DEKA Research have been continually improving the prototypes. The device has been demonstrated and field tested in Rwanda, Bangladesh and Honduras. Explaining the 2006 Honduras test, Kamen said “The machine worked very well down there, taking virtually any water that the people from that village brought to us,” he says. “All the water that we got from the machine was absolutely pure water.” The machine runs on a small amount of electricity (less than a hair dryer) and uses a compact vapor compression distiller to boil, distill and vaporize polluted liquid to separate out clean, potable water.
The name Slingshot is an ode to the David and Goliath story and each one is approximately the size of a large dishwasher, capable of producing 250 gallons of clean water daily (enough for about 100 people). Targeting small villages in developing countries, Kamen has also developed an innovative companion generator to power the Slingshot if need be. The generator can be run on virtually any fuel and has been demonstrated successfully using cow dung!
As is often the case with new technology, cost is a major gating issue. The Slingshot costs thousands per machine to build but Kamen would like to sell the units for $2,000 once they improve the engineering and increase production. His Segway was a commercial failure because very few people were willing to pay several thousand dollars for a funny looking, self-propelled scooter. Here’s hoping he succeeds with the Slingshot.
I had heard of Sheffield (a city in north central England) before but haven’t been there and didn’t know much about it until I came across various authorities referring to it as the UK’s greenest city or Europe’s greenest city. So, of course I was curious and wanted to learn more by doing some research for this UK-focused post. Sheffield blog warns that, “Sheffielders are rightly proud of their city and are always happy to extol its virtues at any opportunity,” and we all know greenness is fairly subjective and difficult to measure.
However, Sheffield has some great statistics in its favor; particularly in terms of natural greenery. Creative Sheffield notes the following:
Despite its urban location almost three-quarters of the city is taken up by natural vegetation and waterways.
More than a third of the city is located in the Peak District National Park – no other city has a National Park within its boundary.
In addition you’ll find 150 woodlands and 50 public parks all within Sheffield and it is rumoured that there are 4 mature trees to every person living here!
Over 44 per cent of Sheffield residents live within a five minute walk of a wood and half the city’s population live within 15 minutes of the open countryside. Imagine that!
All of this is quite impressive for a city of over 500,000 people. The handy pie chart from the referenced site shows the details including the 72% of greenspace, woodland and water referred to in the first bullet point.
Thanks to my friend and reader Max for directing me to this Green Inc. article about U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) efforts to improve LEED certification. I addressed this issue in last week’s “Good News, Bad News” post. In that post I mentioned the efforts and need to recertify buildings over time as well as the desire to focus on energy savings instead of more cosmetic green features.
Several comments in the referenced article address the divide between the LEED checklist and the goals of the process, such as energy conservation. Another criticism is that the requirements can be too generic and not reflective specific site characteristics (climate, location, functionality, etc.). To address these concerns and others the USGBC developed the performance initiative detailed in this press release.
The ultimate goal of their plans is to collect a broad array of data that can be analyzed and disseminated to building owners and managers to improve and maximize the performance of LEED buildings. “This initiative is about gathering knowledge about building performance in a way no one has ever done before,” said USGBC LEED Senior Vice President, Scot Horst. “The information that we collect from our certified projects is a workable, holistic approach for achieving better performing buildings…We want to be able to show people that there are cost efficiencies as well as environmental benefits…The more we know, the more we’ll adapt. I can see a point where the whole system is based on performance and buildings will have to be recertified on a regular basis.”
Success would have dramatic results given the scale and growth of the industry. According to the press release, there are now over 131,000 LEED Accredited Professionals and 35,000 participating projects comprising more than 7.1 billion square feet in the 50 U.S. states and 91 countries. And, the USGBC believes “greater building efficiency can meet 85% of future U.S. demand for energy.”
My post on plastic bag bans proved popular, so I thought I would follow up with some interesting statistics I came across in the latest Discover Magazine (Credit: Jeremy Jacquot):
Plastic Packaging – 63 pounds per person end up in U.S. landfills yearly (plastic represents 16% of all municipal solid waste and 50-80% of litter in beaches, oceans and seabeds
Plastic recycling – 6.8% of plastics used in 2007 were recovered for recycling (37% of plastic soda bottles and 28% of plastic milk and water jugs); making products with recycled materials takes 50% less energy than starting from scratch
Plastic production – expected to be 300 million metric tons in 2010, half of which will be used for disposable applications (about 25% goes into long-term infrastructure
Bisphenol A (BPA) – a 2007 CDC study found 93% of individuals 6 years and older had detectable levels of BPA in their urine; a number of studies have found safety/health issues with this chemical including a National Toxicology Program report that indicated there was “some concern” over the developmental effects of BPA on infants and children
Degradation – it takes 450 years for a plastic bottle to completely degrade in a marine environment (at least plastic beverage packaging uses over 50% less energy than glass or metal packaging)
As a result of federal legislation, there a multitude of tax breaks available for residential and commercial renovation and construction projects completed this year and in some cases continuing to 2016. Below I have provided briefings on the tax credits available to homeowners, builders and the tax deductions available to commercial building owners/designers. This post focuses on federal incentives, but many states also offer incentives for renewables and energy efficiency; details can be found at http://www.dsireusa.org/.
Homeowners There are three categories of improvements homeowners can make with different benefits and timelines: 1) Energy efficiency – replacing/installing qualified windows/doors, insulation, roofs, HVAC, water heaters and biomass stoves can result in a tax credit at 30% of the cost up to $1,500 in 2009 and 2010. 2) Renewable energy – geothermal heat pumps, solar panels, solar water heaters, small wind energy systems and fuel cells qualify for tax credits of 30% of the cost with upper limit on the amount through 2016. 3) Cars – $2,500-$7,500 credit for plug-in hybrids (up to 250,000 vehicles) and a tax credit amount based on an efficiency formula for hybrid gas-electric, diesel, battery-electric, alternative fuel and fuel cell vehicles (60,000 vehicle limit per manufacturer so Toyota and Honda have been phased out but it is available for Ford, GM and Nissan).
Given the limitation in category 1, homeowners should choose improvements wisely to maximize the monetary benefits. Generally speaking, adding attic and wall insulation and sealing air leaks provide the most bang for your buck (particularly in colder climates); each can generally be installed for several hundred dollars and each can provide over $200 in annual savings (again, best results in colder climates). The table below taken from the Energy Star website provides a summary of the tax credit details and requirements (I left out the “Notes” column).
Tax Credit Specification
Meets 2009 IECC & Amendments
30% of cost, up to $1,5001
Windows & Doors
Exterior Windows and Skylights
Before June 1, 2009:Must meet ENERGY STAR criteriaAfter June 1, 2009:U factor <= 0.30SHGC <= 0.30
30% of cost, up to $1,5001
In combination with the exterior window over which it is installed:
has a U-factor and SHGC of 0.30 or below
Meets the IECC
30% of cost, up to $1,5001
Before June 1, 2009:Must meet ENERGY STAR criteriaAfter June 1, 2009:U factor <= 0.30SHGC <= 0.30
30% of cost, up to $1,5001
In combination with a wood door over which it is installed:
has a U-factor and SHGC of 0.30 or below
Meets the IECC
30% of cost, up to $1,5001
Metal Roofs, Asphalt Roofs
All ENERGY STAR qualified metal and reflective asphalt shingles
Energy Factor >= 0.82or a thermal efficiency of at least 90%.
30% of cost, up to $1,5001
Electric Heat Pump Water Heater
Same criteria as ENERGY STAR: Energy Factor >= 2.0
30% of cost, up to $1,5001
Stove which burns biomass fuel to heat a home or heat water.Thermal efficiency rating of at least 75% as measured using a lower heating value.
30% of cost, up to $1,5001
Geo-Thermal Heat Pump
Geo-Thermal Heat Pump
Same criteria as ENERGY STAR:Closed Loop:EER >= 14.1COP >= 3.3Open Loop:
EER >= 16.2
COP >= 3.6
EER >= 15
COP >= 3.5
30% of cost
Solar Energy Systems
Solar Water Heating
At least half of the energy generated by the “qualifying property” must come from the sun. Homeowners may only claim spending on the solar water heating system property, not the entire water heating system of the household.The credit is not available for expenses for swimming pools or hot tubs.The water must be used in the dwelling.The system must be certified by the Solar Rating and Certification Corporation (SRCC).
30% of cost
Photovoltaic systems must provide electricity for the residence, and must meet applicable fire and electrical code requirement.
30% of cost
Small Wind Energy Systems
Residential Small Wind Turbines
Has nameplate capacity of not more than 100 kilowatts.
30% of cost
Residential Fuel Cell and microturbine system
Efficiency of at least 30% and must have a capacity of at least 0.5 kW.
30% of the cost, up to $500 per .5 kW of power capacity
Hybrid gasoline-electric, diesel, battery-electric, alternative fuel, and fuel cell vehicles
Based on a formula determined by vehicle weight, technology, and fuel economy compared to base year models
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles
1Subject to a $1,500 maximum per homeowner for all improvements combined.
Home builders can receive a $2,000 tax credit for each new energy efficient home that achieves 50% energy savings for heating and cooling over the 2004 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) and supplements. The homes must be completed and sold by December 31, 2009. For manufactured homes the credit is $1,000 to the producer and the home must achieve 30% energy savings for heating and cooling over the 2004 IECC and supplements, or the home must meet the requirements established by EPA under the ENERGY STAR program. For more details, see here.
Commercial Buildings According to Energy Star, “A tax deduction of up to $1.80 per square foot is available to owners or designers of new or existing commercial buildings that save at least 50% of the heating and cooling energy of a building that meets ASHRAE Standard 90.1-2001. Partial deductions of up to $.60 per square foot can be taken for measures affecting any one of three building systems: the building envelope, lighting, or heating and cooling systems. These tax deductions are available for systems “placed in service” from January 1, 2006 through December 31, 2013.” The link above provides information on calculations, IRS guidance, etc.
Not surprisingly, there is some inconsistency in the outcomes derived from LEED and other green certified buildings. It is not necessarily anyone’s fault, but models don’t always match reality and some certification bodies are better than others when it comes to monitoring the ongoing energy efficiencies and other features of green buildings. My friend and reader, Billy, referred me to a NY Times article over the weekend that downplayed the successes of all green buildings by featuring one bad apple – a Youngstown, Ohio government building. This building has some bad statistics in terms of energy savings, but it was only originally certified at the lowest LEED level and the author finally admits at the end of the article that LEED requirements have evolved to the point where it wouldn’t qualify if constructed today. For its part, the U.S. Green Building Council has plans to incorporate more stringent recertification processes in the future.
The Times article also uses some crafty rhetoric to make a negative inference by noting half of LEED buildings didn’t meet EPA Energy Star label requirements. These are two different systems and the overwhelming majority (about 68%) had Energy Star ratings above the national median and over 30% of LEED buildings were in the top two deciles. To read more details and draw your own conclusions, the study is here. For more good news, one can look at cost savings/net present value of green buildings vs. conventional buildings.
Costs The additional upfront costs of LEED certified buildings have been analyzed by a number of parties who found the premium to range from 2-5% according to Reed Construction Data. They note that much of the cost is architectural and engineering design time and commissioning (tested system conformance with design). Looking at the tangible cost savings from energy and resource efficiency, increased earnings from tenant retention/premium rent and the intangible productivity and health benefits, one can calculate the net present value (NPV) obtained by constructing and owning a green building. Greg Kats of Capital E analyzed 20 year NPVs in this 2003 study to come up with more than $50/ft2 of net benefits (lower numbers in range are for Certified/Silver-rated buildings, higher numbers are for Gold/Platinum-rated buildings):
Type of Benefit
20-year Net Present Value / sq. feet
Operations and Maintenance Savings
Productivity and Health Benefits
$36.90 – $55.30
$52.90 – $71.30
Initial Investment in Green Building Practices
$3.00 – $5.00
Total 20-year Net Benefit
$50 – $65
In a rigorous study of a Rutgers building expected to be LEED Silver-rated, the green features were calculated to have a positive net present value in a conservative base case scenario. Since the building is institutional, there is no premium rent component to the analysis (i.e. the results would be better given a for-profit building that charge premium rent for green features).
The corresponding bad news is that green construction costs are overestimated by 300% and greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from buildings are underestimated by 50% according to a 2007 survey. 1,400 respondents guessed that green buildings are 17% more expensive instead of the true 5% premium. Those surveyed also thought buildings produced only 19% of GHGs rather than the actual 40%. With more knowledgeable market participants and improved certification oversight, the good news has every opportunity to outweigh the bad news.
This week I received a clever, water saving product from one of my readers for review and testing purposes. The UZLOW valve is a simple attachment that can be added to any standard pipe/shower head to conserve water and save energy. It allows you to limit water flow when you don’t need it, thus reducing water usage and water heating needs.
If you think about it, much of the water dispensed during a shower is wasted because we stay out of the water when lathering, shampooing and shaving, etc. That is the principle behind UZLOW; it allows you to reduce the water flow without impacting the water temperature. When pushed back, the switch/handle is in low flow mode and when flipped forward the water flow returns to normal. Installing the valve was a breeze – my shower was fully operational in about 5 minutes. The valve arrives in 3 parts and you need just a wrench and some pipe tape to complete the installation. Easy to follow instructions (including pictures) walk you through the process step-by-step. Essentially you unscrew your showerhead, wrap the pipe threads in tape, screw on the valve body, insert the flow regulator, attach the switch, put some tape on the valve threads and screw on your showerhead.
I’ve taken a couple showers with the product now and it works as well as advertised. In my quick test to verify the 70% water flow reduction, I found that in regular flow position my shower head dispensed approximately 2 gallons of water per minute. Using the low flow setting, this volume was reduced to about 2/3 of a gallon per minute. This equates to a 67% flow reduction which is right in line with the claim (my test involved a simple bucket, no fancy scientific instruments). I would estimate that half your time in the shower could be in low flow mode so during a ten minute shower you could save almost 7 gallons of water per shower. Multiply that by the number of showers taken in your household and the water and $$$ savings add up quickly. Costing only $19.95 per valve or $15.95 per valve for 2 or more, the UZLOW pays for itself.
Easy, quick installation – 3 parts, a wrench, some pipe tape and 5 minutes
Significant water flow reduction = significant water and energy savings
Plastic switch/handle is somewhat flimsy so you have to be careful not to torque it during installation
Children and/or short adults could have difficulty reaching the switch/handle
When I read about these “hay hotels” yesterday I couldn’t resist blogging about them – especially since some of the quotes made me laugh out loud (don’t worry I will include them). In recent years I’m sure we have all noticed those little hotel cards asking if you want your towels and/or bedding laundered and replaced. Guests can energy and water by reusing these items (and in a big hotel the total savings can be quite large). It’s not a sacrifice to sleep on the same sheets a few nights – you don’t change them and launder them daily at home do you?
Heuhotels (’heu’ is German for hay) have taken the concept one step further. There are no sheets to wash. In a romantic nod to the middle ages, villages in Germany, Austria and Switzerland have been converting barns and other old buildings into cheap (as little as €8/$11), green alternatives to traditional hotels. The beds are made of fresh hay and proprietors recommend you bring your own sleeping bags and blankets unless you really want to rough it. Some provide hostel like communal accommodations while others offer more “luxurious” touches. The Zum Alten Marstall is located next to an 11th century castle so staff members wear cloaks and male guests are referred to as “Knights.”
Without new construction, minimal laundry and less energy consumption the hotels provide sustainable tourism in a back to nature sort of way. They’re generally in historic, scenic areas with access to outdoor activities such as horseback riding, canoeing and even archery. If you’re not sold yet, one of the managers said “Think back to when you were a child – this would be heaven! What’s changed since then?” She also touted her heuhotel as a great group retreat. “We have many important people from the city coming to stay here, all types that you wouldn’t expect…what better way for a team to bond than by eating together around a camp fire and then rolling around in the hay?” No comment…
The author of the full article (from CNN) also claimed the hay beds are becoming very popular for honeymooners. He’s backed up by a comment by Heinz Laing who runs one of the hotels outside Hamburg, Germany; “For lovers, there’s nothing more exciting than a night on the hay.” I guess the only way to know is try it for yourself…
As many people know, inherent inefficiency has been holding back solar from reaching its full potential for years. In recent years, major strides have been made to improve traditional solar and this is reflected by the hundreds of start-ups and public companies engaged in building solar panels or supporting other areas of the supply chain. However, at least one of those companies, EnviroMission, has taken a completely novel approach. Their solar tower design (the world’s first of this nature) promises massive amounts of reliable, efficient renewable power (50%+ capacity factor vs. only around 20% for traditional solar).
Based in Australia, the company’s first development was originally slated for Buronga in the southwest corner of New South Wales, but now they are concentrating on bringing the technology to market in America at two 5,500 acre sites in Arizona where land use applications were filed last month. According to the current designs and based on the results of a small solar chimney test plant that was built and operated in the 1980s in Spain, each of EnviroMission’s plants will generate 200MW (about 1/5 as much as a large coal plant). This amount of electricity can power about 200,000 households while annually preventing 900,000 tons of CO2 emissions.
But how does it work? Simple physics and brilliant engineering collaborate on the ingenious design. We all know that hot rises and as you can see in the graphic below (from EnviroMission’s website), the plant’s design maximizes this effect. It uses solar collectors (spread over several kilometers/a couple miles of diameter) to further heat the ambient air pulled into the system and the resulting continuous air flow is forced into and up the chimney past 32 pressure staged turbines that can each generate 6.25MW of electricity. The particular turbines for this application are most similar to the “Kaplan Turbines” used in hydro-electric power plants.
To hit you with more physics, the greater the velocity of the tower, the higher the column of air is and the stronger the updraft. So, the highest capacity plants of nature require the highest possible towers. EnviroMission’s original design utilized a tower over 3,000 feet tall (1000 meters). Also, since radiant heat from the sun is the energy source, the technology can easily produce energy on cloudy days, much like greenhouses are always hotter than the outdoor ambient air despite the weather conditions. Continue reading for timing and development plans and a fascinating video clip. Read More…
One thing I haven’t talked about much in the green building context is waste. There are benefits to be had from using recycled materials, using new materials more efficiently, converting waste to heat, composting, etc. Obviously, the article implies something much simpler, but beneficial – eliminating the scourge of plastic bags. It takes more than 1,000 years for the bags to decompose and they contaminate soil and water in the process. Any retailer who wants to be greener can easily contribute in this regard. Or can they?
Plastic bags require less energy and water to manufacture, ship and recycle than paper bags (4 times less for production, 85 times less for recycling) and take up less space in a landfill (about 90% of plastic bags aren’t recycled). However, if it takes 2 or 3 bags to do the equivalent work of one bag, the advantage lessens. Both types can be reused, but it’s hard to say which is or can be reused the most number of times. Then you have canvas or similar reusable bags. I would think that the long life of these bags would make them win out economically and environmentally even if their initial cost and carbon footprint is greater. According to a study cited by the Wall Street Journal, “A reusable bag is better for the environment regardless of what it is made from, as long as it is used at least four times (a 2004 study by the French retailer Carrefour).” Biodegradable, oil-free plastics will likely have a place in the market as well.
Along with many other countries and metropolitan areas, Mexico City has now made it illegal for businesses to distribute non-biodegradable plastic bags (with 1 year grace period for compliance). For years, Mexico City has been known for choking air pollution and crowded living conditions, but the city has been pursuing more environmental improvement policies in recent years. According to the UN, plastic bags are the 2nd most common litter (after cigarette butts) on land and largest form in the oceans (endangering and/or killing thousands of sea animals). With a population of almost 20 million consumers, Mexico City’s bag ban should eliminate billions of bags and save millions of barrels of oil.
In the U.S., we have been the second largest (behind China) consumer of plastic bags – somewhere between 87.5 billion (2003 International Trade Commission report) and 380 billion (according to this article and others). If you’re laughing at the disparity in figures, don’t worry, so was I. The anti-plastic bag and pro-plastic bag supporters and lobbies are absolutely maniacal, greatly obscuring the facts in the process. I wanted to come up with an accurate barrel of oil comparison to see how much less we could import by eliminating plastic bag production. Alas, I couldn’t get believe anyone. The most neutral statistic seems to be about 12 million barrels per 100 billion bags. With the U.S. consuming about 20 million barrels a day that is less than 1% savings. From my research and experience acquiring a chemical/plastics company I gather many plastics are now derived from natural gas and other feedstocks rather than so much oil. Which makes sense because oil is a high value commodity and plastic bags are a low value product. At the other extreme, is an unsourced study that found 1.6 billion gallons used (over 38 million barrels at 42 gallons per barrel) based on the 380 billion bag number.
In any event, there is significant momentum against plastic bags. San Francisco was the first city to impose a ban in the Western Hemisphere (in 2007) and D.C. instituted a tax. Continue reading for many other global locations with plastic bag statutes. Read More…
I went to my first NYC Israel Cleantech Alliance (Alliance) meet up last night and thoroughly enjoyed it. I met a number of great people who are involved in all manner of interesting green endeavors. Thanks go out to Itai Karelic (founder of the group), Yinnon Dolev (keynote speaker from GE) and the sponsors; Golenbock Eiseman Assor Bell & Peskoe LLP and the Israeli Economic Mission. The Alliance officially launched in June, had its second event last night and is planning its next event for the fall. Please visit the group’s webpage or contact Itai for more information. If you want to network with an engaging group of cleantech professionals and investors in the New York area, I highly recommended the Alliance. For those in Israel and Boston, the group is affiliated with CleanIsrael (funded by Israeli Cleantech Ventures) and the Boston Israel Cleantech Alliance.
So, what did we talk about last night? Ironically, I was well prepared for the topic; the water market. Regular readers of my blog may remember my recent featured post on the world’s water dilemma. For those who haven’t read it, check it out here. Yinnon gave a great summary of the global water market, talked about trends in the marketplace, gave some technical insights on desalination, discussed the Israeli water technology sector and described GE’s participation in the water market and other “Ecomagination” businesses.
Yinnon noted some familiar statistics: $1 trillion of spending is needed for water infrastructure over the next 20 years and 2 billion people will have absolute water shortages by 2025. The map below illustrates the most over utilized resources (the darker the color, the more desperate the situation).
Fukuoka City, Japan has experienced impressive growth over the years but failed to conserve green space in its city center. According to various articles I have read, the ACROS Fukuoka building was to intrude on the last remaining strip of greenery in the city center. Fortunately for Fukuoka’s residents, the developers hired architects Emilio Ambasz & Associates to design a symphony hall, office and retail complex that actually added green space to the city. Built in the 1990’s, the ACROS (”Asian Crossroads Over the Sea” – Fukuoka lies across the water from South Korea) was and still is a very innovative structure. Perhaps taking a cue from one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World,the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (rendered by artist Mario Larrinaga at right), the park facing side of the building is an enormous terraced garden/green roof with thousands of plants and walking paths to enjoy them. Furthering this design aesthetic are reflecting pools connected by upwardly spraying water jets that create a ladder-like climbing waterfall and serve the functional purpose of dimming the ambient noise of the city.
The staircases and seating areas are perched among the greenery and the higher you climb the better the views. This sky park contains 100,000 ft2 spread across 15 stepped one-story terraces. At the apex, you can enjoy 360 degree views of the city, harbor, mountains and river. THe gray wedge at the foot of the building has many purposes; it’s a dramatic entrance, provides ventilation exhaust for the underground floors and serves as an elevated stage that turns the terraces into a massive outdoor ampitheater. At the same time, this recreational area provides a refuge for birds and insects and allows people to escape the endless, bustling streets of the city to “smell the roses.” More structures like this in our densely populated cities around the world would be beneficial to everyone. The energy savings from the insulating properties of green roofs/”hanging gardens” and capturing of rainwater runoff are particularly beneficial in hot and humid climates like that of southern Japan.
For 40 inspirational case studies and beautiful photos of large-scale green roof projects around the world, check out this book: Green Roofs: Ecological Design And Construction. It would look great on your coffee table and as you can see at left, the ACROS building is featured on the cover
The Council House 2 building (CH2) in Melbourne was anointed the greenest building in Australia when it became the first to receive 6 stars (in 2005) from Green Building Council Australia’s (GBCA) Green Star rating system. By my count, there are now 18 6 Star buildings in Australia. Impressively, 11% of Australia’s central business district commercial office buildings are Green Star certified which I would imagine compares very favorably to other countries – I’ll have to research it to find out for sure.
The scale has three rating levels; 4 Star, 5 Star and 6 Star, and points are obtained from 9 categories: Management, Indoor Environment Quality, Energy, Transport, Water, Materials, Land Use & Ecology, Emissions and Innovation. According to GBCA the 6 Star rating signifies “world leadership in environmental sustainability.” In meeting this standard, CH2 and Melbourne’s latest 6 Star entrant, the Melbourne Convention Centre (MCC) have some very impressive features.
A 10-story city government office building opened in 2006, CH2 features photovoltaic cells, chilled ceilings, a co-generation plant and blackwater sewage recycling systems amongst other things. The whole project cost a shade over A$51 million, A$11.3 million of which went to sustainability features that are expected to have a 6 year payback from energy and resource cost savings.
Solar cells provide 60% of the building’s hot water supply
The chilled ceilings are part of an innovative cooling system that is much more efficient and more comfortable for building occupants than traditional airflow systems
The gas-fired co-gen plant will provide 40% of building’s electricity with much lower relative carbon emissions
Maybe the two most interesting features from my perspective are the “shower towers” that mimic ant-holes for cooling purposes while sprinkling water on passersby and the beautiful recycled timber shades pictured above that provide passive cooling to the sunny westside of the building while still letting in light if need be. Significantly more details about all of CH2’s innovations can be found here. Click “read more” and continue reading about the Melbourne Convention Centre.
Ironically, the overall stimulus package was the subject of a front page article on USA Today yesterday…Great timing on my part, but I didn’t see the article/poll numbers until last night. According to the USA Today/Gallup poll of 1,010 adults from Aug 6-9 (+/- 4 percentage points margin of error), the public has a general distaste for the package so far:
78% are very worried (46%) or somewhat worried (32%) ”that money from the economic stimulus plan is being wasted”
57% think the stimulus plan has had no effect (33%) on the economy or made it worse (24%)
60% think that over the long term the stimulus plan will have no effect (22%) on the economy or make it worse (38%)
81% think that in the short term the plan has had no effect (68%) on their financial situation or made it worse (13%)
70% think that in the long term the plan will have no effect (36%) on their financial situation or make it worse (34%)
I’m sure you’ve noticed the burgeoning government spending of late. I know I have, and I’m not looking forward to the future tax implications. What’s most interesting to me about the alphabet soup of acronym spending and lending programs; TARP, TALF, CARS, the list goes on and on – is that the U.S. government has committed to spending so much of our money that it is actually having trouble spending it fast enough to have an impact on the economy. Case in point, the “Stimulus” Act. As job losses have continued piling up, I have continued to read about the lack of funds being spent and the dubious projects that funds are being spent on.
In over 6 months, less than 10% has been spent by the various bureaucracies entrusted with funding. Does this mean they will ultimately curtail the programs? Doubtful. As I remember, the stimulus was supposed to be implemented swiftly to fund “shovel-ready” projects and invest in our crumbling infrastructure. Apparently a $3.4 million tunnel in Florida designed to provide a safe crossing for turtles was a priority. No word yet on which turtle language will be chosen for the signage. Maybe even more absurd, $18 million was spent to redesign the website that tracks stimulus spending. Obama should have called me, I would have done the work for not a penny over $5 million. Even less if he let me outsource the coding (Source for project figures: CNN Op-Ed).
How about that infrastructure? According to an AP analysis, “Of the 2,476 bridges scheduled to receive stimulus money so far, nearly half have passed inspections with high marks, according to federal data. Those 1,123 sound bridges received such high inspection ratings that they normally would not qualify for federal bridge money, yet they will share in more than $1.2 billion in stimulus money. In all, 1,286 deficient or obsolete bridges are expected to share $2.2 billion in stimulus money for repairs…But that’s less than 1 percent of the more than 150,000 bridges nationwide that engineers have labeled deficient or obsolete.”
Clearly, the results thus far have been less than stellar, which leads me to the equally poor showing of the green components to the stimulus. Millions of green jobs have not arrived and they are not immediately on the way either because less than half of 1% of the green “stimulus” has been spent. Prospective programs were included in the allocations of $111 billion for infrastructure (including mass transit) and $8 billion for energy. According to Green Building Law, “…a total of $33.2 million has been paid out for green stimulus programs, and an additional $307 million in public transit dollars, of the allocated $119 BILLION. That is .28% of the total allocation…” In maybe the most dramatic example, the General Services Administration (GSA) was awarded a budget of $4,500,000,000, yes $4.5 BILLION for “High Performance Green Buildings” and so far they have spent a shade over $230,000. Hey guys and gals at the GSA, take a look at my products page and give me a call would you?
The big lesson in all of this: incentives for private investment are more efficient than than public spending. Take note, health care debaters…
Geothermal heat pumps (aka GeoExchange, earth-coupled, ground-source or water-source heat pumps) are a remarkable, yet simple green technology that has been around for about 60 years. Anyone that’s visited a cave to see stalactites/stalagmites or do some rugged camping will remember the constant temperature that is cooler in summer and warmer in winter than at the surface. The ground is an efficient insulator, and depending on latitude, underground temperatures range from 45°F (7°C) to 75°F (21°C) year-round despite seasonal extremes at the surface. Heat pumps are able to take advantage of these temperature gradients for heating and cooling purposes, but how?
There is a detailed explanation here, I will summarize. Traditional heat pumps transfer heat utilizing a refrigerant that is acted on by an exchange medium (air in a standard A/C unit or liquid in a geothermal heat pump). The refrigerant absorbs heat and is compressed into a high temperature, high pressure liquid for heating purposes or allowed to expand into a low temperature, low pressure gas for cooling purposes. In winter, heat pumps pull heat from the air to be circulated in the home and during summer they take heat from inside and push it into the air. Significant amounts of electricity are used in this process because temperature extremes need to be overcome and air is an inefficient heat transfer medium. On the other hand, the liquid water or antifreeze solution of geothermal heat pumps is 30% more efficient than air. In summer, heat is pulled from the building and deposited in the much cooler earth very efficiently. In winter, the constant, relatively warm temperature of the earth provides much more than heat than the air so much less compression (and therefore less energy consumption) is needed vs. a conventional system.
In fact, according to U.S. Department of Energy studies, geothermal provides system efficiencies of 300-600% on the coldest winter nights while air-source systems can reach only 175-250%. Integrated systems can handle all of your heating, cooling and hot water needs year-round. The result is significant energy savings over your current costs of electricity, heating oil, etc. While installation of geothermal systems costs more upfront, these energy savings cover the additional costs over 5-10 years. 50,000 units are now installed annually in the U.S. alone. The benefits outlined by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are listed below: Read More…
With visitors from 41 countries/territories I realized I better add another internationally-focused post to my ongoing series. I have covered 8 countries (in addition to the USA) so far and for number 9 I’ll discuss this innovative development organization doing work in India. S3IDF was registered in Massachusetts in 2001 and staffed in India in 2002. Having traveled throughout India in 2005 (Delhi, Bombay and Agra), I can tell you that it is simultaneously one of the craziest, most chaotic, yet amazing places in the world. The people are very friendly and very smart and while the country has its challenges related to poverty, infrastructure and resource management, strong economic growth has created many opportunities for the ambitious, industrious population. Yet, large segments of the population have been left behind.
To provide the poorer, rural and urban dwellers with a lift, S3IDF has stepped in to provide an environmentally-friendly economic push. According to the website, the organization, considers itself “a ‘social merchant bank’ that helps small enterprises to provide modern energy and other infrastructural services to poor people in developing countries in ways that are financially sustainable and environmentally responsible. It covers the provision of services in electricity, water, sanitation, transport and telecommunications that are necessary for poverty alleviation.” In 2007, Russell de Lucia (CEO & Chairman) and the organization won the Clean Energy Award in the “NGOs and Initiatives” category for their provision of efficient lighting services to poor households, communities and small/medium enterprises (SMEs) in southern India. Over 30 projects were implemented and powered with clean energy. About 6,000 beneficiaries now have improved health and safety as well as increased income earning opportunities through extended work hours. The electricity is provided by photovoltaics that charge batteries, biogas or other renewable generation methods. Keep reading for information about there other projects.
August’s “Got Water? Wait Until 2025…” post has been quickly riding up the ranks and just became my 3rd most popular post this week, surpassing my July post on Toronto’s Green Roof Bylaw. You can link to my most popular posts at left; at its current pace, the water post may well reach 1st place. The water post permalink is here. You can also read it on my featured tab along with my first feature article on Masdar City in Abu Dhabi (or click “UAE’s Supergreen City” permalink here).