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10th Anniversary of the Ford Rouge Plant Green Roof

28 Dec 2012

This year marked the 10th anniversary of the ultralight green roof installation at Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant located in Dearborn, Michigan.  According to this Xero Floor video, which provides a history of the project and a summary of the results thus far, the roof has been a success. 

When the roof was installed in 2002, it was the largest of its kind (10.4 acres).  Although several different types of green roofs were considered, vegetated mats developed by the German company Xero Flor were ultimately chosen.  The roof is made of sedum, a drought resistant perennial ground cover.  Its primary function is to collect and filter rainfall as part of a natural storm water management system.  Other benefits include thermal management (it insulates the building thereby reducing heating and cooling costs) and improved air quality (it traps air-borne dust and dirt, absorbs carbon dioxide, and creates oxygen).  The roof also creates habitat for wildlife and is predicted to last twice as long as a conventional roof. 

You can get a closer view of the green roof from an 80-foot observation deck during a Ford Rouge Factory Tour.  The tour is a unique experience and well worth the time.  For more information visit the Henry Ford.

Smart Grid – brought to you in part by Michigan?

5 Dec 2012

In January, I blogged about the so-called “Smart Grid” and what it may mean for the future of the electric system in this Country.   And, while alot of the Smart Grid is about better information for both utilities and consumers, another part is about improving efficiencies.

Last week, the MEDC announced that a Michigan Company, Grid Logic, received a $3.8 Million federal grant to develop a low-cost superconducting wire for use by electric utilities and others.  This project, which sounds very cool, will involve embedding very fine superconducting particles in a combination of metals to induce superconductivity. If successful, the wire would reduce the cost of transmission lines, motors for wind turbines, and other electric devices.  I wonder if the technique will have other applications as well.

This was part of a series of 66 grants totaling $130 Million  by the US Energy Department to foster the development of various cutting edge energy-related technologies.

While the current administration calls it a good example of “economic gardening” – it seems to me that the Government is doing what it has always done, take chances on encouraging technological advancement.  When it pays off, it’s touted as common sense investment in the future – when it fails, it’s perjoratively called “picking winners and losers.”  The New York Times has been running a series on incentives (where it appears only one state has given more incentives than Michigan) – personally, I’m in favor of incentives when they’re well designed, well thought out and planned to foster future-looking efforts – that’s what the federal government did when it incentivized the railroads and oil drilling in the 1800s and 1900s respectively.  Is this program a boondoggle? It depends on politics and results and those are yet to be seen.  I favor investments in the future and  the Energy grants (while having some problems) seem to fall into that category.

I’ve heard of “sun tea” but sun beer?

30 Oct 2012

Corner Brewery in Ypsilanti, Michigan, recently installed a unique solar panel system to provide both electricity and heat energy to be used in the beer making process.  The 140 solar panels installed for the project will reportedly produce a combined 16.1 kW of electricity, and 89.6 kW of equivalent thermal energy.

The panels, which do double duty, are manufactured by Detroit-based Power Panel.  Power Panel systems are designed to circulate water though a non-pressurized, drain-back system which collects thermal energy from the panel while actively cooling the photovoltaic (PV) cells – increasing electrical output.  As a result, Power Panel claims its systems can collect four times the energy compared to traditional PV panels.  Thermal energy is stored in Power Panel’s patented modular thermal storage tank  These systems are designed to be more durable than the typical glass-tube heat collection system.  The concept of capturing both power and heat is certainly a positive concept and one which may put this sort of solar back into competition with wind, which has lately taken the lead in renewable energy as the method of choice.

New FTC “Greenwashing” Guidance

4 Oct 2012

In 2010, I posted about greenwashing and the Federal Trade Commission’s  (FTC)  proposed response to it.  This week, the FTC  issued revisions to its “Green Guides” to help marketers ensure that their environmental claims are not deceptive.

FTC’s revisions include updates to the existing Guides, as well as new sections on carbon offsets, “green” certifications and seals, renewable energy and renewable materials claims.  The FTC modified and clarified the previous Guides and provided new guidance on environmental claims that were not common when the Guides were last reviewed.

The Guides warn against broad, unqualified claims that a product is “environmentally friendly” or “eco-friendly” and also:

• advise not to make unqualified claims about a product’s waste degradability unless they can prove that the entire product or package will completely break down and return to nature within one year after typical disposal – in particular the FTC took the position that items destined for landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities will not degrade within a year; and

• clarified guidance on compostable, ozone, recyclable, recycled content, and source reduction claims. For example, just because something may be technically compostable, does not mean that it should be touted as such – if an average person cannot compost it with the rest of their compostables.

The Guides contain new sections on: (1) certifications and seals of approval; (2) carbon offsets, (3) “free-of” claims, (4) non-toxic claims, (5) “made with renewable energy” claims; and (6) “made with renewable materials” claims.

Certifications and seals may be considered endorsements covered by the FTC’s Endorsement Guides.  The FTC also cautions against using environmental certifications or seals that don’t clearly convey the basis for the certification.  The Guides don’t address use of “sustainable,” “natural,” and “organic.” Some organic claims are covered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program.

The FTC also released other resources to help explain the Guides, including a 4 page summary and a video.

It is more important than ever to be sure that you claims comply as the FTC has shown that it is willing to bring enforcement actions based on dicey or unsupportable environmental claims.

Beyond Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy – Embodied energy and Externalities

25 Jul 2012

This guest post comes from Adam Stratton of PowerPanel.  Perhaps an older home has less environmental impact than a new, energy efficient one?

Imagine you are about to build your American dream home and someone tells you that to start construction, you need to purchase 19,800 gallons of fuel.  The average home contains this much energy embodied in its materials. It has been estimated that the average “embodied energy” in a North American home equals 16 years of energy use in that home, using a 40 year home lifespan as a benchmark.

The use of renewable energy is an essential part of reducing dependency on centralized power and reducing the impact of “embodied energy” on the built environment.  Solar and wind are the most commonly implemented solutions. Understanding their own embodied energy and their complete footprint before evaluating their effects is often overlooked.

The thought of using renewable energy comes from an awareness of rising energy, making energy efficiency a growing priority for homeowners and builders. An increasing number of homeowners and builders seek ratings such as LEED to attract buyers and satisfy their egos. It is easy to see this as positive but, in the name of energy efficiency, the extra materials or the importing of efficient materials may negate years of energy savings.  Energy efficiency is important but we must remember it is only one of the keys to responsible building.  A straw bale home embodies 1/12 of the energy embodied in the average traditional wood frame construction home.

Energy efficiency in its true sense comes down to occupant behavior.

Due to the energy involved in material transportation, the ‘local’ approach can be important in evaluating embodied energy. North American homes that are 100 years or older (and were probably built on the ‘local’ approach), are often considered to be large consumers of energy.  However, these homes can be, and in many cases have been, adapted to higher energy efficiency. Their durability and adaptability means their embodied energy has not been lost and no new energy has been used to replace them.

Since no building lasts forever, we should consider the end life of the structure and where its materials end their useful life when considering building materials for construction. Using durable and adaptable materials can be costly in tough economic times. Many of the refined materials such as composites used in modern homes are still not suitable for reuse or recycling and may be sent to landfills. This equates to lost energy.

The good news in all of this is that the means, skills and intentions to arrive at a home with a positive effect on the local economy, and little embodied energy are available and are increasing around the globe. Challenge yourself, friend or relative to look at these ideas next time they are planning a new build or expansion and see how low you can go.

USGBC and Home Depot Launch Green Building Products Database

9 Mar 2012

Credit: Home Depot

Earlier this week, the U.S. Green Building Council and Home Depot launched an online products database at that features products geared toward residential green building and that may contribute to points and prerequisites for the LEED for Homes Rating System.  The site helps users locate LEED-compliant products in a range of categories (currently more than 2,500 products sold at Home Depot are listed on the website and meet LEED specifications).

The green housing market is growing very rapidly, so the partnership between the USGBC and Home Depot makes complete sense.  And the website seems to be a pretty good database of product information that should help environmentally savvy consumers, contractors, and remodelers find better green home products.

Keep in mind; however, that obtaining a LEED-certified home requires a lot more than simply buying and utilizing green products.  Certain design, installation and construction methods are also required components.  Having said that, while LEED certification is the pinnacle, you can certainly have a very green home without achieving LEED certification and this database should make finding green building products a lot easier.

The best energy dollar is one you never spend. More insulation?

20 Jan 2012

The siding is down for the injection of insulating foam

Many articles that I’ve read say that the best energy dollar is the dollar not spent. Given that the overall trend in energy prices is up, and that our house has some very cold rooms, we thought that it was time to revisit our home’s insulation.

This week, we had USA Insulation add insulation to our attic and inject foam insulation into the walls of our home. Most interesting to me was when I learned that the many recessed lights in the ceiling act like chimneys venting air out of the house – air I had been paying to heat or cool!  The insulators have boxed in those lights, so that has stopped.  We also learned that despite insulation we added 4 years ago, our attic barely met current standards and the walls in our house had little insulation.

USA Insulation told us that we should see roughly a 30% energy savings from this insulation. My daughter has announced that she thinks our home office (which is hot in the summer and glacial in the winter) already seems less cold – and given our recent single digit temperatures, I was pleasantly surprised to agree.

I will be closely reviewing my utility bills, as this was not cheap to do. There are some utility and federal incentives and financing is available, but it’s still a pricey investment.  As we plan to be in the house for 15+ years, I’m hoping to recoup that cost and come out well ahead (I’m hoping for a 4 year or less payback) while saving energy and reducing our carbon footprint as well.