31 May 2012

A Real Vertical Farm

Back in February, when I reviewed The Vertical Farm by Dickson Despommier, the concept of an indoor, multi-story farm seemed plausible in a vague, far-off sort of way.

So I was fascinated to learn about a vertical farm that's actually operating in Chicago: The Plant. It's not a high-rise building like Despommier envisioned, but something at least as good -- an old meatpacking plant that founder John Edel has repurposed into a farm in an environmentally sensitive manner (restoring what he can and recycling the rest). With plant crops, fish, and more, the farm has become zero-waste, even using methane from materials breaking down in an anaerobic digester (kind of like a composter) to generate energy for the facility. Likewise, fish waste becomes high-quality fertilizer, and filtering the waste keeps the water healthy for the fish. Edel's vision is to create a 100% sustainable facility by closing the energy, resource, and money loops on-site or locally (so resources don't have to be brought in from a great distance or sent far away).

The Plant is still being developed and expects to be fully functional in 2014. For more information, including a cool diagram showing how the various parts of the facility are interrelated, check out this CNN article. And if you happen to be in Chicago on June 9, you can see the facility for yourself at the grand opening celebration.

29 May 2012

Green News

The last roundup of articles and links on various green-related topics was so much fun, let's do it again, shall we?

Time-of-use electric rates. As more utilities face capacity issues (increasing populations and not enough generation), they have to make difficult decisions. Build another power plant? Pursue renewable energy options? Use rebates or other means to encourage residents to reduce their overall usage? Or charge higher rates at times of peak usage (generally, between about 3 and 7 p.m. on hot summer days)? Because the risk of a shortage is highest at peak times, charging more at those times can help to shift activities like laundry and electric car charging to off-peak times. More and more utilities are adopting time-of-use rate schedules to achieve this goal.

Extending "low-VOC" beyond paint. This sheetrock and joint compound not only make for a healthier indoor environment, but they're lighter-weight than their traditional counterparts, too.

Ingredient labels for building materials. The FDA requires disclosure of the ingredients in food, but so far, when it comes to the materials in our homes, we're pretty much limited to VOC information on paint and occasional notices about chemicals known to the state of California to be carcinogens. New programs like this one and this one would create a (voluntary) system of ingredient disclosure for building materials.

Marketing a "green" home. This article, which is aimed at homebuilders but would seem to apply equally to regular folks who are selling a high-efficiency home, suggests that it's better to focus on energy-efficiency (which buyers more readily interpret as utility savings) than greenness (which could sound to many buyers like hippie nonsense). I suspect the term "sustainable" would also fall into the latter category.

Another reason to reduce, reuse, recycle. That Texas-sized mass of plastic in the Pacific that you may have heard about? Researchers think the problem is actually much bigger than that.

Greening the workplace. Change is hard, so convincing folks to be more conservation-minded at the office can be tough. Here are some efforts that have been successful at LG.

Renewable energy on the rise in Texas. 13% increase from 2010 to 2011 (despite a significant drought-induced drop in hydroelectric power) and other fun facts.

24 May 2012

Habitat for Humanity

Recently I had the opportunity to visit one of Habitat for Humanity's new neighborhoods just east of town. This community of 49 homes is about half finished, and it was a flurry of activity the morning I visited.

Habitat, which has built over 300 homes in the Austin area, has been using green construction techniques and materials for several years, dispelling the myth that green building is cost-prohibitive for regular folks. In fact, most of Habitat's homes earn the maximum rating of five stars from both the Austin Energy Green Building program and Energy Star!

This approach makes a lot of sense -- when you're building for low-income homeowners, a small investment up front can really help to improve the affordability of the homes in the long term. That's why all of Habitat's homes include features like high-efficiency HVAC and water heating, Energy Star appliances, low-E windows, quality insulation, low-flow plumbing fixtures, durable flooring, and waterwise landscaping.

And the houses are cute, too. My friend Lee (who showed me around) designed most of them and took great care to ensure that each model has its own personality.

This one was designed by the University of Texas architecture department:

And this one is the greenest house they've ever built:

While it was in the works, a donor came forward and offered to pay to put solar panels on one house. Because of the cost of solar panels -- and because Habitat, as a non-profit, doesn't qualify for the usual solar incentives -- Lee suggested instead using a similar amount of money for a variety of other energy-efficiency and "healthy home" upgrades. As a result, this home has such features as an extra-high-efficiency water heater and HVAC system, no-VOC paint, a 500-gallon rainwater cistern, solid surface counters, and Energy Star light fixtures, and LED bulbs.

Lee anticipates that this house will be on the Cool House Tour next year. (Another Habitat home was on the tour in 2010.)

Austin Habitat for Humanity is setting a great example for Austin builders by proving that anyone -- anyone -- can build a five-star green house.

21 May 2012

Strong Start

Recently I've had the pleasure of helping a local child abuse prevention non-profit, Strong Start, with some renovations to their new facility.

Strong Start (formerly called Relief Nursery of Central Texas) has served the Austin area for about five years. Through classes and other services for both parents and children, they have put hundreds of at-risk families on a path to success. Along the way, they have also saved taxpayers untold thousands of dollars, as it can cost $80,000/year for law enforcement and social services agencies to intervene after abuse has occurred, while Strong Start's services (which are free to families) cost only $3,500/year per child. (An ounce of prevention truly is worth a pound of cure.) Strong Start had outgrown its 600-square-foot space, and the new 3,000-square-foot facility would allow the organization to provide more services to more families.

The new space is in an older building that needed A LOT of work, and although they had hired a contractor to do most of it, every bit that volunteers could do would reduce the bill and leave more money for the services Strong Start provides to families.

I love a good before and after, but unfortunately I didn't see the building before the work started, so I can only offer these pictures mid-way through the work, after walls had been reworked, new flooring was in, and everything was freshly painted:

On my first work day, I brought over my miter saw, nail gun, and air compressor and attached a ton of new base trim.

Another day, I put doorknobs on the doors, helped to build gates for the new playground, and took care of some odds and ends. As the grand opening drew near, after a parking lot had been transformed into a playground (you might say they unpaved a parking lot and put in paradise), I even planted a little garden.

And although I wasn't available to help make it happen, some crushed granite that was left over from building my cistern base became a bike path in the playground:

(Strong Start is also where I "donated" the dirt I excavated for the cistern base -- there was a ditch on the property that needed filling, so it was win-win.)

Strong Start celebrated its new facility (and new name!) twice -- first with a ribbon cutting attended by state and local dignitaries, and later with a grand opening reception. Both events, and the building itself, turned out great.

The plumber installed these tiny little potties in the classrooms.  (There will be a privacy curtain across the potty area.  Kids can't be trusted with doors, apparently.)

Each of these tiles, hung in the main room, was decorated by a Strong Start donor.  Over time, they hope to fill the whole wall with tiles.

I truly couldn't be happier to have been a part of Strong Start's strong new start. For more information about this amazing organization, or to make a donation, check out their website.

14 May 2012

Adventures in Home Energy Ratings

After writing last week about the various home performance rating methods out there, I came across an old newspaper article about the Microsoft-Hohm home energy rating website.  It seemed like a cool system and a good way to get home performance feedback without spending a lot on an energy audit or HERS rating, so I decided to give it a try.

Microsoft-Hohm rates houses on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being maximum efficiency. So I wasn't surprised to find, when I looked up my address and found the old 1960s house information, that it was rated a 52.

Unfortunately, when I arrived at the website, I also learned that it's being shut down at the end of the month due to low participation. But the bigger disappointment was when I updated my house information from the previous house and found that all of our improvements were only worth three points.

Still barely better than average.  (And even after telling it that we have virtually no utility expenses, it still insists that our annual utility expenses total nearly $3,000.)

This is partly because there was no way to tell it about our geothermal system, solar panels, or other green upgrades. When I selected "electric" for our HVAC, the score went down (only as efficient as the original house), so I changed it to "gas" and earned back a few points, but there was no option for "geothermal."  (There's a section that lists suggestions for improving the energy-efficiency of your house, which lists things like low-E wood windows, but no way to tell it that we already have those.)

The website is set up to automatically access utility information, but it doesn't seem like many, if any, utilities signed on, so I could only manually enter my utility info. But even entering electric usage of zero and gas usage of 1 unit per month didn't change its assumptions about our annual utility use. Frustrating.

I don't know if Microsoft is going to make another attempt at a home energy rating system, but if they do, I certainly hope they will take a broader view of possible building materials, techniques, and green upgrades. But if you have a more traditional home and want to see how it rates on this system, hurry over before the end of the month and check it out.

10 May 2012

News You Can Use

I've been learning a lot about renewable energy lately. Folks I've met have pointed me to various articles, and I've found others through Twitter. (Yes, Green House, Good Life is on Twitter -- check it out and follow GHGL here.) So today I thought I'd share some interesting links on topics related to energy-efficiency.

"The grid." The electrical grid is a complex beast, but this article from our local paper, the Austin American-Statesman, is a great overview of how it works and some of the issues facing Texas electricity officials as summer approaches.

Grid-level batteries. Because it's not enough just to ensure that we don't run out of electricity -- too much power will shut the system down just as quickly as too little -- we really need a good way to deal with the excess (especially as the use of solar and wind power grows). Wouldn't it be easier to manage the grid if there were huge batteries where the excess could be stored so regulators don't have to match up supply and demand so precisely? Fortunately, the technology to store electricity within the grid is within reach.

Storing wind energy underground. Last month, our local paper covered a company that plans to use wind turbines (similar to those we saw when we drove to New Mexico earlier this year) to store wind in underground caverns during periods of low energy demand so that that wind can be used to generate power later, during periods of high demand. Genius! Read the full article here.

The end of solar water heating. In short, solar water heaters aren't cost-effective. That was our conclusion back in 2009 when we were deciding on a water heater -- it made more sense to take the $3k or so extra that we would have spent on a solar water heater and put it toward solar panels to power the whole house, not just one appliance.

What electric vehicles (EVs) can teach us about driving habits. Results of a study commissioned by the Department of Energy regarding driver behavior based on data from 4,200 EVs and 6,400 charging stations.

Determining and communicating home efficiency information. Municipalities are beginning to require disclosure of efficiency information (to prospective buyers, etc.), but what's the best method for determining efficiency? From simple disclosure of electric bills (which are heavily dependent on user behavior) to complex formulas, there is currently a lack of consensus on a single method for determining and reporting home efficiency information. Learn about possible disclosure options here and why the Home Efficiency Rating System (HERS) might be emerging as a national standard here.

Solar glass. Transparent solar panels embedded in window glass stand to revolutionize how cities are powered. Imagine covering a skyscraper -- which has a lot more window area than roof area -- with solar glass.

National green building standards. The National Association of Home Builders is working on a national green building standard that will likely become a model for states and municipalities wishing to implement green building programs. The second draft is currently out for public comments.

That was fun. I hope you learned something new here. I know I did.

07 May 2012

Boggy Creek Farm

A few weeks ago I was in East Austin and realized I wasn't far from Boggy Creek Farm. Being a black-belt trip-combiner, I headed over to check it out.

Boggy Creek is 20 years old, making it probably the oldest urban farm in the Austin area -- and its roots go back another decade to the original farm 80 miles northwest of town. The in-town location is five acres nestled among bungalows built around 1950.

I caught Boggy Creek at a great time of year -- row after row of gorgeous crops.

My favorite parts were the lettuce and the flowers, but the old-timey tractor was also pretty neat.

And the farm stand was open when I was there, selling carrots, beets, potatoes, and more.

If I had been heading straight home, I would definitely have bought some of these sweet peas.

Boggy Creek also has chickens and lots of other crops, depending on the season, and they bring in yet more from their out-of-town location.  Plus their farm stand sells other local companies' goods (dairy products, meats, baked goods, etc.).  For someone like me, who yearns for a vegetable garden at home, Boggy Creek is both a perfect substitute and a source of inspiration for the day when (after the rainwater collection system is installed and the stone beds are built) we are able to grow some of our own food at home.

03 May 2012

Think Globally, Bloom Locally

The local food movement has gained a lot of steam in recent years -- I know I'm eager to start growing our own vegetables once that part of the backyard is set up -- but what about a local flower movement? Although floral volume is significantly less than food volume, the principle holds that it's more environmentally sensible to grow flowers locally than truck them in from out-of-town or out-of-state or even to fly them in from, say, South America. (How much energy it takes to get resources to where they will be used is known as "embodied energy.") That's why I love being able to just walk a few steps out back and cut some flowers from the garden (well, that and seeing things that I grew looking pretty in a vase).

Which is how this happened:

I had noticed that our lamb's ear had grown some freakishly tall spikes...

...so I clipped some of them, grabbed some stalks from one of our lavender plants (the Goodwin Creek variety, which is growing really well, even with hardly any water over the last month), and voila!

Side note -- the lamb's ears started out like this last October:

Six weeks later, I didn't think they could grow any bigger:

Now I know they can't:

(Unless, of course, they do.)