Monday, October 20, 2008

Energy vs. Water

Bellagio Hotel Fountain in Las Vegas

This morning I addressed the New England Library Association in Manchester, a lovely New Hampshire mill town ablaze in autumnal colors. My talk was about Future-Proof Design as a response to dramatic change. I picked up the current issue of Scientific American Earth 3.0 in the airport on the way here, a new magazine devoted to "Solutions for Sustainable Progress." It is full of important articles, but the cover story, "Energy vs. Water: Why Both Crises Must Be Solved Together"made me add another slide to my PowerPoint.

I was aware that one of the major energy bills for most cities is the one for pumping drinking water and sewage. What I had never thought much about is the amount of water used to produce that energy. The premise of the article, by Micheal E. Webber, is that as clean water or what he calls "liquid gold" gets more scarce it may cause us to rethink alternative energy sources that use huge amounts of clean water in their production. He points out, for example, that an ethanol vehicle that travels 100 miles also uses 130 to 6,200 gallons of water (depending on the source of the ethanol and whether it came from an irrigated field), while the same car using gasoline would use 7 to 14 gallons of water. An electric car would use 24 gallons of water to go the same distance, due to the water used in cooling the power plant. Power sources like wind or solar use virtually no water which could reverse that math.

Lake Mead Water Intake Structures near Hoover Dam
Where Las Vegas gets its water and power

Webber points out the intimate connection between energy and water in Las Vegas, where Lake Mead water elevation would only need to drop another 50 feet before Hoover Dam and the electric power it produces to goes off-line. He reports that recent droughts in the Southeast set up situations where nuclear power plants were nearly shut down due to lack of cooling water from rivers that were suffering from drought and the growing demands for irrigation and domestic water use. Such situations are causing conflicts among states that share water resources and between protectors of wildlife and industrial, agricultural and development interests. This Special Issue contains some other articles that make it a "must read." Fortunately, it is available on line.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Google Headquarters putting its money where its roof is.

Tired of all the bad economic news? Could you use a 121% return on your investment dollar right now? Looking for a safe place to invest your money? Then pull yourself away from your doom and gloom TV for a while and take a look at these good news videos.

Probably the best summary of the business case for high-performance green buildings was presented at Greenbuild in Chicago. This video, orchestrated by my friends at the Rocky Mountain Institute Built Environment Team is a collection of case studies where the strategies and the cost/benefit analysis are revealed for a range of building projects from residential to high-rise office buildings. They have a link at the bottom of the page for direct links to high-definition versions and shorter clips about particular building types. The common thread to all these stories is that high-performance green buildings don't have to be more expensive up front and their return on investment is often spectacular. Be sure to check out the clip on Adobe HQ if you are thinking you can't afford to upgrade your existing building. Their project had a less than one year payback and a 121% return on investment.

If you think the payback on alternative energy systems stinks, you may find this talk by Google CEO Eric Schmidt (formerly with Novell and Sun Micro Systems) of interest. Schmidt spoke recently at the Corporate Eco Forum event about Google's expected 2.5 year payback on their new $5 million solar photovoltaic installation. But he also noted that "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste," referring to the opportunity for positive change that accompanies any deep crisis. He goes on to outline his plan for 100% alternative energy in the U.S. by 2030. While you are there, you may want to learn more about the Corporate Eco Forum and who showed up there last month.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008

When President Bush signed the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, which you may know as the 'bailout bill," new incentives went into effect that may advance green buildings and renewable energy that will ultimately help move the economy in a better direction. Thanks to Paul Jones, Jr., a green tax attorney and Co-Founder of INSA at Ice Miller, LLC for providing the basis for my summary. Any editing errors are my own.

I will give you a brief list of the incentives in this post. For the full text of the bill, go to the Thomas Register (H.R. 1424) and download the PDF file.

  • one-year extension of the production tax credit for energy from wind and a two-year extension of the credit for energy production from other renewable sources
  • new clean energy renewable bonds (CREBs) to finance facilities that generate electricity from wind, closed-loop biomass, open-loop biomass, geothermal, small irrigation, qualified hydropower, landfill gas, marine renewable and trash combustion facilities
  • allows employers to provide employees who commute to work by bicycle limited fringe benefits to offset the costs of such commuting (e.g. bike storage, shower rooms)
  • qualified energy conservation bonds to finance state and local government initiatives designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • eight-year extension of the tax credits for residential solar projects, including removal of the $2,000 credit cap on investments in residential solar electric installations and the inclusion of small wind energy (credit cap of $4,000) and geothermal heat pump projects (credit cap of $2,000) as qualifying installations for tax credits
  • long term extension of the 30% investment tax credit for solar energy property and qualified fuel cell property, as well as a 10% tax credit for microturbines
  • five-year extension of the tax deduction for energy-efficient commercial buildings (up to $1.80 per square foot)
  • one-year extension of the tax credit for the construction of new energy-efficient homes
  • one-year extension of the tax credit for qualified energy-efficiency upgrades to existing homes
  • an extension through 2010 of the tax credit for the manufacture of energy-efficiency appliances
  • three-year extension of the authority for state and localities to issue tax-exempt bonds for green building and sustainable design projects
In addition to these Federal incentives, you may have access to other incentives from your utility, your city or your state. You can check that out at this national incentive database.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Real Life LEED Publishes Full LEED EB Submittal From University of California

Real Life LEED, an essential blog that details the trials and tribulations of a fellow real life LEED consultant, reported this week that the University of California has given all of us green building certifiers a great gift, a complete set of LEED for Existing Buildings documentation for their 1111 Franklin Street facility.

While this is for the older version of LEED EB (the new LEED EB - Operations and Maintenance is easier to achieve), this set of crib notes will save certifiers countless hours of time and it can also help building owners get a good idea of what the process is like and allow them to better estimate their time commitment to make their existing buildings certifiably green

Kudos to Real Life LEED. If you want truly useful information on LEED certification nuts and bolts, this is the place to bookmark. Kudos to the University of California for this generous donation to the cause of turning brown buildings green. May other universities follow their LEED lead! 

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Bored with the Ice Cream Swirl CFL?

Until recently, not much changed in the light bulb world since Thomas Alva Edison invented a carbon filament that burned for forty hours in 1879. Compact fluorescent bulbs were a giant leap forward in energy efficiency and long life that first appeared in the mid 90's when they were very expensive due to the difficulty of manufacturing the swirling glass tubes that have now become so ubiquitous.

But it looks like we may not be doomed to endure over a hundred years of the same ice cream cone twist form. Inhabitat reports on new Plumen lighting forms from Hulger that you probably will not be able to obtain at your local hardware store any time soon, but point to a future of diverse and even artistic forms that suggest that energy efficient lighting does not have to be boring.

Don't fall too far in love with CFLs. Solid State LED lighting is even more efficient and long lasting and can do some dynamic effects with color and form. As with Edison's bulb and the first CFLs, prepare to be shocked when you check the price tag on LED lighting. But be sure to do the math on energy savings and longevity (and less maintenance labor in commercial settings). Even with the high initial cost of these early entries, if you want to do net-zero-energy buildings or experiment with unlimited color, go with LED lighting. You may be able to downsize your alternative energy systems to offset the higher initial cost of the bulbs. For your typical home use, you may want to keep your twisty CFLs for a while and wait until the production volume ramps up and the costs for LEDs come down.