Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Greenest Cities in the United States

A passenger train enters the eastbound platform of Portland, Oregon's Washington Park MAX station.

SustainLane's just announced their new US City Rankings 2008, which ranks the nation's most populous cities in terms of their green score. Portland ranks #1 while my city, Indianapolis, comes in at #44. In other words, if your mission is to change things "from brown to green," this is a much better place to start than in Portland, where the job is already done. We plan to catch Portland while they rest on their organic laurels. Columbus, Ohio provides a role model since they moved from #50 in 2006 to #30 in 2008, the biggest mover.

Lists apparently help sell books and magazines, especially if they list the best cities for whatever. Magazines like CountryHome (Portland #2, Indianapolis unranked), Move (Portland #1, Indianapolis unlisted) and even Popular Science (Portland #1, Indianapolis unranked) also rank green cities all hoping to become the leading green city ranker. All have different methods for gathering comparative information, which is a problem if you are a city like Indianapolis intent on making sustainability progress.

All that may change with an attempt to create a meaningful, measurable third-party-verified standard called the STAR Community Index, that's about to go into pilot phase now with test cities and will be available in final form in 2010. Then the real race will begin. There is also a STARS rating system for college campuses which 90 colleges and universities of all sizes are piloting now. Of course institutions of higher education are also challenged by a plethora of magazine greenest campus rating systems.

Senate Shines Light on Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008

After eight attempts, the Senate finally passed H.R. 6049, the Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008 with a resounding bipartisan vote of 93 to 2. It now returns to the House, which is expected to act quickly reconcile the Senate provisions and send the bill on to the President for signature. Obviously, there are enough votes for an override of a potential Presidential veto.

Among other things, this bill:

  • Extends solar tax credits for eight years for commercial and residential customers, eliminates the $2000 cap for residential installations and allows utilities to use the commercial credit. Extends the Production Tax Credit for wind for one year and the PTC for solar, biomass and wave and ocean projects for two years.
  • Businesses would get a 30 percent tax credit for investing in wind, solar, geothermal and ocean alternative energy equipment for eight more years.
  • Provides a tax break for buyers of plug-in hybrids of up to $7500.
  • Homeowners can get a tax credit of up to 10 percent of the cost of home energy improvements, such as new windows, insulation, energy efficient heating and cooling equipment and water heaters.
  • Residential energy-efficient property credit would be extended through 2016 and the definition of qualifying systems is extended to include wind and geothermal heat pumps, which would get 30% off, with a cap of $6,667.

For full text of the bill go here. For news and commentary: Bloomberg or Solar Energy Industries Association or Associated Press or CleanTech.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Thursday, September 18, 2008

How to Combat Higher Home Heating Bills

This morning's Indianapolis Star had a front page headline stating "Heating bills to rise 15% to 25% this winter." In reaction to higher wholesale natural gas prices, utilities all over America are raising their rates, again. Natural gas prices have doubled since 2000 and, in spite of what T. Boone Pickens might want to sell you, they will probably continue to do so.

So what can you do about that? Since the stock market is a roulette wheel right now, I suggest you invest in personal energy security and declare some small measure of independence from your gas bill. You have a few weekends between now and when that furnace really starts firing up. If you are not yet ready to achieve net-zero-energy, here are some simple, do-it-yourself things you can do to get your 15% to 25% back this winter. You will gain greater physical, fiscal, and psychological comfort along the way.

Start with an opportunity analysis. You can do your own home energy audit, or hire an expert to snoop for your biggest energy holes. If you do your own, you might want to play with some online tools like Home Energy Saver or Energy Star Home Energy Yardstick.

Opportunities you will likely find for saving gas include the usual caulking and weatherstripping; and adding insulation; tuning up or replacing old furnaces, water heaters and appliances. Some things you may not have thought of include sealing and insulating ductwork in unheated crawl spaces and attics (potentially getting your 15% to 25% back), changing to instantaneous water heaters, or installing low-flow faucet and shower heads (saves hot water and gas). Other simple do-it-yourself fixes include installing a programmable thermostat so you can automatically set the temperature lower when you are not around or when you are sleeping.

Depending on which state you live in and your local utility company, you may have opportunities for grants and tax incentives for home energy improvements. Check with the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency. This is where you might find some significant cash for things like geothermal heat pump systems and solar hot water heaters.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Habitat for Humanity Goes LEED Platinum

Most people would not equate green buildings with affordable housing, especially when you achieve the highest level LEED Platinum Certification. Most people would not equate a Habitat for Humanity home as cutting edge design. But the first LEED Platinum Habitat for Humanity home serves to shatter conventional wisdom. This unique partnership with Drury University may inform more sustainable design for Habitat for Humanity homes everywhere.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Hurricane-resistant Green Homes

With hurricane Ike potentially following in the path of hurricane Gustav, some people on the Gulf coast may be looking for housing that can take on a disaster and not only remain intact but remain habitable with it's own back-up systems for essential services. As I continue to do research for my own, future-proof, disaster-resistant dream home, I was directed to the StalwartBuilt Homes web site by a Florida Realtor.

StalwartBuilt homes are mostly factory assembled so on-site construction can be accomplished in 30 to 60 days. They feature well-insulated air-tight wall and roof assemblies with controlled ventilation, heat-reflective metal roofing, geothermal heat pump systems, unvented attic assemblies and a number of other features that qualify these homes for LEED for Homes and Energy Star certifications and make it possible to achieve the Architecture 2030 Challenge today. They are built with chases and other features to allow for the future addition of alternative energy systems, such as photovoltaic and wind. StalwartBuilt constructed the first LEED Platinum, net-zero-energy home in Florida. Hurricane-resistant construction considers wind uplift, wind-driven moisture, penetration by flying debris and flooding. A hurricane-resistant home on a barrier island subject to storm surge would also be up on pilings above maximum flood elevation, for example. Alex Wilson, editor of the indispensable Environmental Building News, introduced the concept of "passive survivability " as another important consideration for disaster-resistant construction which he defined as "the ability of a building to maintain critical life-support conditions for its occupants if services such as power, heating fuel, or water are lost for an extended period." A building designed to provide these services when municipal infrastructure is down may be a life saver. If you design for this potential with solutions like rainwater capture and storage and alternative energy systems, you will enjoy peace of mind, but also lower operating costs. The economics of this premium construction look better when you take into consideration potential savings from insurers, lenders, tax incentives, utility company rebates and lower monthly utility bills. As the cost of home energy continues to climb and storms continue to increase in frequency and strength, look for demand for this type of construction to grow faster than typically constructed new homes.

As a former homebuilder turned architect, I would prefer something a bit more custom and modern than the StalwartBuilt home offerings. My current favorite disaster-resistant building envelope is one that's been around since Roman times, concrete. Insulated Concrete Forms are a promising construction method that employs permanent insulated forms that facilitate placement of ample vertical and horizontal steel-reinforcement in the concrete pour. They provide an extremely wind-resistant, air-tight envelope with excellent thermal performance. A typical ICF home requires 50% less heating and cooling energy than typical construction. We've designed a net-zero-energy library with that system that bid at $200 per square foot in Southern Indiana this summer. This system is also very compatible with earth-sheltered and/or garden roof systems and also provides excellent resistance to fire, insects and noise. My current research is on finding forms and concrete mixes that are more environmentally sustainable. Cement manufacturing is currently highly energy intensive, and the typical plastic foams used in the forms have some issues. I am encouraged by development of alternative form materials and work to manufacture cement at low temperatures, mimicking the way marine animals make their shells and other research that suggests that concrete may be used to sequester carbon. More on those topics in a later post . . .

See also previous posts: Hybrid Power for Your Home, Future-Proof Buildings

Artic Meltdown?

Sarah Palin isn't the only hot history-making news out of the Arctic this month. While it hasn't made the front page or appeared in any convention speeches, the other news may have much more impact on our future. For the first time since the beginning of the last ice age 125,000 years ago, it is now possible to circumnavigate the Artic ice cap. Both the northwest and northeast passages are open. August is normally the month when the melting slows and cooling begins to re-freeze the ice pack. This August a record 950,000 square miles of melting occurred or just over 30,000 square miles per day (Indiana is 36,000 square miles in area). Some scientists suggest this rate of melting is evidence of a tipping point where the melting accelerates due to a feedback loop where open water absorbs much more heat than does reflective ice.

While most climate models predicted that global warming would make the Artic ice-free late in this century or early in the next, it now appears that ice-free state could be reached as early as the time of the next presidential election in 2012 according to some cryospheric experts.

Is this just an anomoly caused by a perfect storm of normal weather cycles? Mark Serreze, sea ice expert at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Denver, gives an excellent summary of the science behind this historic melt in a presentation last year (click on C24A) at the American Geophysical Union annual conference. Although a year old, the presentation accurately predicts what is occurring this month along with some implications for our near future. This richly illustrated and chilling presentation is worth pulling yourself away from the hot air of the political blogs for 45 minutes.