Archive for the ‘green buildings’ Category

photo: KB Home

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote about a home builder installing solar arrays as standard equipment in new developments in Southern California:

Among the standard features offered for new homes at Manzanita at Paseo del Sol, a KB Home development in a desert suburb southeast of Los Angeles, are nine-foot ceilings, six-panel doors and a 1.4-kilowatt solar array.

While KB Home has offered rooftop photovoltaic panels as an option for some time, the home builder now will make solar arrays from SunPower standard equipment on more than 800 homes in 10 communities being built in Southern California.

“This is a game changer for our industry and a powerful way for us to compete in the marketplace, especially with resale homes,” Craig LeMessurier, KB Home’s director of corporate communications, said in an e-mail. While pricey solar panels are often found on the roofs of high-end houses, it’s notable that KB Home is installing the arrays on homes with base selling prices that range from $250,000 to $360,000. In California, that’s starter home territory.

KB Home estimates that the standard 1.4-kilowatt solar array will supply about 30 percent of the electricity for an 1,800-foot to 2,000-foot square home. Of course, that all depends on how much a homeowner runs their air conditioning, for instance.

Rooftop solar can be a hedge against California’s high and rising electricity rates. And given the intense sunshine and air-conditioning demands in desert areas where KB Home is building its latest developments, such arrays will generate more electricity than they could in, say, San Francisco. Homeowners will also qualify for a 30 percent federal tax credit as well as state incentives.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared on November 29, 2010.

Upping the ante in the greener-than-thou sweepstakes, San Francisco is building what would be the nation’s first LEED Gold-certified airport terminal.

LEED — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – is a program run by the United States Green Building Council that awards certification to buildings that meet criteria for sustainability, energy efficiency, water use and other factors.

The revamped Terminal 2 at San Francisco International Airport, which will be home to Virgin America when it opens next spring, is designed to cut energy use by 20 percent and will feature a reclaimed water system.

Ninety percent of the debris from the demolition of the old terminal is being recycled, according to the airport.

Hybrid car drivers will get preferential parking (though passengers can take the train to and from the airport) and the terminal will offer “hydration stations” so people can refill their reusable water bottles once they make it through security.

And fittingly for the birthplace of California cuisine, the terminal’s restaurants will sell locally grown organic food.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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This post first appeared on Grist.

Eric Pooley came to San Francisco last Tuesday to talk about his new book, The Climate War, at the offices of the Environmental Defense Fund.

The book, subtitled “True Believers, Power Brokers and the Fight to Save the Earth,” is a riveting tale of the battle to pass climate change legislation in the United States. Pooley, deputy editor of Bloomberg BusinessWeek and the former editor of Fortune magazine, embedded himself with key combatants in the climate war, including Fred Krupp, EDF’s president. (Read a review by Grist’s David Roberts here.)

It is, of course, a book without an ending as efforts to enact a cap on greenhouse gas emissions start to resemble a not-so-funny legislative version of Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day.”

The timing of Pooley’s Tuesday talk was appropriate, as that day a new front in the climate war opened up on the West Coast when an initiative to suspend California’s landmark global warming law qualified for the Nov. 2 ballot.

The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, popularly known by its legislative moniker, AB 32, requires California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. One of the options to do that is to implement a statewide cap-and-trade market to limit emissions by carbon polluters such as oil refiners.

Two Texas oil companies, Valero and Tesoro, are largely funding the anti-AB 32 ballot measure, which the California secretary of state in a bit of cosmic irony has designated Proposition 23 — a reversal of 32, get it?

Prop 23 would put AB 32 on hold until the unemployment rate falls to 5.5 percent for four straight quarters, which is as likely in California as the legislature delivering the state budget on time four years in a row.

It promises to be an epic battle of the Old Economy vs. the New Economy — Silicon Valley green tech startups, venture capitalists, and big corporations with a stake in the nascent renewable energy economy versus the old industrial giants with the most to lose from the new green order.

“If you look at investment in clean energy, China is now investing $9 billion a month with centralized control of the energy economy the likes of which we can’t equal,” Pooley told EDFers gathered on the 28th floor of a downtown San Francisco tower. “A price on carbon would change the rules of the road and take capital off the sidelines and put it to work building clean energy infrastructure and jobs here in this country. It could happen in California first as so many things have happened in California first.”

“But I really worry about this proposition,” he added. “It’s going to be tough to defeat.”

Pooley noted that the passage of AB 32 in 2006 helped put pressure on the federal government and an administration resolutely opposed to cap and trade. Suspension of AB 32 would take away a big playing card in the climate change poker game.

While the environment may be as Californian as the beach, redwood trees, and plastic surgery, the fight over Prop 23 makes environmentalists nervous, especially in a state with a sky-high unemployment rate.

Pooley asked Derek Walker, director of EDF’s California Climate Initiative, to handicap the electoral odds.

“When I’m asked that question, I would have said a year ago there’s no chance we’ll have a Republican senator from Massachusetts anytime soon,” Walker said. “But I think that all other things being equal, Californians have a very strong ethic for conservation and if there’s enough evidence of the green economy growing in California there’s a compelling case.”

As Pooley noted, “Nobody has done more than California to step up on this issue. There’s never going to be a perfect moment to do this. As if we all can wait for the golden day when all is in order and embrace the future. History does not work that way. Progress does not work that way. We have to rise up to meet the future or we’ll cede it to somebody else.”

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While the U.S. Department of Energy on Tuesday issued nearly $8 billion in loans to Ford (F), Nissan and Tesla Motors to manufacture electric cars and batteries, IBM unveiled an initiative to develop a next-generation battery technology that would allow those vehicles to travel 400 miles or more on a charge.

Big Blue will investigate the potential of lithium air technology to replace current state-of-the-art lithium ion batteries. Lithium air potentially could pack 10 times the energy density of lithium ion storage devices by drawing oxygen into the batteries to use as a reactant. As a result lithium air batteries would weigh less than lithium ion batteries, C. Spike Narayan, manager of science and technology at IBM’s Almaden Research Center, told Green Wombat.

So besides powering cars, lithium air batteries could store electricity generated from solar power plants and wind farms, turning them into 24/7 energy sources.

But don’t expect to see the super-charged batteries anytime soon.”This is a five-to-10-year project,” says Narayan. “The first phase is to go after the big science problems. Then we’re ready to engage with automotive companies and battery manufacturers.”

The technological hurdles are high and even IBM (IBM), with its expertise in nanotechnology, green chemistry and supercomputing, won’t try to go it alone. It’s seeking partners at research universities and government laboratories to crack the tech challenges, which include developing a membrane that will strip water out of the air before it enters the battery and the development of nano materials to prevent layers of lithium oxide from interfering with chemical reactions.

IBM intends to limit its role in the battery business to R&D. “We have no desire to make batteries,” says Rich Lechner, IBM’s vice president for energy and the environment. “We will license the IP.”

In another sign that climate change and the imminent imposition of carbon caps are creating opportunities for Big Business and rearranging the competitive landscape, IBM also announced “Green Sigma,” an alliance of erstwhile competitors that will offer solutions to companies seeking to shrink their carbon footprint.

Green Sigma includes business software giant SAP (SAP), Cisco (CSCO), Johnson Controls (JCI) and Honeywell (HON). Dave Lebowe, an IBM executive with the Green Sigma program, acknowledged the potential for conflicts of interests among these frenemies but said such problems were outweighed by the upside of bringing together a broad range of expertise to help customers cut their CO2 emissions and save money.

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Sierra Club Green Home

At Fortune’s recent Brainstorm Green conference, Green Wombat had a chance to get a guided tour of Sierra Club Green Home — the new for-profit online venture of the venerable Sierra Club — from Jennifer Schwab, the startup’s  sustainability director.

As interesting as the site is the business model being pursued by the 117-year-old non-profit. As I wrote in my Green State column on Grist:

It’s not unusual these days for big green groups to get in bed with business, but one of the oldest and most-respected environmental organizations—the Sierra Club—is going them one better by getting into business itself.

The San Francisco-based Sierra Club has launched a for-profit online venture called Sierra Club Green Home as a one-stop shop for information and services to green up your lifestyle and decarbonize your abode.

Sierra Club Green Home is a joint venture between the 117-year-old institution and a group of individual investors—or “donors” as they like to call themselves. “It’s the social entrepreneurship model,” says Gordon Wangers, the company’s marketing chief and one of the donor/investors. “A non-profit finds some enterprising business types who are committed to a cause but bring business savvy to a venture and have the skills and wherewithal to run it.”

Wangers thinks it’s a model for other green groups as the economic collapse zaps the fortunes of their well-heeled donors.

You can read the rest of the column here.

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In case you missed it, this Green Wombat story appears in the current issue of Fortune.

A house that thinks

The high-tech networks that Reliant Energy is installing in the homes of its 1.8 million customers will help them save electricity.

By Todd Woody, senior editor

(Fortune Magazine) — Inside a white-brick house nestled in Houston’s leafy Montrose neighborhood, a gray handheld video display sits on the living room coffee table. But this is no ordinary remote control. Called the Insight and made by Tendril, a Boulder startup, the device communicates wirelessly with the home’s utility meter, letting you track real-time information about the cost of the electricity you consume.

The house is actually a demonstration project set up by Reliant Energy (RRI), a reseller of electricity with $12 billion a year in sales. Glen Stancil, Reliant’s vice president for smart energy R&D, taps the Insight’s screen. “Right now we’re spending $1.40 per hour,” he says, noting that the electricity prices and usage are updated every ten seconds. (Customers can also access the same data on the web or their iPhones.)

Stancil presses another button. “The bill so far is $86, and for the month it looks like it’s headed to $367,” he says. The Insight system also warns that you’ll fork over another $100 this month if you crank up the air conditioner a couple of notches. So keep your hands off the thermostat.

That’s just the kind of behavior that Reliant Energy CEO Mark Jacobs would like to see. Until now, Reliant has made its money by entering contracts with utilities for a fixed amount of power at a fixed price and then reselling it to its 1.8 million customers. If demand unexpectedly soars on a hot afternoon as everyone turns up the air conditioning, Reliant often must buy extra power on the spot market, where prices can spike as much as 60%.

That cuts into profits. “It’s like running a beachfront hotel, charging the same room rate all year round, and then building more rooms to guarantee that everyone has a room on the busiest weekends,” says Jacobs.

In November, Reliant started installing the Insight in homes, which means it will be able to pass along those high spot prices to its customers, or better yet, in sweltering Texas, let customers buy a month’s worth of cool at a set price – say, 72 degrees for $200 or 74 degrees for $160.

The Insight offers another advantage – Jacobs believes it will encourage his customers to cut back on electric use and save money. “What if you knew you could run your clothes dryer at five o’clock, and it would cost $3,” says Jacobs, “or you could wait until eight o’clock at night, and it would be only a dollar?”

PG&E (PCG), Southern Edison International (EIX) and other utilities are rolling out smart meters but have yet to to integrate them with smart energy systems for the home. But Reliant operates in a competitive, deregulated electricity market. If homeowners get cool technology that helps them avoid the unpleasant surprise of a big electric bill, Jacobs believes Reliant will retain more customers. And then there’s the green angle. “We as an industry are the single largest emitter of greenhouse gas, and our goal is to help our customers use less, spend less, and emit less,” says Jacobs.

For Jacobs, a 46-year-old Goldman Sachs (GS) veteran, smart energy technology is just the wedge to shake up what he calls “an industry in the Dark Ages” while opening new markets for his company, whose stock has been walloped by the one-two punch of Houston’s Hurricane Ike and the credit crunch.

Hurdles, however, remain. Will consumers already suffering from information overload want to obsessively monitor their electricity habit? Will a sweating Houstonite on a 104-degree day say to hell with the cost and crank up the AC anyway? Jacobs isn’t worried. He believes nothing influences behavior better than knowing the true price of what you’re buying.

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Green Wombat often highlights high tech when it comes to tackling global warming and energy independence. But a new study from the University of California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory shows that simply installing white roofs on homes and commercial buildings – to reflect the sun’s rays rather than absorb them – can reduce air-conditioning costs by 20% and could save $1 billion a year in energy outlays in the United States.

Switch to cool sidewalks and roads and the savings rise to $2 billion annually, according to the study by scientists Hashem Akbari and Surabi Menon and California Energy Commissioner Art Rosenfeld to be published in the journal Climate Change.

The scientists calculated that a global white roofs and roads effort would offset 44 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, or more than a year’s worth of carbon, and help stablize future C02 emission increases.

“The 44 Gt CO2-equivalent offset potential for cool roofs and cool pavements would counteract
the effect of the growth in CO2-equivalent emission rates for 11 years,” according to the authors.

Such emission reductions, of course, can be securitized into tradable carbon credits, which the study estimates would be worth $1.1 trillion. Regulated carbon market exist in places like Europe but securities based on cool roofs have not yet been created.

A global cool roofs agreement could avoid the pitfalls of Kyoto-style accords, the scientists note.  “Installing cool roofs and cool pavements in cities worldwide does not need delicate negotiations between nations in terms of curbing each country’s CO2 emission rates.”

It’s one of those low-tech, commonsense solutions to both energy use and global warming – one used for thousands of years in the regions like the Mediterranean; those picturesque villages overlooking the sea are white-washed for a reason.

In California, commercial buildings with flat roofs have been required to cool it since 2005. But one of the biggest hurdles in the U.S. to doing the white thing may be homeowner associations that dictate everything from the color of your mailbox to where you place your rubbish bin. The vast majority of homes in California either have standard black shingle roofs or Spanish-style red tiles. A proposal to paint those roofs white will likely incite architectural outrage.

But there’s another, albeit much more expensive solution, to hot roofs: Cover them with solar panels.

photo: California Energy Commission

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photo originally uploaded by p3p510

Pop quiz: What’s one of the biggest sources of global warming in the United States? Just look around. Chances are you’re reading this from inside a hermetically sealed, continuously heated and air-conditioned, well-lit commercial office building. Such structures, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are responsible for nearly 20 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. So this week the EPA singled out for praise those energy efficient buildings that qualify for its Energy Star rating – also found on washing machines, dishwashers and other household appliances. Energy Star buildings in 2006 saved $600 million in power costs and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 11 billion pounds – the equivalent of taking 900,000 cars off the road, the agency said. Such buildings use, on average, 35 percent less energy than conventional commercial offices.

That piqued Green Wombat’s curiosity. What about the headquarters of the 10 big corporations and four environmental groups that have formed the U.S. Climate Action Partnership to press for immediate mandatory greenhouse gas emissions caps and the establishment of a national carbon trading market? Absent from the EPA green building list are the headquarters of US-CAP members Alcoa (AA), BP (BP), Caterpillar (CAT), DuPont (DD), General Electric (GE), Lehman Brothers (LEH), Duke Energy (DUK), FPL (FPL), and PNM Resources (PNM), as well as the HQs for Environmental Defense, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and World Resources Institute. (Click here to download Energy Star building list.)

The only US-CAP member to score an Energy Star rating was California utility PG&E (PCG) for its San Francisco building, which the EPA says uses half the energy of your standard-issue tower. (BP, however, announced in January that an expansion and retrofit of its U.S. headquarters in Maryland will adhere to green building practices, deploying energy efficient heating and lighting systems.) San Francisco, in fact, is chockablock with green skyscrapers, though Green Wombat’s home at One California Street didn’t make the list. Nor did the New York City headquarters of the wombat’s corporate parent, Time Warner (TWX). It should be noted that Salesforce.com (CRM), which Green Wombat took to task recently for its less-than-green marketing practices, is housed in a renovated historic San Francisco building that won an Energy Star rating.

One caveat: It is possible the Climate Action Partnership companies and green groups – or their landlords – simply did not submit an application for the Energy Star rating. Still, more than 3,200 did apply and make the grade. California has the most Energy Star buildings – 779 – with Texas in second place with 367 and North Carolina taking third with 306.

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It’s hard to think of a mammoth Wal-Mart (WMT) Supercenter as a green building but on Friday the retail giant will open the first of what it calls its high-efficiency stores. The Kansas City, Missouri, Supercenter incorporates a number of technologies that Wal-Mart says will slash energy consumption by 20 percent. Given the massive size of a Wal-Mart Supercenter – the Kansas Cty story is 197,000 square feet – that should have a not insignificant impact on electricity demand – and greenhouse gas emissions – as the company opens more high-efficiency stores. Much of the energy savings comes from the Kansas City store’s heating and air-conditioning systems. The store uses water – which has a higher heat-carrying capacity than air – for heating and cooling. For instance, waste heat from the stores refrigeration cases is recycled for use in the heating and cooling systems. The Kansas City store uses LED lighting in its refrigerated cases as such lights consume less energy and emit less heat than conventional lighting.  Sensors detect when a customer is approaching and turns on the lights; otherwise they remain off. LED lighting alone can reduce a store’s energy consumption by 2 to 3 percent, according to Wal-Mart. The Kansas City store has has been built with skylights and sensors will lower or turn off store’s electric lighting depending on how much natural light is available. Wal-Mart spokesman David Tovar says the second of four high-efficiency store to be built this year will open in Rockton, Illinois, in the spring. Some features of the Kansas City City, such as the LED lighting, are being installed in all new Wal-Mart stores.

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Walmart_green_storeWal-Mart (WMT) last year began operating two "green" stores that had been designed to minimize their impact on the environment. A preliminary review of the stores’ first year has found that the green technologies deployed – everything from high efficiency LED lighting in display cases to recycling cooking and motor oil to use as fuel to heat the buildings  – has been successful, according to Wal-Mart. The stores located in McKinney, Texas, and Aurora, Colorado, also repurpose the heat generated from refrigeration units to heat water and feature drought-resistant and native plants in landscaping watered with drip irrigation. An effort to power the stores with renewable energy from wind turbines was less successful due to mechanical problems. "When we conceptualized these two experimental stores, we thought about our environmental opportunities which led our thoughts to our current goals: to be supplied by 100 percent renewable energy, to create zero waste, and to sell products that sustain our resources and environment, said Wal-Mart executive Charles Zimmerman in a statement. Two federal labs are evaluating the stores over a three-year period. When the monitoring is complete, Wal-Mart will decide which technologies to incorporate in its thousands of other stores.

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