Green Building News

Green Building News July 2000

July 20, 2000

Boston Celebrates Completion of Environmentally Friendly Housing Development

In June, the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation (CSNDC) and the City of Boston marked the completion of the city's newest low-income rental housing project, Erie-Ellington Homes, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and community celebration. Fifty environmentally designed homes and a community center in the Four Corners neighborhood of Dorchester are well on the way to completion, with the first families already moving in.

The $6.4-million Erie-Ellington project is unique because it raises the standard for construction and environmental performance of publicly funded housing. Erie-Ellington Homes will feature state-of-the art "EcoDynamic" energy and environmental technologies developed by the GreenVillage Company for CSNDC through the U.S. Department of Energy's Building America Program.

The new units, in traditionally designed duplex and triplex houses, feature energy-efficient panelized construction, a "tight" building envelope to promote comfort, and durable, high-quality materials such as energy-saving Pella Windows, cementitious siding, EPA Energy Star-rated appliances, and natural linoleum floors. The measures developed for Erie-Ellington Homes by Building America designers are expected to save 50% annually on overall energy use compared to standard Model Energy Code homes, and 46% annually on total operating expenses for water, electricity and heat for the project owner, Erie-Ellington Homes Limited Partnership.

"The kinds of quality, resource-conserving features used in Erie-Ellington are usually found in upper-end, eco-efficient homes," says project architect Bruce Hampton, who with energy engineer Mark Kelley has applied GreenVillage's EcoDynamic building approach to the prize-winning Cambridge Cohousing and Elm Street projects—both market-rate developments. "We wanted to prove, in collaboration with CSNDC and the City of Boston, that affordable housing can be designed with quality, durability, long life, and environmental health in mind." At $94 per square-foot, construction costs for Erie-Ellington actually fall 25% below similar conventionally-built housing.

San Jose Proceeds with Construction Waste Deposit

The San Jose City Council unanimously approved the Construction and Demolition Diversion Deposit (CDDD) program. The Council directed staff to prepare a deposit ordinance requiring a deposit to be paid before beginning construction and demolition projects and develop a rate resolution setting the amount of the deposits for various projects. In the next six months, city staff will develop a transaction process and a method for certifying facilities. In order for generators of C&D materials to have their deposit returned, they must provide receipts or records demonstrating that the materials from the project have been sufficiently diverted through a City-certified processing or reuse facility or other approved diversion method. The process will make allowances for on-site reuse of materials, such as grinding of concrete for road base. Waster generators will return to the City with receipts and, following any adjustments, the City will issue a refund or credit the account. If materials are not diverted or there are not satisfactory records, the City may deny a refund of the deposit. They are seeking input on a methodology for certifying recovery or diversion rates for re-use facilities. Contact Stephen Bantillo, City of San José, Environmental Services Department.

Navajo Tribal Utility Authority Brings Solar Electricity to Remote Homes

A new solar power initiative of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) is bringing electricity to the homes of people living in remote areas of the reservation. The Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories provides technical support.

In a program that is the largest of its type in the country, the NTUA is buying 200 photovoltaic systems for $2 million and installing individual units at private residences to furnish electrical power. Sandia engineers provide expertise to ensure the units are properly installed and working as intended.

Sandia engineer Marlene Brown, travels once a month to Navajo country to provide technical support and troubleshooting. Along with an NTUA technician. she shows customers how to maintain and use the equipment properly. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Each system serves a single home. One hundred systems have already been installed, and another 100 are to be delivered to the NTUA throughout the summer. Utility officials are identifying new households to receive units. Jimmie Daniels, NTUA solar program manager, says the utility decided to offer this alternative power source to its customers because the cost of stringing wire over parts of the reservation's rural terrain is prohibitive.

"The only way for many of these people to have electricity is to provide each household its own photovoltaic unit," he says.

Between 10,000 and 30,000 Navajos are estimated to live without electricity throughout the reservation that covers parts of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. The systems give some of these people their first opportunity to live in an illuminated world -- having access to electric light so children can do homework at night and to radios, television, and computers to help reduce rural isolation.

The systems include about 600 watts of photovoltaic collectors, enough to generate about 3 kilowatt hours per day on average in the winter. "That's enough electricity to power a single household for a day -- if the family members are conservative in their use of electricity," says Roger Hill of Sandia's Renewable Energy Department, who coordinates Sandia's work with Native Americans.

Operating under a lease purchase agreement, NTUA performs the maintenance needed to ensure that the systems remain in working condition. After 15 years, the ownership and maintenance of the systems will be turned over to the customers.

Model Interconnection Agreements Available

The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) has developed a Model Interconnection Agreement for Customer-Owned, Grid-Connected Solar Electric Generating Systems. There are two versions. One for systems up to 15 KW and another for systems ranging in size from 15 to 100 KW. Both can be downloaded as PDFs from the Million Solar Roofs web site (link above).

Digital Age Requires Micropower

Today’s giant coal and nuclear power plants are failing to provide the high-quality, reliable electricity needed to power the new digital economy, according to a new report from the Worldwatch Institute.

Power interruptions due to the vulnerability of central power plants and transmission lines cost the United States as much as $80 billion annually.

“We’re beginning the 21st century with a power system that cannot take our economy where it needs to go,” said Seth Dunn, author of Micropower: The Next Electrical Era. “The kind of highly reliable power needed for today’s economy can only be based on a new generation of micropower devices now coming on the market. These allow homes and businesses to produce their own electricity, with far less pollution.”

The new micropower technologies, which include fuel cells, microturbines and photovoltaic panels are as small as one-millionth the scale of today’s coal or nuclear plants — and produce little if any of the air pollution of their larger cousins. Already, the multi-billion-dollar potential of the market for micropower has sent investors scrambling to buy into some of the new companies, sending their share prices soaring earlier this year.

One group of micropower technologies generates electricity by combustion. Reciprocating engines, traditionally fueled by diesel oil and once used largely for backup power, are increasingly fueled by natural gas and run throughout much of the day. Microturbines, advanced gas turbines derived from aerospace jet engines, are just starting to be mass-produced, shipped by the hundreds, and installed in drugstores, restaurants, and other U.S. commercial buildings. Stirling engines, which can run on wood chips and even solar heat, are becoming popular in European homes.

Other micropower systems rely on processes that do not involve combustion. Fuel cells are electrochemical devices that combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and water. Several hundred fuel cells are already operating worldwide, and will become commercially available for homes in the next one to two years.

Photovoltaics have already entered the residential and commercial building market in nations such as Japan and Germany, and for off-grid use in developing nations. Wind power, the most cost-competitive renewable energy technology, is poised for rapid expansion in rural plains and offshore regions. Small geothermal, microhydro, and biomass systems also hold important roles in the emerging decentralized electricity system.

These small-scale generators have numerous advantages over large-scale power plants. Located close to where they are used, small-scale units can save electricity consumers millions of dollars by avoiding costly new investments in central power plants and distribution systems.

Micropower can also save homeowners and businesses millions of dollars by lowering the threat of power outages and subsequent lost productivity. An electricity grid with many small generators is inherently more stable than a grid served by only a few large plants. Banks, hospitals, restaurants, and post offices have been among the early adopters of micropower systems as a way to reduce their vulnerability to power interruptions. The First National Bank of Omaha, in Omaha, Nebraska, for example, responded to a costly computer system crash in 1997 by hooking its processing center up to two fuel cells that provide 99.9999% reliability.

Use of more efficient combustion-based micropower systems, relying primarily on natural gas, will substantially lower emissions of particulates, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and heavy metals. These reductions would range from 50 to 100 percent, depending on the technology and pollutant.

The use of wind, solar power, and fuel cells fueled by hydrogen can also help reduce global carbon dioxide emissions, one third of which come from electricity generation. In the United States, widespread adoption of micropower could cut U.S. power plant carbon dioxide emissions in half. In developing nations, small-scale power could lower carbon emissions by 42 percent relative to large-scale systems.

Micropower will allow developing countries to leapfrog to power sources that are cheaper and cleaner than building more coal or nuclear plants and extending existing transmission lines. Many of these countries lose the equivalent of 20 to 50 percent of their total power generated through leaks in their transmission and distribution systems. In rural regions, where 1.8 billion people still lack access to electrical services, small-scale systems are already economically superior to the extension of transmission lines — and environmentally preferable to continued reliance on kerosene lanterns and diesel generators. To date, solar PV systems have been installed in more than half a million homes.

Despite micropower’s potential benefits, current market rules in most countries favor the incumbent centralized model. Many electric utilities, moreover, perceive micropower systems as an economic threat, and are blocking their deployment by charging onerous connection fees and by paying low prices for power fed into the grid. Failure to reform these rules and practices could result in the construction of another generation of marginally improved large-scale power plants of questionable long-term economic and environmental value.

Four Quick-Start Programs Would Cut Peak Electricity Loads and Prevent Summer Shortages

Relief from the warm-weather power shortages striking a growing number of U.S. cities would arrive more quickly if electric companies and the officials who regulate them implemented four simple, cost-effective steps to cut summertime peak demand for electricity. The measures would bring faster, cheaper results than relying on new power plant construction alone -- a process that takes years -- and ultimately reduce overall need for such facilities.

According to a report, Electric System Reliability and the Critical Role of Energy Efficiency, prepared by utility reliability experts from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy and the Regulatory Assistance Project, focusing on demand-side solutions would reverse a critical trend that has seen energy savings from utility efficiency programs drop by 14 percent since the mid-1990s precisely the same time that peak demand has overwhelmed available supplies in many areas. More importantly, they could be targeted at the most overloaded parts of the power grid, reducing the chances for distribution-related blackouts like those that have struck New York, San Francisco and Chicago.

The report recommends four complementary steps to improve performance of air conditioning and lighting systems, the two biggest energy users during critical peak demand periods. The first two can begin immediately, and could easily be concentrated in load pockets where utilities have problems meeting electricity demand. Deployed more widely, these measures could meet more than 60 percent of the projected growth in electricity demand over the coming decade.

  1. Tuning Up Residential Air Conditioning Systems
  2. Tuning Up Commercial Buildings
  3. More Efficient Air Conditioning Systems
  4. More Efficient Commercial Lighting

Total potential savings from just these four measures total 100,000 megawatts by 2010. That’s about 60 percent of the overall increase in demand projected by the North American Electric Reliability Council.

While it is too late for such programs to significantly impact demand this summer, the authors say utilities can and should begin these efforts now to help avert next summer’s power crunch. By contrast, new power plants proposed today may take 3 to 5 years to come on line. The authors say that state utility commissions should encourage, or even require, electric companies to begin these efforts. California is already considering such a move. They call on the Department of Energy to provide technical assistance, and urge the agency to act quickly on the air conditioner efficiency standards.

Tree Ordinance Protects Canopy, Saves Energy Study Says

Municipal ordinances are a good way to preserve urban tree canopies and likely lower city residents' summer electricity bills, a University of Florida study suggests.

The study by UF geography researchers used a new method to compare the tree canopy in Gainesville, which has a strict tree ordinance, with nearby Ocala, which has a looser law. It concluded Gainesville's canopy is more than twice as thick as Ocala's -- and that the canopy's added shade is likely the reason Gainesville residents spend an average of $126 less than their Ocala counterparts for power bills annually. "This study justifies in economic terms the existence of a tree ordinance," said Michael Binford, a UF associate professor of geography.

Ryan Jensen, who did the study for his doctoral research, said a prominent reason for the difference is that Gainesville has far stricter rules than Ocala regarding tree removal.

A couple of examples: In Gainesville, anyone who wants to cut down a tree with a trunk diameter greater than 30 inches in a residential area must apply for a permit. In Ocala, no permit is required, as long as the lot is less than three acres, according to a comparison of the rules in Jensen's thesis. Gainesville residents caught removing a tree without a required permit, meanwhile, must replace the trees on an inch-per-inch basis, meaning if they illegally cut down a large tree they face the expensive proposition of replacing it with an equally large tree. In Ocala, illegally cut large trees can be replaced with multiple smaller trees, as long as the smaller trees have trunks at least 3 inches in diameter.

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