Investing in Solar

When you pay your electricity, bill, you’re not just paying for the electricity. In fact, about two thirds of your bill is covering the cost of the infrastructure needed to run the electricity from the power plant to your home.

Electricity is first generated at the power plant.  Here in the northeast, most of our energy is supplied from burning fossil fuels. However, once an electron is created and sent to the grid, it is impossible to tell if the electron was generated from burning fossil fuels or if it came from a renewable energy source.

After the electricity is generated, the voltage is increased so it can travel more efficiently though transmission lines to the substations. From there the voltage is decreased and the electricity is sent to homes and businesses at a low level that is safe for consumption.

As you can see, there is a massive amount of infrastructure that goes into delivering electricity to your home or office building, which why your electricity bill is roughly three times the price of what is actually costs the power plant to generate an electron. On the other hand, solar panels require none of this infrastructure. The power that is generated on-site supplies energy directly to the building where it’s located, off-setting the need to use dirty, expensive power plant energy coming from the grid.

Although a lot of people are deterred from the high initial cost of installing solar panels, there are now many alternative funding options to help finance solar instillation, such as tax rebates or leasing your panels. Furthermore, as the price of grid electricity continues to increase, the energy you generate from your solar panels will still continue to be free, giving you a higher return on your investment.

As solar system technologies continue to improve and the cost of utilities remain on the rise, solar is becoming a more attractive investment for both individuals and businesses. When we also consider the negative environmental impacts from dirty power plants, solar becomes a smart investment for both ourselves and the future of our planet.

 

Photo from birgstockphoto.com

Green Schools, Education Programs and the Future of Sustainability

In order to find enduring solutions to global problems, we must always seek the root of the issues we hope to solve. Climate change concerns grow every day, and at the source of the problem are the unhealthy behaviors that start with the children in our society.

Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing the human population. Global warming is amplified by human behavior, which begins to develop at a very young age. One of the ways we can start to address this issue is by educating our children about how to live more sustainably. The good news is that many of our nation’s school systems are one step ahead of us by implementing inspiring programs in our schools. The positive effects of these programs on young people are creating a movement in our country, which will inevitably lead to a positive effect on our climate.

Every year, the USGBC Colorado Green Schools Summit showcases Colorado’s exemplary school leaders and industry experts and provides a forum for professionals to share their passion for sustainability. One of the stories presented at the Summit that resonated the most with me was the Douglas County School District in Colorado case study. In recent years, the Douglas County School District has grown over 400%, making it the fastest growing school district in the nation. Douglas County has not passed a bond since 2006 for the purpose of funding energy saving renovations, yet has still managed to cut energy usage by 30% per square foot, resulting in a total of $3.2 million in energy savings since 2006. All of this has been achieved by a completely student-run sustainability program.

The students involved in the program study energy saving measures, focus on the changes that they believe will make the most impact and implement them on a district-wide basis with minimal interference from administration. When Sustainability Director Lee Smit started this program, he had 11 students, all of which did not expect to graduate high school. Through mentoring and engaging the students in real, sustainable solutions with results they could see almost immediately, all 11 students went on to graduate. Most of those students even went on to attend college, choosing majors related to sustainability. Since the inception of the program in 2006, student participation has risen to 7500 students throughout the district. Smit reports that the vast majority of students involved in the program chose environmental professions or majors after graduating high school.

Besides making their buildings healthier, schools across the country are also adapting healthy food programs to educate students by growing and eating fresh fruits and vegetables on their campuses. The keynote speaker for the 2013 USGBC Green Schools Summit was Stephen Ritz, a school teacher in the Bronx that has enabled inner city students to grow fresh vegetables. The majority of Ritz’s students live below the poverty level and do not receive the proper nutrition they need to thrive. His program, The Green Bronx Machine, was created to teach students how to farm vegetables to improve their own health and sell at famer’s markets to help fund their educations. The food grown in their gardens are used to create balanced meals in the schools cafeterias and at their kitchen tables at home. Ritz has witnessed school attendance rise from 40% to 93% since the inception of his agriculture program.

Stories like these truly display the promise that lies within the young people of our country, and we applaud the teachers and administrators at the forefront of this movement. Teaching passion for healthy buildings and food in the young people of our country is the future of sustainability, and the positive impact on the students and communities is inspiring.

 

Photo from GreenBronxMachine.org

Greening Apartment Buildings

Almost every environmentally conscious person has run into the old adage of Reduce, Re-use, Recycle. While this call to action is self-explanatory, what may be lesser known about these stages is that they are listed from greatest to least effective. By focusing on Reduce, the first and most effective stage, individuals can make significant energy saving contributions in even the smallest of spaces – a New York City apartment.

There are 4 categories that energy consumption in an apartment can fall under – space heating, space cooling, lighting, and plug loads. Whether you’re moving in for the first time or you’re looking to upgrade an old system, each category has many “smart” new ways to reduce energy consumption:

1: Space Heating: Old steam radiator systems are the bane of most apartment owners and renters because they have poor (or no) temperature control, which results in excessive over-heating and frequent under-heating. New products in development, like the Cozy from Radiator Labs, allow occupants to control when the radiator provides heat. The radiator is insulated and will only provide heat when the temperature of the room drops below setpoint and the fan turns on.

2: Space Cooling: Window air conditioners are great for cooling apartments without central air but lack any complex controls. If left on all day they drain energy from the city grid and can cost the user hundreds of dollars per month. However, Con Edison now offers programs for better control over window air conditioners for free. The coolNYC program lets Con Edison customers request a “smart thermostat” which runs individual air conditioning units on a predetermined schedule and provides control over the system through a smartphone app. Greater controls reduce the need to keep your unit running all day and gives users the freedom to consume energy only when necessary.

3: Lighting: Perhaps the easiest way to cut down on lighting load is to use more efficient bulbs. In the past the best option was compact fluorescent bulbs (CFL), but recently the market has seen an increase in LED sales. LEDs are typically more expensive than CFLs, but they can last more than twice the life of a CFL bulb, more than 20 times the length of a normal incandescent and still provide 85% energy savings over traditional bulbs.

4: Plug Loads: Even after electronic devices have been turned off, they continue to draw power from the grid if left plugged in. This type of energy is referred to as vampire loads or phantom loads and can add up to be a serious waste of energy. To combat this, appliances must be unplugged or the power strip it is connected to must be turned off. This inconvenience can be avoided by installing a smart powerstrip, which completely shuts off power to all appliances when it senses a main appliance is not in use. For example, if you were to turn off your television, a smart powerstrip would sense this and completely shut down your cable box, stereo and DVD player to avoid the vampire load. While these individual savings are not significant, the savings across the entire electrical grid can make a notable difference.

2014 Was the Hottest Year on Record

At the beginning of each year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) publishes an annual report that summarizes the state of the earth’s climate vs the previous year. In their most recent analysis, NOAA reports that 2014 was the warmest year on record by 0.07°F. To most New Yorkers who survived the Polar Vortexes of last year, an increase of 0.07°F doesn’t even begin to make a dent in what we would consider to be “warming” and yet scientists are warning us that this warming trend will have serious social, political, and economic consequences.

The average annual global temperature is a combination of land and ocean surface temperatures that are recorded by weather stations around the world. Land temperatures for 2014 were actually only the 4th highest value ever recorded. However, 2014 was a record breaking year for oceanic temperatures, including three months of new monthly high sea surface temperature records being set in June, August and September.

It’s not surprising that as humans continue to ramp up the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, new global temperature highs are being recorded. However, what is surprising is that 2014 was the first time in the last 25 years that the global temperature record was broken without El Niño conditions being present. This then begs the question, as the concentration of GHGs remains above 400 ppm, what’s going to happen when El Niño conditions return? Many scientists believe that the next El Niño year will bring even higher record breaking temperatures.

Once we begin to understand what’s happening to our planet, the question then becomes why do we care? In New York City, it’s sometimes easy to remove ourselves from becoming part of the solution to climate change because the consequences are not always causing noticeable stress in our region. However, while we are fortunate to live in an area that has remained relatively sheltered from climate change compared to other places around the world, we are still not immune.

For example, as the earth’s temperature continues to rise, farmers are experiencing droughts, flooding and temperature variations that kill crops and decrease food production. The decreased supply of crops is driving up the price of food, which is then passed along to the consumer through higher food prices at the supermarket. This issue is also accelerated by increased energy prices and exponential population growth, which is driving up the demand for crops and increasing food prices even further.

As issues like higher food prices slowly begin to infiltrate places like New York City, we can also expect to see more devastating consequences of climate change that are more difficult to absorb. In October of 2012, Hurricane Sandy ravaged the east coast, killing 149 people and costing the area billions of dollars in property damage and lost business. A storm of this magnitude statistically only comes around once every 100 years. However, in 2005 the south was hit by Hurricane Katrina and in 2011 the northern coast was hit by Hurricane Irene, two other 100 year storms. The probability of three 100 year storms randomly occurring over the course of eight years seems much less likely than the alternative conclusion that human behavior is increasing storm frequency and intensity.

As we look back at the temperature records over the past 135 years and reflect on the correlation between global warming and the social and economic impacts of a warmer planet, it is clear that we must act now by living more sustainably. Scientists have warned us about the consequences of global warming, and it is now up to us to find and implement a solution.

The Evolution of BIM

The term BIM (Building Information Modeling) can be used to describe many different aspects of a design and construction project. Fundamentally, the BIM process involves the development of an advanced 3D model for the proposed project and includes all structural, architectural and MEP components. The ability to view these components in three dimensions allows project leaders to better coordinate during the design stages by creating a visual model of how all these systems interact with one another. Detailed BIM models also accelerate installation of the building’s systems during the construction phases due to fewer ‘hits’ needing to be worked out in the field.

Although BIM is a relatively new design tool, the concept has been around for several decades. The BIM process has started to be widely used over the past 10 years due to significant advancements in software and hardware technologies. I first became involved in the BIM process with the design of Yankee Stadium using Autodesk’s Building Systems software, and following through during the construction process with 3D contractor coordination using NavisWorks. Many of my projects now require in-depth knowledge of the Autodesk REVIT software.

Looking ahead to the next 10 years, we can expect to see further advancements as more project teams incorporate BIM into their design process. As more project teams explore their options using a BIM system, it will trigger high level discussions about project delivery, ownership of documents and team assembly. These types of conversations are an important part of the process and have the potential to change the design and construction industry.

The current trend in the BIM process is a push towards design teams advancing their design models to a higher level of detail than previously accepted. Design teams are also expected to model all components of the MEP systems, no matter the size, which has traditionally been left to the respective trade contractors to complete during the shop drawing coordination process. This trend will lead to discussions that distinguish the design team and contractor’s responsibilities and how to effectively migrate the model from a design model to a construction model.

Beyond design and construction, the BIM process is also available to the end user to create efficiencies in building operation and maintenance. For example, BIM has the ability to not only show the physical location of a light fixture, but it can also tag the light fixture with information that will be pertinent to building operation and maintenance staff (such as the manufacturer and model number of the fixture, type and quantity of lamps and the date when they were last replaced).

Even as these developments unfold, we must remember that at the core of the BIM process is the information; the process is only as good as the information presented in the model.

Space Programming and Energy Savings

I recently performed an energy model for one of our clients to analyze the load profile for a higher education building. The main objective was to determine if space programming played any significant role on the building’s yearly energy consumption. The building consisted of laboratories, classrooms and faculty offices. Since yearly occupancy can be variable for schools, my first thought was to locate classrooms, which typically become unoccupied in the summer, along the south perimeter and offices, which remain occupied, along the north to reduce the summer cooling loads. It turned out that this particular building had no occupancy reduction in the summer, so I turned my attention to other programming decisions that could potentially reduce energy consumption.

The architect submitted three program layouts for consideration. This information was used to create an energy model for each scheme. Two of the models had very similar results but the third model reduced the building’s EUI by approximately 5%. I realized that the energy savings could be attributed to a perimeter corridor running along the east side of the building on each floor. The other two schemes included central corridors.

Corridors, not being regularly occupied spaces, can always be in cooling/heating setback mode. By placing the corridor along the perimeter, it acts as a buffer zone between the exterior and interior that can be 3 degrees warmer or cooler all year long, without anyone’s comfort being compromised. A small difference like that can have a big impact over the course of a year.

While this solution cannot always be implemented, it’s important to be considerate of all of the energy repercussions in a design. By not taking the occupancy schedule into account when determining program space, architects could be missing out on free energy savings. This kind of holistic approach to building design is imperative in net zero buildings where every reduction percentage counts. If we truly care about saving energy we need to start thinking this way for all building designs.

Can Humans Power the World They Occupy?

Humans are constantly on the move. On a daily basis we are walking, jogging, biking, swimming, hiking, or doing some type of activity powered by our bodies without giving it any thought. Because of this, human power is commonly thought of as a “free” energy source. However, this line of thinking is not accurate because human power requires an energy input (i.e. food), and the efficiency with which humans can digest food to produce power is extremely low. On average, producing the fuel source human power consumes eight times as much energy as it produces.

The daily energy output of the average person is 600 watt-hours. At its most efficient, the calories of food energy required to produce this can be provided by eating 4.6 lbs of corn which requires 2,300 Watt-hours of energy to produce or 1.5 lbs of beef which requires 43,000 watt-hours of energy to produce.  The conversion of food calories to energy by a human is between 1.4 and 26% efficient and by no means impressive.

The largest muscles in the human body are in the legs. Therefore, the most effective means of generating human power is to power a bicycle or similar device.  A well-conditioned professional cyclist can generate 400 watts of energy for each hour of cycling. However, the average person can produce less than about 125 watts for each hour. In comparison, operating a hand crank generator for one hour produces about 33 watts of energy.

To put things in perspective, one barrel of oil contains about 1,700,000 Watt-hours, which is equivalent to 22,000 hours (ten years) of human work. The average human consumes 50 barrels of oil per year, so the deficit is substantial.

Human power is very useful if it can be delivered without the need to consume additional food calories.  Something as simple as taking the stairs instead of an elevator or walking instead of driving are easy ways to save energy and can have a significant impact on reducing non-renewable energy consumption when millions of people participate.