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Want to Save Water? Use Less Energy

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Water is required to generate electricity from fossil fuels. Coal fired power plants are the largest water consumer because the process requires water to extract, clean and sometimes transport coal to the power plant, where more water is then required to cool steam and control pollution at the site. The International Energy Agency estimates 580 billion cubic meters of freshwater are withdrawn for energy production each year, making it the second largest source of water withdrawal in the world.

At the state and national level, water consumption from energy production can be dramatically reduced by switching to energy sources that use significantly less water, such as natural gas. Solar and wind are even better alternatives because they require no water for electricity production. This does not include the water used to manufacture renewables, but the amount of water used to produce the panels and turbines is negligible compared to water consumed to operate coal fired power plants.

Building designers, who rarely have a direct impact on U.S. energy policies, can do their part by aggressively driving down energy demands and encouraging owners to use on site renewable energy generation to offset electricity consumption from the grid. Investments in reducing grid electricity consumption become more enticing in states like California where freshwater supplies are severely threatened.

Some would argue that if projects could recognize water and energy savings outside the project’s site boundaries, engineers would make decisions using a full life cycle analysis (LCA). However, if design teams were allowed to recognize water savings from reducing energy consumption, should they then be forced to benchmark their efforts as a percentage of the total water use at the power plant attributable to energy generated for the building?  The absolute amount of water savings seems significant, yet when compared to the total water demand the savings become less impressive.

The flip side of this argument is that increased transparency might lead to designers making better decisions that benefit more than just those who own and occupy the building. Rating systems like LEED are experimenting with offering points for whole-building LCAs that show significant reductions in CO2 and other substances that have negative environmental impacts.

Ultimately building codes and rating systems will need to include a scoring methodology that allows buildings to recognize savings beyond their project’s borders without being misleading about the building’s total footprint. As stakeholders continue to demand more transparency, we expect to see LCAs playing a bigger role during the building design process.


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Affordable, Clean Energy Solutions on Display

Each year, the Department of Energy hosts their annual Solar Decathlon, a competition which challenges bright young engineers to design, build and operate the most attractive and efficient clean energy powered houses.  This annual event has fathered many practical ideas that can live in the ‘real world’ where a lot of untried theories fall flat.

Interdisciplinary collegiate teams strive to earn points for design, marketability, affordability, engineering and energy efficiency, and their ability to communicate their design vision with a clear and consistent message. The competition has rules, of course, that allow the jury to compare apples to apples.  The house size, conveniences, appliances and power requirements for modern living are all detailed and built according to code.  Maxing out at 1,000 square feet, some entries have gone on to become second homes or vacation cottages for private owners.

2013’s winner was Team Austria who nosed out the University of Las Vegas by a mere 4.35 points (out of a maximum 1,000 possible).  Their LISI Home shows that we’re way beyond hippie rustic with its sleek, elegant Scandinavian inspired design.  And, like some of its predecessors, you can buy one for yourself.

One of the more provocative entries was 2005’s Solar Hydrogen Home. Christened “The Green Machine-Blue Space” by its designers at the New York Institute of Technology, this creative design featured complex engineering that used solar power to crack water into its separate gas components.  They captured the hydrogen, stored it in a special vessel with redundant safety features, and used hydrogen to power the home!  Admittedly, this was a little weak on the “affordability” category, and requires careful safety measures.  We haven’t seen much tweaking on it – yet.  But it does provoke thinking outside the box.   And it’s hard to imagine a rural farm that would not benefit from this technology.  This home now stands) on the grounds of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

The competition has expanded to Europe, China, Latin America and the Middle East. Every two years, the public here in the United States has the chance to see the latest in affordable clean energy solutions as the Decathlon is on display.  This year, you can see it at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California, October 8-18.  Admission is no charge.


Photo Credit: Thomas Kelsey/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Environmental Impact and Energy Management of Sports Stadia

Worldwide focus on energy has sharpened in the last 15 years. Political, socio-economic, financial and environmental factors cause concern at various global, regional and domestic levels of authority and in the consciousness of the public. The built environment within the UK is a high energy user, made up of different sectors that each has their own methods of addressing and managing their energy footprint.

As part of my dissertation research project at London South Bank University, I investigated the current measures being taken by UK sporting associations and individual clubs to reduce energy use. Through analysis of published and gathered data was found to account for 0.49% of the financial outgoings of a typical English football club.

With such a small percentage of financial resources going towards HVAC energy consumption, it is understandable that energy costs cannot be at the forefront of UK clubs’ financial management.

However, the finances, brand awareness and infrastructure within high-profile sports franchises still presents an opportunity to drive direct energy consumption and environmental impact down. Additionally, larger clubs that take the lead in this field will inspire smaller clubs, the viewing public and other industries to bring about change through the implementation of managerial procedures and investment in sustainable technology.

There are several football clubs that issue annual Corporate and Social Responsibility (CSR) reports which contain some elements of energy and waste reduction and describe steps being made to reduce their environmental impact. At present, CSR is wide spread within all major US sports leagues, but this has not always been the case.  10 to 15 years ago it was a rarity, with some academics in the field of sports management calling for advances in this area.  North American universities in particular are well placed to analyse the benefits of sustainable attitudes in sports stadia management due to 8 of the 10 largest stadiums in the world being university owned, with most having professional sports franchises as tenants.  As a result most universities have sports management departments that lead the field in the research and enforcement of such attitudes and recently several academic papers and industry journals have praised the uptake of CSR across North American sport.

Although CSR reporting is gaining traction, currently the organizations that do report on these issues tend to only be the richest clubs or those with a stable financial position in regards to long term ownership.  Maintaining financial stability and club investments tend to concentrate only on short term goals like immediate survival or promotion within their association’s league structure.

In order for sustainability to have any real effect within these organizations, stakeholders need to set long term reduction targets and efficiency goals. CSR reporting is an excellent place to start because it puts in place methods for measuring, reporting and managing energy consumption.  But like the US major leagues this needs to be a top down approach with sports associations like the English Football Association (The FA), Rugby Football Union (RFU) and England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) taking the lead on this and making themselves fully accountable via CSR as well as their members, only then will we see the wide range of benefits that such attitudes bring with them.


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Nuclear Fusion Reactors

The rewards of creating a functional nuclear fusion reactor will be enormous.  Such a device will generate safe, emission-free energy using fuel derived from water and lithium. This opportunity has intrigued and stumped scientists worldwide for nearly a century, and for good reason.

The conditions needed to sustain the fusion reaction are extreme and complex.  The reaction requires the containment of plasma at hundreds of millions of degrees Celsius.  During the reaction, isotopes of hydrogen are “fused,” releasing large quantities of heat energy.  Building on many decades of work, scientists and engineers around the world are developing experimental fusion reactors, which briefly replicate the same reactions powering the stars in the night sky.

The method of containing the plasma differentiates the many approaches to fusion.  Inertial confinement facilities such as the National Ignition Facility attempt to fuse small spheres of hydrogen fuel using high-powered lasers.  Magnetic confinement reactors use conductive coils to create a “bottle” of magnetic fields that retain the burning plasma.  Popular designs of confinement reactors include signature donut-shaped tokamaks (NSTX, JET and ITER) and twisting, irregular stellarators (HSX and LHD).  ITER, the international thermonuclear experiment reactor, aims to be the first tokamak to produce more energy than what is required to run the machine. Construction on ITER began in 2013.

Magnetic confinement reactors are engineering marvels.  A reactor usually consists of a metal vacuum-sealed chamber surrounded by racks upon racks of conductive coils, measurement equipment, pipes, cables, power supplies, and cooling system components.  In order for an experiment to operate safely, countless systems need to provide heating, cooling, vast quantities of electrical power, vacuum pressure maintenance, and diagnostics.  Operational safety concerns include high voltages, heat, and radiation (the fusion reaction can irradiate components on the inside of the chamber).

Despite numerous developing safety requirements, fusion reactors still offer huge safety advantages over nuclear fission reactors.  They do not generate radioactive waste, apart from the recyclable components inside the devices themselves.  Fusion reactions also have no chance of burning uncontrollably, due to the tiny amount of hydrogen burned at a time.  A power failure or fuel interruption would simply stop the reaction.  Fusion fuel also cannot be weaponized.

On large scales, fusion energy is an ideal power source.  Unlike fossil fuel power plants, a confinement fusion reactor does not generate carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases.  Additionally, the fuel needed to sustain the reaction can be derived from seawater, which is much more abundant than fossil fuels.

Fusion also distinguishes itself from renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind by offering consistency. An industrial scale fusion reactor will reliably and predictably add thousands of MW to an electricity grid, helping to meet demands not satisfied by the intermittent contributions of solar and wind.

So, when can the world expect to add emission-free, safe, renewable fusion energy to its mix?  Due to the significant short-term risks of climate change, the answer to this question matters.  The brief answer is that scientists and engineers are still decades away from practically producing electricity from fusion.  Full scale experiments on ITER are planned for the late 2020’s, and an industrial scale plant called DEMO is expected to follow.

When ITER finally begins to fuse hydrogen, it will make history as one of the largest, most expensive, and most significant scientific undertakings of all time. Fusion, when it becomes practical, may propel mankind into a new abundant energy era, marking the end of the current “oil age.”  But in the meantime, scientists, engineers, politicians, and concerned citizens need to make do with existing energy technologies in the fight against the next few decades of global warming.

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Solar Outlook in New York

There are now more reasons than ever before to buy solar in New York State. It’s no secret that burning fossil fuels for electricity generation has been adding to our planet’s climate change problem. For concerned citizens, this has always been a major driver for installing solar panels at their home or workplace. However, solar PV power systems are now being seen as an investment in electricity generation with lower energy prices and less risk than burning traditional fossil fuels. Here are a few of the reasons why:

1: Distributed Energy (Net Metering) – Investor-owned utilities in New York are required to offer net metering to residents that install a PV system (up to 25 kW) or other types of renewable energy generators.  Net metering is a billing method that “pays” customers (i.e. gives them a credit towards their utility bill) with renewable energy generators for the electricity they supply to the grid. Public utility companies are not required to offer net metering, however many in New York do.

2: Higher Energy Prices – This past February, the price for a kilowatt hour of electricity in New York State was 19.76 cents, which is about 7 cents higher than the national average (12.29 cents/kwhr). By using solar to offset grid electricity consumption, New Yorkers are saving more on their utility bill than customers in other states with lower electricity prices. Additionally, as energy prices continue to rise, solar owners will see a faster return on their investment.

3: Financial Incentives – New York has hefty state rebates and tax credits for solar owners who qualify to help cover the high upfront investment in a PV system. Solar purchases are also exempt from property and sales taxes.

4: Required Solar – New York has set a mandatory renewable portfolio standard (RPS) goal of 22.5% energy from renewable sources by 2020. Within that goal there is a 2% solar carve-out, which means that New York needs more solar to meet their goal!

As New York continues to support renewable energy development, solar companies are also working to create cheaper, more efficient systems. Whether you care about the environment, want save (or potentially make) money through your utility bills, or protect yourself from future energy price spikes, solar installation is clearly a smart choice.


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Happy Earth Day!

Happy Earth Day! Today we chose to celebrate by asking everyone in our office to suggest ways in which we can be greener while we work!  Check out the list below to see what we came up with:

  1. Have IT program all computers so they turn screens off, rather than put on screensavers when computers are idle – Sarah G.
  2. Use pens with refillable ink – Joel T.
  3. Don’t stock the refrigerator with plastic drink bottles – Claire C.
  4. Buy a soda stream for the office! – Dagna H.
  5. Measure our electricity consumption using an electrical meter so we are aware of how much energy we consume – Brian Shassian
  6. Adjust the refrigerator temp to 4 degrees C and freezer to -18 degrees C can help the fridge work less and the food doesn’t go bad or thaw – Josue A.
  7. Encourage people to bring food from home in reusable containers – Winnie
  8. Stop using disposable plates, cups and utensils – Dagna H.
  9. Stop printing things that don’t need to be printed, and when you do print make sure it’s double sided – Dagna H.
  10. Order vegetarian/vegan office lunches – Claire C.
  11. Take the stairs instead of the elevator – Danny O.
  12. Get a keg for office happy hour instead of buying individual beers – Charles C.
  13. Use environmentally friendly cleaning products to clean the office – Claire C.
  14. Have a green wall where people can quickly write green/sustainable ideas/thoughts – Abdul T.
  15. Use recycled paper to print anything that is used internally – Lisa C.
  16. Turn off the A/C unit and open the windows on a mild day – Lisa C.
  17. Remove individual trash cans and place paper recycling bins next to every printer – Will P.
  18. Buy office furniture made from sustainable materials – Ethan C.
  19. Take misprints and other single-sided documents we don’t need any more and use them for scratch work and note taking – Ethan C.
  20. Add occupancy sensors to all the light switches – Cyprienne C.
  21. Have large outdoor air temperature and humidity displays on both sides of the office so we know to open our windows on nice days – Cyprienne C.

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3D Printing and the Built Environment

The design and construction industry has come a long way since the days of paper drawing and hand written construction plans. Thanks to our ever-evolving technologies, we have figured out how to draw plans on the computer and print them for contractors. More recently, designers have access to programs that produce designs in the third dimension. So naturally, the newest technology to hit the market for the construction industry has been 3D printers.

3D printing first began in 1986 with Charles Hull, who applied for a patent for his stereolithography apparatus. He then went on to co-found 3D Systems Corporation, which is still around today and is one of the largest 3D printing companies in the world. Today, the market for 3D printing is estimated to be worth over $3.5 billion.

Many of the companies in this market are capitalizing on the benefits 3D printing has brought to the construction industry, such as decreased labor costs, less material waste and shorter construction periods. There are even a few companies that claim they have the technology to 3D print entire buildings at once. For example, WinSun, a China based company, claims to have printed 10 houses in 24 hours. They have also printed a 5 story apartment building, which was done using a printer that is 20 by 33 by 132 feet. In the United States, a professor at the University of Southern California has developed a printer that consists of a nozzle on a gantry and sprays out concrete based on a computer generated pattern. He believes his printer could produce a house in just one day.

3D printing is also creating new market potential in areas where building projects were not previously possible – outer space. Before 3D printing, man-made construction projects were too risky and expensive to perform in space. Currently, the European Space Agency is exploring the idea of printing bases on the moon using lunar regolith raw materials, which means only 10% of the building materials would actually have to be transported from earth.

As the 3D printing business continues to grow, it will inevitably revolutionize the design and construction industry in ways that were previously unimaginable. From more affordable housing options to lunar construction projects, 3D printing will certainly leave its mark on the built environment.

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