Renewable Energy Plan for New York

Let’s convert New York State’s energy infrastructure into something more sustainable. It’s a simple concept, with a multitude of benefits.  Converting to renewable energy will stabilize costs of energy and  produce jobs while reducing health and climate damage and overall improving the quality of life.

A recent study by Mark Z. Jacobson et al. finds that it is technically and economically feasible to convert the fossil fuel energy infrastructure in New York State to one that is supplied entirely by wind, water, and solar power. The use of natural gas is argued against due to the dangerous hydraulic fracturing process and the air pollution produced.  The proposed plan provides the largest possible reductions in air and water pollution, and global warming impacts.

Jacobson and scientists from Cornell University and the University of California-Davis have proposed the first fully developed plan to fulfill all sectors (transportation, electric power, industry, and district heating and cooling) of New York State’s energy demands with renewable energy. Additionally, they calculated the number of new jobs created, amount of land and ocean areas required, and policies needed for an infrastructure change of this magnitude. It also provides calculations of air pollution mortality and morbidity impacts and costs based on multiple years of air quality data.

While a wind, water, and solar conversion will result in high initial capital costs, they will be made up over time due to the elimination of fuel costs. Overall, New York State’s end-use power demand will decrease by roughly 37% and create 58,000 permanent jobs with job exchange predicted. It is estimated that 4.5 million temporary jobs would be created during construction phase.

The researchers propose that New York’s 2030 power demand for all sectors could be met by:

4,020 onshore 5-megawatt wind turbines

12,770 offshore 5-megawatt wind turbines

387 100-megawatt concentrated solar plants

828 50-megawatt photovoltaic power plants

5 million 5-kilowatt residential rooftop photovoltaic systems

500,000 100-kilowatt commercial/government rooftop photovoltaic systems

36 100-megawatt geothermal plants

1,910 0.75-megawatt wave devices

2,600 1-megawatt tidal turbines

7 1,300-megawatt hydroelectric power plants, of which most exist

To ensure grid reliability, the plan outlines several methods to match renewable energy supply with demand and to smooth out the variability of WWS resources. These include a grid management system to shift times of demand to better match with timing of power supply, and “over-sizing” peak generation capacity to minimize times when available power is less than demand. The plan also includes a solution to the current protocol of shutting down facilities during times of overproduction that includes the sale of surplus.

Currently, almost all of New York’s energy comes from imported oil, coal, and gas. This new plan looks to supply 40 percent of NY’s energy from wind power, 38 percent from solar, and 22 percent from a combination of hydroelectric, geothermal, and tidal and wave energy. All of these sources will be located in, or offshore of, New York State.

All vehicles will be replaced with battery-electric vehicles (BEV), hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCV) and BEV-HFCV hybrids. Electricity-powered air- and ground-source heat pumps, geothermal heat pumps, heat exchangers and backup electric resistance heaters would replace natural gas and oil for home heating and air-conditioning. Air- and ground-source heat pump water heaters powered by electricity and solar hot water preheaters would provide hot water for homes. High temperatures for industrial processes would be obtained with electricity and hydrogen combustion.

Jacobsen et al. have provided a comprehensive and all inclusive energy alternative for New York State that boasts a sustainable, inexpensive and reliable energy supply that will creates local jobs and save the state billions of dollars in pollution-related costs.

As a small ny green contractor most of these projects are currently too large for us to handle. But the large projects are not the only place to make an impact. Our focus on energy efficient building reduces the need for energy in the first place. Also, micro sustainable energy production such as a photovoltaic installation on a warehouse or home is certainly something we could do. Such decentralized energy sources reduce the load on the grid and in turn create back up options should the central grid go down.

 

Exterior Shades – The Anti-Heat Wave of the Future

Temperature has assuredly become a hot topic in offices throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan during the recent heat wave. Eco Brooklyn’s office is no exception to the heat. However, we have a unique approach to the problem.

Passive housing has been a cornerstone of environmental design since the ancient Greeks and Romans (check out this article on the history of passive housing: http://www.planetseed.com/relatedarticle/energy-efficient-building-passive-heating-and-cooling). While technology and techniques have become more advanced, many of the principles used by the ancients have stood the test of time. Most notably, this includes the use of exterior shades to protect from heat in the summer while allowing sunlight in during the winter.

Exterior shades differ from internal shades in a few major ways. Perhaps the biggest difference is that when using internal shades, the sunlight is allowed to enter the room through the window. The heat will be trapped inside of the shades. As it dissipates on the interior, the home is heated much faster.

The second major difference between interior and exterior shades is the dynamic ways one can utilize external shades and shutters. For example, the use of an overhang is an effective way of using angles to shade the windows during the summer when the sun is high. When the sun is lower in the winter, the sun can enter the room under the overhang.

Furthermore, this concept of exterior shading offers an opportunity for synergy – a mark of sustainability in the green building community. Currently, Eco Brooklyn’s offices employ the use of internal honeycomb shades, which are highly effective at absorbing heat. However, we have plans of making an even more effective and synergistic approach. Namely, we would like to install an exterior overhang to accomplish the above-stated goals; with one catch: We will install solar panels on the overhang to absorb the heat and reroute it to power the house. This is a great example of an integrated solar power system.

As global temperatures and sea levels continue to rise across the world (especially in NYC: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/10/new-york-city-flooding-by-2050_n_3417348.html), New Yorkers will be expected to assume a heavy burden of increasing energy bills. One way to combat these growing expenses is by building green. Passive housing is a great way to not only take advantage of the Earth’s natural energy, but prevent it from escaping your house as well.

Another approach to natural cooling is to use a green facade, or living wall. This concept involves the use of growing vines and other vegetation in a vertical direction to cover a wall or other surface of a building that is in direct sunlight. Green walls can vary in design and allow room for creativity. For further information on green walls check out this link: http://www.greenscreen.com/direct/GS_AdvancedGreenFacadeDesign.pdf

A thermal camera reveals the cooling factor of a green wall over solid surfaces.

A thermal camera reveals the cooling factor of a green wall over solid surfaces.

Christopher Jeffrey

Klearwall PH Windows

energy-saving-windows-doors

As New York passive house builders, Eco Brooklyn gets approached by many distributors offering Passive House   products. Recently Klearwall, a PH window company located in Ireland, informed us of their intended expansion in New York City. Klearwater offers thermal bridging calculations, which shows how much energy will be conserved by the instillation of their triple pane windows. The windows are PH certified and manufactured in a plant powered by renewable energy.  The plant is carbon neutral and harnesses its energy from two on site wind turbines and a co-gen plant.

Check them out!

http://www.klearwall.com/

passive-house-windows_1

 

Biomimicry and the Eden Project

The Eden Project

As a New York green builder, Eco Brooklyn is always interested in learning about what other sustainable design ideas are out there.  Last night, I listened to an amazing TED talk that took green building to a whole new level.

Michael Pawlyn, formerly with Grimshaw Architects, London, spoke about biomimicry and sustainable design and how he believes we should be looking to nature for both our inspiration and the solution to our design dilemmas. By looking to nature, we can create more efficient systems and usurp the benefits of nature’s 3.5 billion years of R&D.

Michael Pawlyn also addressed the importance of creating efficient cyclical uses of products (beneficial to both humans and nature) instead of the current, inefficient linear model of produce, use, throw away. (This theory is laid out eloquently in Michael McDonough and Michael Braungart’s must-read, Cradle to Cradle.)

Looking to Nature for Answers

Nature is effecient.  Nature epitomizes the mantra waste not want not.  In nature, waste is food.  Humans, on the other hand, are the polar opposite.  We are wasteful, inefficient, and operate on a use-it-once-and-throw-it-away mentality.

Many engineers and architects are practicing biomimicry, looking to nature for answers to the world’s most pressing problems, including us here at Eco Brooklyn.  The passivhaus pond in the backyard, for example, uses no chemicals, but gravel, rocks, and plants, to filter out dirt and other impurities.  Just like nature would in a pond or lake.

The idea of mimicking nature in manmade inventions is not new by any means.  The Greeks applied “the golden ratio”, also called the golden mean or golden selection, to their art and architecture.  The Pantheon is based on the golden ratio.  Even the volutes on ionic columns use these proportions.

Medieval alchemists would initially determine a plant’s potential healing qualities by what it looked like.  For example, the leaves of the lungwort plant, which resemble the human lung, were used to treat respiratory problems.

Cyclical vs Linear Consumption

Nature functions on a closed loop system.  The waste of one is the food for another.  The dead leaves that come off trees in the Autumn become nutrients for the soil and earthworms on the ground to which they fell.  The earthworms eat the leaves and their waste provide nutrients for the tree, which then gives it energy to produce new leaves in the Spring.

Biomimicry is about creating manmade systems that replicate the remarkably efficient systems found in nature.  In one of his lectures, Pawlyn gives the example of Cardboard to Caviar.  The expensive cardboard packaging that caviar comes in was bought from a restaurant and used as bedding for horses in stables.  When that wore out, it was taken and added to a compost heap that feed worms.  These worms are harvested and sold as food to roe, whose eggs are then harvest and sold as caviar at the same restaurant.  These types of closed looped systems are both economically and environmentally sound.  The metabolism of our cities needs to be reexamined so that nothing is wasted and beneficial, efficient systems are created.

The Eden Project

The eden project biomimicry

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to create sustainable, carbon neutral (or even carbon positive), green designs that are more efficient and cost less than the “standard” models.  “It is possible to cut carbon emissions and save money,” says Michael Pawlyn. “The key to it is innovation.”  This has been proven by Mr Pawlyn in his work on many projects, specifically the Eden Project in Cornwall, England.

The Eden Project is the world’s largest greenhouse.  It is the second most visited paid attraction in England.  It was designed by Grimshaw Architects and opened in March 2001.

The site is on a reclaimed Kaolinite mine.  Since the site was still being quarried during the design process, they had to design a structure that could be built regardless of the what the final ground levels were going to be.  The result is a series of bubble-like domes of varying sizes strung along the landscape.  By looking to nature, they discovered that the most effective way to create a spherical surface is by using geodesics (hexagons and pentagons).  These bubbles are a series of giant hexagons welded together and then inflated.

The biomes are made of Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), a transparent polymer that is used instead of glass and plastic in many modern buildings.  ETFE is incredibly strong and much lighter than glass.  Because of the lightness of the material, less steal was use for reinforcement which means more light can enter the space and less energy is required to heat space in the winter.  In fact, the structure itself weighs less than the air it contains

ETFE costs 1/3 less than the traditional glass solution.  ETFE is one percent of the weight of double glazing.

The Eden Project is just one of many examples of biomimicry and how man can learn to be efficient by mimicking what is already happening in nature.  By being aware of how nature solves problems we can improve our everyday lives.  Small things such as composting can make a big difference.  Compost puts nutrients back into the soil, feeds earthworms, and diverts food waste from going to landfills.  Finding new uses for old items gives them a new life.   We saved hundreds of pounds of lovely Blue Stone from a fate of going to the landfill by pulling it out of a dumpster and using it as paving in the front yard.  We can all be eco builders, practicing the principles of biomimicry.

In the words of Margaret Mead, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Here’s Michael Pawlyn’s TED talk: 

Green Roof Professional certification

The Green Roof Professional (GRP) certification system was developed by Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, a not-for-profit industry association working to promote and develop the market for the green roofs throughout North America.

In addition to providing a professional accreditation program, the organization facilitates the exchange of information, supports research, and promotes the establishment of effective public policies. The organization presents Awards of Excellence to celebrate innovative professionals and organizes the annual CitiesAlive conference to develop supportive policies.

Green Roofs for Healthy Cities has been committed to developing a professional accreditation program to legitimize green roof designers and provide education to fill knowledge gaps and improve the quality of work.

In 2004, Green Roofs for Healthy Cities developed its first training course, Green Roof Design 101. It has since added Green Roof Design and Installation 201, Green Roof Waterproofing and Drainage 301, and Green Roof Plants and Growing Media 401. The classes are available in Toronto, New York, Atlanta, and Denver on select dates. They are each full-day courses recommended as a part of the GRP training program. The following half-day courses are also available, and count as continuing education credits:

·  Advanced Green Roof Maintenance

·  Introduction to Rooftop Urban Agriculture

·  Green Walls 101: Systems Overview and Design (2nd Ed.)

·  Integrated Water Management for Buildings and Sites

·  Ecological Green Roof Design

·  Green Infrastructure: Policies, Performance and Projects

·  Green Roof Policy Development

Each course is accompanied by a course manual, which includes all the material on the accreditation exam.

Unfortunately, the accreditation process is rather expensive. Tuition for each full-day course is $399 USD and is accompanied by a course manual. Each course manual can be purchased for $199 USD separately for those who choose not to take the classes in person. The accreditation exam itself consists of 100 multiple-choice questions and lasts 2 hours. It costs $495 USD to enroll and cannot be taken online, but is only offered in Denver, Toronto, New York, and Chicago, incurring further transportation costs. In order to maintain GRP Certification, you must be a Green Roofs for Healthy Cities member ($160 USD annually), and renew your certification every 2 years. This involves completing a minimum of 16 continuing education credits, 8 of which must for GRHC related activities, and paying a renewal fee of $95 USD. Interestingly, each continuing education course is listed at 3.5 units, effectively forcing members to increase the number of classes they must take to maintain their accreditation. Some of the half-day courses can be taken online for $125 USD as part of the Living Architecture Academy.

While the accreditation process may be designed to increase the reliability of green roof designers, Green Roofs for Healthy Cities is also cashing in on the deal. The North American green roof industry grew by 115% in 2011, drawing many more interested professionals and increasing public awareness. Much like LEED in their field, GRHC monopolizes the accreditation process and effectively takes advantage of all the growth.

The existence of the certification is a double-edged sword: while it assures potential consumers that the professional hired has a sound informational backing, it also forces those who want to become green roofers to submit to the monopoly as it becomes the standard.

As a guerrilla green builder, EcoBrooklyn works with clients who seek the most cutting edge techniques. We reduce the net energy of each project by maximizing the use of natural and salvaged materials. The green roof methods taught in the GRP program adhere to the contemporary methodology involving plastics and other foreign materials. While we agree with the basic ideals driving GRHC’s mission (in that the application of green roofs is an essential component to reducing building impact and bettering the urban environment), we do not believe that adhering to the methods prescribed in the accreditation program are necessarily the only right way to build a green roof. In addition, as the organization grows, there is the danger that monetary and political pressures skew the curriculum towards supporting certain brands and materials which may not necessarily be the most ecologically friendly. The GRP curriculum is updated to include new knowledge, and we hope that GRHC’s updates will move towards greater net sustainability.

As it stands, the program is a good way for interested people to learn about green roofs as long as they allow themselves to expand on the ideas taught by GRHC. While we applaud Green Roofs for Healthy Cities’ organizational and promotional achievements, we hope that it does not become a prerequisite to legitimize oneself in the field but instead serves as a possible stepping-stone for professionals.

Abundance, The Book and it’s myopic viewpoint

I recently heard about a book called “Abundance” by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, so I checked out Diamandis’ TED Talk available below. He has some good points, namely that technology will continue to create abundance for humans…..but his view is so incredibly human centered I am skeptical. It reminds me of when humans thought the earth was the center of the universe.

To make my point I counted the key words in his speech:

1. All words like “human”, “people” or references to people like “A lady…”, “All of you…”.
2. All words like “technology” or references to technology like “computer”, “phone”
3. All words like “oil”, “gas”, “fossil fuel”
4. The word “Abundance”
5. The words Nature, Plants, Animals or references like “Dog”, “Tree”

The numbers came out like this:
1. Human words: 85
2. Technology words: 65
3. Gas words: 1
4. The word “Abundance”: 3
5. Nature words: 0

His message? Humans are the only life forms that are important, and our intelligence will harness technology to stay great. Technology is what has driven us to our current success (not oil). Technology will give voices to the voiceless (all humans).

Plants, other animals and nature in general is not part of the equation, and if they are then they are simply raw materials to harness (sun, water etc).

He does mention nature three times and water fourteen times but they are purely human centric:
1. He uses the word “environment”: For survival reasons we are programmed to monitor how the “environment” can harm us. In this case the word is not really about nature but about the things surrounding humans (cars, muggers, falling pianos).
2. He mentions “climate crisis” and “species extinction”. It is used dismissively, though: Yes we have problems like climate crisis and species extinction but still humans are great.
3. His mentions of water are nothing to do with nature but merely about how humans can use technology to collect the raw material “water”.

I don’t disagree that technology and humans are great but I have a problem with his myopic view that excludes all other life forms. How different is his view to that of a white male a hundred years ago who’s decisions may have never considered women or blacks? I guess he is more open minded because he has broadened his view to include all humans?

His web site lists people who endorse his view:

  • Jeff Skoll Co-founder of eBay
  • Arianna Huffington CEO, Huffington post
  • Richard Branson Chairman, the Virgin Group
  • Ray Kurzweil Inventor & Author, The Singularity is Near
  • Matt Ridley Author, The Rational Optimist
  • Elon Musk CEO, Tesla Motors, Co-founder, PayPal
  • Stewart Brand Author, Whole Earth Discipline
  • Timothy Ferriss #1 NY Times bestselling author
These people are all pillars of what I call new capitalism, which is a slight variation on old capitalism. They love technology, they still love growth, and they exalt the power of humans to overcome all obstacles. Yea, they are pretty similar to old capitalists, the ones who trashed the planet in the first place.
Only this time they are way cooler. Capitalism Lite; still the great consumerist taste but with less guilt ridden calories.
They are in denial that all our progress so far has not been technology but an abundance of cheap energy in the form of oil. When a barrel of oil provides more energy than ten years of one person’s labor you have a society moving so fast they make a coke addict look sloth-like.
Could fuel have been the jumping stone to get us to our next technology driven stage? Maybe.
But that is not my point. When your global plan completely ignores the opinions of 99.99% of the planet’s life forms, as Diamandis’ human centered viewpoint does, you are being extremely narrow minded.
His presumption is that humans and technology can do it alone. We are that great. My answer to that is, first why would you want to? and, second, I don’t think so.
Diamandis and his cronies need to wake up and smell the flowers. They need to calm down from their oil induced speed binge and realize that the last hundred years were a blip in the planets overall trajectory. And we may very well look back at these hundred years as a momentary time of “irrational exuberance” and unrealistic bubbles.
Over the past several thousand years humans have moved from infancy to youth to middle age. I think it is time to start acting like adults and not teenagers with our father’s car, regardless of what fuel that car uses.
How a grown up would act is for another blog post, or more accurately it is all the blog posts on this site. The answers are not single bullets. They are a web of connected awareness that go far beyond humans and their meager little technological playthings.

The Living Building Challenge- Winner of the 2012 Buckminster-Fuller Challenge

Green building and eco-sensitive design is currently at the forefront of our modern ethos.   What this means for the green builders, contractors and architects of NY, and the world, is a period of dramatic change and challenge is ahead if not already begun. A change in the way we think about new buildings and construction, in how we consider “used” materials and how we use and interact with space.

As Scholar David Orr stated-

“We are coming to an era the likes of which we’ve never seen before, we’re in the white waters of human history. We don’t know what lies ahead. Bucky Fuller’s ideas on design are at the core of any set of solutions that will take us to calmer waters.”

 

One of the most prominent voices in sustainability and responsible design since the 1960’s is R. Buckminster Fuller.  Fuller pioneered in fields from architecture, and mathematics, to engineering and automobile design and only patented 12 designs allowing the vast majority of his work to be open-sourced and free to the public.

His life’s mission and philosophy was simple, “to make the world work for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone.”

Even today, years after Fuller’s death his name is still the vanguard of the sustainable design community. The largest testament to his legacy is the R. Buckminster Fuller Institute and their annual international competition the Buckminster Fuller Design Challenge.

According to the institution’s website $100,000 is given “…to support the development and implementation of a strategy that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems. Named “Socially-Responsible Design’s Highest Award” by Metropolis Magazine, it attracts bold, visionary, tangible initiatives focused on a well-defined need of critical importance. Winning solutions are regionally specific yet globally applicable and present a truly comprehensive, anticipatory, integrated approach to solving the world’s complex problems.”

In 2012 at an awards ceremony held here in NYC at Cooper Union The International Living Future Institute was awarded first prize for their “Living Building Challenge” initiative.  According to the institute’s website the Living building Challenge is:

-a PHILOSOPHY, ADVOCACY PLATFORM AND CERTIFICATION PROGRAM. Because it defines priorities on both a technical level and as a set of core values, it is engaging the broader building industry in the deep conversations required to truly understand how to solve problems rather than shift them.

-an EVOCATIVE GUIDE. By identifying an ideal and positioning that ideal as the indicator of success, the Challenge inspires project teams to reach decisions based on restorative principles instead of searching for ‘least common denominator’ solutions. This approach brings project teams closer to the objectives we are collectively working to achieve.

-a BEACON. With a goal to increase awareness, it is tackling critical environmental, social and economic problems, such as: the rise of persistent toxic chemicals; climate change; habitat loss; the collapse of domestic manufacturing; global trade imbalances; urban sprawl; and the lack of community distinctiveness.

-a ‘UNIFIED TOOL’. Addressing development at all scales, it can be equally applied to landscape and infrastructure projects; partial renovations and complete building renewals; new building construction; and neighborhood, campus and community design.

-a PERFORMANCE-BASED STANDARD. Decidedly not a checklist of best practices, the Challenge leads teams to embrace regional solutions and respond to a number of variables, including climate factors and cultural characteristics.

-a VISIONARY PATH TO A RESTORATIVE FUTURE

The challenge seeks to encourage designers to bridge the gap between the built environment and the surrounding ecosystems thus reinventing the typical developers’ business model and transforming the role of the building occupant from passive to more of an involved partnership with the earth and her resources.

For all manner of development the Living Building Principles are applicable, whether, “… a single building, a park, a college campus or even a complete neighborhood community, Living Building Challenge provides a framework for design, construction and the symbiotic relationship between people and all aspects of the built environment.”

You can download a complete document that outlines the specific requirements and benchmarks that must be met to receive certification HERE.

With its radical and rigorous requirements, this is more than “green washing”.  This is an excerpt from a statement released by The Fuller Institute after the award ceremony;

“The Living Building Challenge (LBC) is setting the standard for how to build in the 21st century by establishing the highest bar yet for environmental performance and ecological responsibility within the built environment … by “building a new model” and establishing new benchmarks for non-­‐toxic, net-­‐zero structures… The Living Building Challenge goes far beyond current best practices, reframing the relationship between the built and natural environments. LBC seeks to lead the charge toward a holistic standard that could yield an entirely new level of integration between building systems, transportation, technology, natural resources, and community. If widely adopted, this approach would significantly enhance the level of broad-­‐based social collaboration throughout the design and building process and beyond, dramatically reducing the destructiveness of current construction, boost the livability, health, and resilience of communities … the International Future Living Institute is charting a new and critically needed course in an industry that arguably remains one of the most consumptive … The LBC’s model of regenerative design in the built environment could provide a critical leverage point in the roadmap to a sustainable future and is an exemplary trim tab in its potential to catalyze innovation in such a high impact, high consumption industry…”

This is a valuable new asset and tool for the green building and green contracting community in NYC nd abroad in the fight for a greener and livable tomorrow.

 

https://ilbi.org/lbc  -living building challenge website

http://challenge.bfi.org/Winners/Challenge_Winners

http://bfi.org/  -Buckminster-fuller institute website

“The Atomic States of America”

Eco Brooklyn obsesses over energy.  Our projects are built to minimize heat loss and optimize gain, while providing individual homeowners ways to generate their own energy through solar panels.  We want to minimize homes’ reliance on energy generated through fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Three Mile Island.  Chernobyl.  Fukushima Daiichi.

These names instantly bring up an instinctive fear of nuclear power as an insidious danger to public health.

Add “Shirley, Long Island” to that list.

“The Atomic States of America,” which premiered at Sundance 2012, is a documentary based on Kelly McMasters’s “Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir From an Atomic Town.”  Shirley is a small working-class town that happens to be located right next to the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a center for research that has produced seven Nobel prizes since it was built in 1947.

McMasters considered her life fairly normal but first realized something was wrong when her college roommate asked why she was always going home to funerals.  Further research revealed an abnormally high rate of cancer and disease in Shirley residents.  The prime suspect was low-level radiation from Brookhaven National Lab, whose reactors had leaked…into aquifers supplying water to all of Long Island.

Democracy Now! did an extended interview with the director, Sheena Joyce, and Kelly McMasters, incorporating clips from the film.  You can watch part 1 here, and a link should appear to part 2.

As far as I can tell, the story is a troubling and evocative view of human suffering caused by the presence of a nuclear facility, exacerbated by unwillingness of government and investigative agencies to act in the people’s best interest.

But I don’t think it’s a compelling argument against nuclear power.  Shirley’s story exposes poor planning (who thought it was a good idea to build nuclear reactors on top of the only aquifer system anyway?) and corruption, which would be dangerous regardless of the technology in question.

McMasters is a modern-day Erin Brockovich, except the bad guy’s now nuclear power instead of Pacific Gas and Electric.  Erin Brockovich decried unsafe conditions and inadequate disclosure, not the existence of gas and electricity.  The same horror stories surround any town exposed to chemicals and poor operating standards.  What about Minamata disease?  The Bhopal disaster?  The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill?  Those tragedies weren’t enough to stop gas or electricity or plastics or oil from becoming ingrained in our modern lifestyle, so why chicken out with nuclear power?

Nuclear power has the potential for massive devastation.  I’m going to quote freely from the Wikipedia article on Chernobyl here.  More than 350,000 people had to be relocated.  The cleanup effort spanned two decades, used 500,000 workers, and crippled the Russian economy.  Russian estimates place the number of premature deaths as a result of Chernobyl near one million.  The area surrounding Pripyat is still a dead zone, the first legal tourists just beginning to tiptoe in.

Let’s look at some more numbers.  There are 441 nuclear reactors in the world, 60 more under construction, and another 150 being planned.  They produce 6.3% of the world’s energy and 15% of its electricity.  France is the leader in reliance on nuclear power (75% of total energy generated) but the U.S. wins in total number of reactors (144).  Some countries, like Italy and Australia, steadfastly refuse to go nuclear.  Germany and Switzerland are phasing out nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima accident.  The future of nuclear power is a deeply polarizing topic, but given the prevalence of nuclear plants, having just a handful of major accidents doesn’t sound unreasonably risky to me.

But is nuclear power worth the risk?  Is it truly sustainable?  (Nuclear reactors still consume fossil fuels, cost billions to build, and produce tons of dangerous nuclear waste.)  Can safety ever be ensured?  What alternatives are available?

At present we don’t know enough about nuclear power to guarantee safety and efficiency for people living near plants or people using electricity generated by reactors, so nobody should be guaranteeing those things.  Saying that nuclear reactors are clean and safe is a big fat lie.  Nuclear science’s destructive side is still engrained in the global consciousness.  In school we learn about Hiroshima years before we get to physics.

That’s why we need to be realistic and focus on research and accountability.  Walking away from nuclear power out of fear rather than a well-informed decision is failing to make use of all the possibilities.  Maybe the facts also say that nuclear power isn’t sustainable, or that the likelihood of an accident is too high.

“The Atomic States of America” might become a new rallying point for people opposed to nuclear power, but don’t forget, it centers around an intensely personal story.  The featured testimonial for “Welcome to Shirley” reads: “A loving, affecting memoir of an American Eden turned toxic.”  It was from Oprah.  I’d rather not have Oprah making energy policy.  Her car giveaway habits would definitely not be sustainable.

On the other hand, it’s easy for me to cheer on nuclear development because I’ve never lived in a Shirley.  I am, however, in a state that’s highly dependent on nuclear-generated electricity.

New York is one of the 5 states with the highest nuclear capacities.  We get 30% of our electricity from nuclear energy.  Part of my enthusiasm for nuclear power comes from the fact that it powers 30% of my internet browsing habits.  In the end it comes down to sacrifice: would you use less energy to lower the need for nuclear power, or would you rather give up the assurance of a future without nuclear accidents?

One of these will be the obvious right answer to you, but maybe not to the next person.  That’s why films like “The Atomic States of America” are so important–they keep the conversation going about a topic that’s dominated by big money and politics, but affects us all.

New York Contractor Builds Passive House out of Salvaged Materials

Here is a short video we threw together of the Passive House renovation in Harlem. The video mostly discusses the budgeting of the project.

Now that the construction is for the most part done I think that our initial budget of $175/sq.ft is not sustainable. Of course it is great for the client in the long run. But as a company that practices the triple bottom line  – people, planet, profit – our budget did not  satisfy all three items.

Out of the three I can say without a doubt the planet was benefited by this job. We built a Passive House. We salvaged almost everything to build the house, creating a negative impact on the dump, meaning the house removed more garbage from the dump than it created.

Unfortunately the other two items – people and profit – did not get a fair deal. The workers were not paid enough, the client is not happy and the company did not make enough of a profit. Workers and company need to be taken care of in order for us to continue to make a meaningful impact on the world. Happy clients means more opportunities to build green.

The clients came to us with a very tight budget, $800,000, which is not enough for the scope of the complete gut rehab Passive House. $1,200,000 would have been more realistic.

But being realistic in not what got Eco Brooklyn to where it is now. You don’t start a cutting edge green building company because you are realistic. You start it because you are deeply idealistic and willing to sacrifice everything in the hope that it will make a difference to the world. There are huge risks to this.

So in that spirit we took on the job, our main goal to find a way to build a cutting edge green home on an affordable budget. We accomplished this, so from that point of view it was a great success.

But the clients are not happy and the company was hit hard financially. It may seem odd that the clients are not happy given they gained a $1 million plus house for $800K. We literally saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars all the while helping the environment.

But to achieve that we all had to make sacrifices. The main sacrifice was that as a company we could not afford to hire enough management. The job process was rocky. A green company needs to be even better organized than other companies because we are dealing with new cutting edge technologies with steep learning curves and we salvage materials thus we can’t tightly control the delivery time of materials.

This lack of management meant details were missed and client/contractor interaction was not as common. So even though behind the scenes we felt we were performing miracles to save the client money and add value to their home, the client did not see this.

The client simply felt they were paying what to them felt like a lot of money and we were not delivering as smoothly as they wanted. Because they don’t have a good grasp of what things cost it did not matter how many times we told them they would never be able to get this value elsewhere on their budget.

And when they did look elsewhere for comparison they saw crappy building with nice fixtures – the so called luxury condo that looks like a million dollars for the first couple years and costs a fortune to run. When you compare that to our building that does not look as fancy they felt shortchanged.

Never mind ours costs nothing to run and is built to last a hundred years. Those things are not as sexy as sparkling appliances and brand new moldings.

So we felt we were loosing our battle with the clients. It was very frustrating because we believe deeply that the building we made is decades ahead of any building built in the city today.

Core Values

In hindsight the main conflict was between the company’s and the client’s core values.

The company’s core value is clearly to put the benefit of the planet before anything else, with the understanding that by doing this we are benefiting ourselves as well. And in this case we did it to a fault (we should have done less for the planet and more for ourselves in order to continue strong in the long run).

But going balls out for the environment is both our strength and weakness.

The clients core value was to put their own benefit before anything else. This is not to say they did not care about Eco Brooklyn or the environment. But like most people, at the top of list is their own financial security, their family and their home, and when possible, but only when possible they consider the rest of the world.

I get that. I am a family man.

But I am also a green builder and sometimes things get complicated.

The problem was that we feel looking out for the environment is the best thing we can do for the client in the long run, even if it means less of a perfect construction process in the short run. The client however just wants a home for their family. Getting that done is challenge enough, never mind some idealistic and abstract global thinking.

Because of this we found ourselves at odds. For us if we could help the environment more we would. Even at the expense of short term discomforts and stress imposed by our main mistake – not budgeting for enough management and budgeting too much for the green building items – which arose from our over ambitious attempt to build a home for hundreds of thousands less than normally it would cost.

The client however found this inexcusable. If it is a choice to go some time without water in order to get gray water plumbing installed or skip the gray water and have water for their kids to take a bath they pick the later.

Unfortunately we were doing the building and not them. And we are very hard headed.

We picked to do the gray water, which delayed the job and meant the clients went without water for longer. Inexcusable in their eyes. Simply bad management. In our eyes it was a small sacrifice for something that will benefit the planet for many years to come…..which in turn benefits them.

It wasn’t like we expected the client to sacrifice alone. Eco Brooklyn always sacrificed first. If we found a way to satisfy the client and the environment at the cost of our profit then we made sure we did that first. Our priorities were planet, client then us.

Maybe we are wrong. Maybe that priority serves nobody. But I have this idea that we are connected and the ecology is in a lot worse shape than we are. Since we are ecology that needs to be dealt with first……?

But when the client is spending their hard earned money and the feel like the second fiddle, good will goes out the window fast and they stopped caring for us.

Towards the end of the job when we realized our ecological zeal had put our finances in tight stretches we got no mercy from the clients. In their memory was the lack of water and they made sure to withhold money accordingly. Water is just an example our of many conflicts of core values that arose.

What have I learned from this?

I can’t expect others to sacrifice for my cause. Next time I will only take on clients who can afford $1,200,000 and be done with it. They will get the job they were promised and I will be able to build houses that harm the environment a lot less.

This means that many people will be priced out and not benefit from Eco Brooklyn’s amazing green building.

But I have learned the hard way that when things get tight people hunker down and look out for themselves. It is about survival and humans can be the most brutal creatures on earth when they feel their own is being threatened.

I can’t put myself in that position of dealing with clients like that. Nor can I put the clients in that position. The clients of this house are scared. They feel we managed the job recklessly and this puts them at risk.

When they came to us they entrusted us as professionals to guide them in the building of a green home. They had no idea how much emphasis we put on green and at some point they wondered if we even cared about their home.

So in the future we won’t try the affordable green building thing because we can’t trust the client will be as willing as we are to build green. Instead we will charge. That way it won’t be a choice between having water on time or having a gray water system. We will have a budget to do both on time.

The clients of our current house had a tough time of it. I think with time they will forget the discomforts of the building process. As that fades they will see the value of the house. They might even be grateful towards us. But I doubt it.

Would I do it again? Yes. I think the struggle was worth the gain. It is an amazing house.

It is the first time in the history of building that a Passive House was built with such a high percentage of salvaged materials. It is revolutionary. And we did it not on some plot of land in Oregon but in one of the most expensive places to build on earth. For the price of a crap “luxury condo”!

But like all revolutions it was painful. And I am hurting more than anyone. I made sure I put my money where my mouth was. The clients probably will never understand that. But that is ok. I care about the house that we brought into existence.

When we are all dead that house will still be a wonderful home for families. That is a great gift. It is the least I can do for the planet and my fellow humans.

Here is the video that prompted this post.

A Future of Free Energy

Being a green builder is a constant search for more ecological ways of doing things.

That’s why we listened when  Justin Hall-Tipping told us that in the future, all energy could be sustainable, green, and free.

Justin Hall-Tipping, CEO of Nanoholdings, gives a TED talk about the energy applications of carbon nanomaterials.  It’s worth a watch, if you have ten minutes.

A few key points:

  • Carbon nanotubes are 100 times more conductive than copper wire.
  • Transparent sheets of carbon nanomaterials, when paired with a polymer, can be applied to windows (or any surface, really) and convert light into energy.
  • Collected energy can be fed into systems of batteries that store it for later–or be turned back into light and beamed to the next house over.

Widespread applications of this model has mind-boggling implications: free sustainable energy, for everyone, for as long as the sun shines.

The downside is that we couldn’t harness the collaborative powers of the network until the model goes mainstream.  And why would the model go mainstream, when just about every house in a developed nation is already hooked up to a grid and paying into the existing system?  We have the technology to do this.  We also have the technology to make hovercars.  We could be zooming everywhere, but we wouldn’t, because we already have roads and cars that get the job done.  The prohibitive cost and arguably unnecessary risk of replacing entire infrastructures holds us back.

Consumption is already ingrained in our lifestyle to the degree that stepping away from it would take a massive amount of willpower.  Ec0 Br00klyn’s Zero Building method minimizes consumption by using 100% salvaged materials in our projects.  We install green roofs, solar panels, and water recycling systems that help homeowners wean themselves off the official lines.  We help one determined homeowner at a time move beyond consumption, toward a future of free energy.

It’s not easy.  Pushing against “normal” ways of doing things is a daily struggle against our own habits and those of the structures around us, but we can’t NOT fight it, so we forge on.

Justin Hall-Tipping’s research and ideas are very inspiring. We are keeping a keen eye on his developments since it would be a huge leap forward for green building.