Green Giant?

<p>Early one morning last month, over fresh-squeezed orange juice
and silver platters of breakfast treats, a coterie of New York?s
leading architects, developers, politicians, and environmentalists
convened in a chandeliered room at the Embassy Suites hotel in
lower Manhattan for a conference entitled ?Greening Our Downtown.?
The keynote speaker was Gov. George Pataki (R), who was there to
receive an award from the U.S. Green Building Council for his
efforts to promote green buildings in his state and, in particular,
in downtown New York City.</p>
<p>The USGBC, which hosted the event, presented Pataki with a
sculpture of an oak tree with leaves of glittering green stone?a
camera-friendly token of appreciation in an event marked by the
predictable quantity of photo-ops and sound bites. But amid the
posturing, a few ideas of surprising substance, even sweeping
vision, emerged: First, that more than any other resource-intensive
industry (including the one based in Detroit), the building
industry is poised to make tremendous strides in energy efficiency
and the adoption of clean technologies in the next five to 10
years. Second, that downtown New York?and in particular the World
Trade Center site?can and should become a model of green building
that accelerates a worldwide shift toward sustainable building and
alternative energy.</p>
<p>Before getting into the details of how these visions could play
out, I must confess not only that I am a card-carrying member of
the USGBC, but also that I helped to organize the conference. So
much for my journalistic impartiality, you say, but the truth is
that I am something of an imposter in the green-building world: My
interest has never really been in the buildings themselves, but in
the energy technology they can showcase. Given my energy-centric
attitude, it was somewhat troubling to discover at the conference
that renewable energy is just a small twinkle in a vast
constellation of green-building components.</p>
<p>Take the Green Building Council?s Leadership in Energy and
Environmental Design rating system, which is the industry standard
in certifying green buildings. The LEED system assigns new
buildings up to 69 total points: A basic LEED ?certified? rating
requires at least 26 points, a ?silver? rating requires at least 33
points, ?gold? requires at least 39 points, and ?platinum? requires
52 points, or 75 percent of the maximum possible. Points are
awarded in six different categories: site selection, water
efficiency, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality,
energy and atmosphere, and innovation. Within these categories,
points can be awarded for features ranging from the inclusion of a
bicycle room and a non-smoking clause in the building to installing
carbon dioxide monitors in conference rooms (poor ventilation leads
to high CO2 levels) and, oh yes, solar panels on the roof.</p>
<p>Unfortunately for alternative-energy buffs, on-site renewable
energy generation can fetch a developer a maximum of three points
in the LEED system (one point for generating 5 percent of the
building?s total energy demands, two points for 10 percent, and
three points for 20 percent). Furthermore, the developer can only
get one point for buying green power from the grid. The limited
importance of clean energy measures in the LEED system could have a
significant impact on the redevelopment of downtown Manhattan.</p>
<p>A case in point is the redevelopment of World Trade Center 7,
which will be the first building at the site to be rebuilt (it has
a different architect than the central Ground Zero complex) and is
already in the final planning stages. Even though developer Larry
Silverstein has registered the building for LEED certification,
energy efficiency and renewable energy have been almost completely
overlooked in the building design. ?World Trade Center 7 will
barely meet efficiency codes,? says Ashok Gupta, the Natural
Resources Defense Council?s leading energy economist, who has been
consulting on the project. ?The problem is that developers can get
LEED certification without addressing energy issues at all. They
can accumulate enough points in the other categories to make the
cut.?</p>
<p>Although all the major decision-makers involved in the
rebuilding of the World Trade Center (including architect Daniel
Libeskind, developer Larry Silverstein, the Lower Manhattan
Development Corporation, and the Port Authority of New York and New
Jersey) have spoken publicly about their commitment to
sustainability, none has commented directly on the matter of
renewable energy. At the ?Greening Our Downtown? conference, Joseph
Seymour, the director of the Port Authority, pledged to commit
?nearly $100 million to the sustainable design components? at the
site. The sum wowed the audience and is surely commendable??It?s
without a doubt enough to enough to make these buildings models of
exceptional efficiency and on-site photovoltaic applications, if
that were the priority,? says Gupta?but alt-energy wonks shouldn?t
get too excited. The redeveloped World Trade Center complex could
easily go the way of its sibling building at WTC 7, with those
funds absorbed by other areas such as recycled materials, air
filtration systems, and access to mass transit.</p>
<p>Greg Trevor, a spokesperson for the Port Authority said, ?We are
considering things like recycled materials, an energy-efficient
electrical system, natural day-lighting, and improved indoor air
quality.? All good ideas?but nary a peep about a state-of-the-art
cogeneration system for efficient heating and cooling or renewable
energy. When I asked Irene Chang, a principal at the Lower
Manhattan Development Corporation, whether there had been any
discussion about whether to include on-site solar panels she said
flatly, ?No. It?s too early to address these details.?</p>
<p>
<strong>Ground Net Zero?</strong>
</p>
<p>Be that as it may, there?s a strong case to be made that these
funds should be used to make Ground Zero the El Dorado of
efficiency and clean energy. As improbable as it may seem, New
York, which scores poorly on many other urban environmental issues
(diesel exhaust, skyrocketing asthma rates, and so forth), has a
strong hand when it comes to energy. The city has the lowest
per-capita energy use of any city in the nation, thanks to its
population density and mass-transit system. Most New Yorkers live
in homes that are a fraction of the nationwide average (requiring
less energy to heat and cool), and the vast majority travel to work
via public transit, resulting in tremendous energy savings by
commuters. ?You?ve got in New York City the model of the future,?
says Randolph Croxton, a leading green architect based in
Manhattan. ?All human settlements are moving inexorably toward a
densely developed urban model, and from an environmental
standpoint, no urban model surpasses the inherent energy efficiency
of New York City.?</p>
<p>All the more reason to improve upon that model. The buildings at
the World Trade Center site will be among the most visited and
visible buildings in the world. As such, they offer an unsurpassed
opportunity to make an international statement about America’s
energy future. ?The best way to enhance our security, make us
better global citizens, reduce our dependence on Middle East oil,
and leave a better planet for our kids is a Manhattan Project to
develop renewable energy sources, along with greater conservation,?
wrote <em>New York Times</em> columnist Thomas Friedman last
October. The opportunity for such an initiative lies,
appropriately, at the foot of Manhattan. What could be a more
effective a memorial to the tragedies that took place here in the
past than one that points us in the direction of a sustainable
energy future?</p>
<p>The NRDC?s Gupta estimates that energy-saving measures such as
glazed windows and efficient lighting, boiler, and HVAC systems, as
well as motion-sensing lasers that automatically switch off lights
and appliances when not in use, could make the new World Trade
Center complex up to 50 percent more energy efficient than the
original buildings, which guzzled nearly 100 megawatts of
electricity on peak load days.</p>
<p>It?s a short leap from a scenario in which the new World Trade
Center consumes half the energy of the original to a scenario in
which it has enough on-site generation to be a <em>net-zero
energy</em> complex. Imagine the new, efficient buildings sheathed
in a skin of solar cells that generate 20 percent of the complex?s
total energy needs, pumping clean electricity into the buildings
during the day, when the sun is shining, air conditioners are
cranking, and energy demand is peaking. With fuel cells and clean,
natural-gas-powered micro-turbines on site to power the rest of the
buildings? energy needs, the complex would be completely
independent of the grid much of the time. (This would protect it
from blackouts, an increasingly serious threat, as New York City?s
electricity demand is growing at roughly 2 percent per year). The
complex would also be connected to the grid?drawing electricity
when necessary at night or on cloudy days, and pumping power back
in when it creates a surplus.</p>
<p>The new complex could also be a <em>net-zero emissions</em>
development. To offset all emissions related to the buildings?
onsite micro-turbines and the grid-connected electricity they
consume, the developers could buy the equivalent amount of clean
electricity elsewhere?say, via solar panels on buildings in
surrounding neighborhoods or a wind-farm in upstate New York. The
complex and its surrounding neighborhood could have a
fuel-cell-powered bus fleet and minimal need for cars and trucks.
The area could be knitted together by a clean, quiet street grid
restored for use by pedestrians only. The West Side highway could
be sunk underground. The region?s three airports (Kennedy,
LaGuardia, and Newark) could be connected by train to the downtown
terminal, making it an easy public-transit trip to the complex for
out-of-towners. An expanded network of ferries connecting Lower
Manhattan with Brooklyn, Queens, New Jersey, and uptown Manhattan
could provide a fast and pleasant way to get around.</p>
<p>
<strong>This Little Solar Panel Went to Market</strong>
</p>
<p>Admittedly, this vision would be cost a pretty penny to execute,
and green building advocates are sensitive to cost. They want the
development community at large to accept green building as a
market-friendly proposition?a sound investment that will have a
reasonable payback period, rather than a charity case requiring
substantial subsidies.</p>
<p>Part of the reason there is so little emphasis on renewable
energy is that it is perceived as prohibitively expensive; solar
still requires substantial subsidies to be cost-competitive with
traditional sources of energy. Although the high initial cost of
renewable energy would eventually be recouped in energy savings,
many green building experts see it as a potential deterrent to the
near-term growth of the green-building movement. It?s true that a
high-profile demonstration project at Ground Zero might go a long
way to turn heads and educate the public?and eventually to create
demand for more buildings like it?but the steep initial costs could
also send a signal to the building industry that green projects are
financially cumbersome and only possible with substantial
subsidies.</p>
<p>?Remember that we are trying to create markets,? says Christine
Ervin, president and CEO of the USGBC, ?which means we can?t get
too hung up on regulations and subsidies. Government can help
create markets by working with private industry in partnership to
create some tax incentives and streamline certification processes,
but what will really drive the adoption of green standards in the
marketplace is the fact that they make good business sense.?</p>
<p>But shouldn?t building developers be amenable to the long-term
payback of alternative energies?more so than, say, automobile
entrepreneurs, given that a building is an investment that lasts
100 years, whereas a car is an investment that lasts, on average,
10 years? Sure, in an ideal world. But with gray water and compact
fluorescent light bulbs and recycled building materials and bamboo
flooring and bicycle rooms to consider, developers have enough to
worry about without the added concern of renewable energy.</p>
<p>And, needless to say, these other aspects of green building
should not be belittled. After all, the built environment consumes
over 40 percent of all natural resources in the United States, so
the more we can diminish that footprint, the better. And unlike
renewable energy, many of these other environmental improvements
can be done at very little added cost; to get a LEED silver
certification on a commercial building costs on average 0 to 3
percent more than constructing a conventional building.</p>
<p>?LEED is the single most powerful market-transformation tool
I?ve ever encountered, in part because it?s enabling developers to
come up with ways to build green buildings in an economically
feasible way,? said Ervin. ?It works because it?s not prescriptive.
It enables developers to approach the challenge of green building
in a way that works well for them.? Ervin adds that the cheaper and
more mainstream renewable technologies become, the more USGBC will
likely be able to emphasize them as a priority in the LEED points
system. Indeed, largely because of this sensitivity to what?s
cost-effective, LEED certification is catching on like wildfire. At
the end of 2001, there were 275 major commercial buildings in the
U.S. registered for LEED; today there are 842.</p>
<p>Let?s hope that the World Trade Center redevelopment project
becomes number 843. There is no question that $100 million could go
a long way toward making an impressive showcase of green building,
even if energy efficiency isn?t the signature innovation. So long
as solar power is four times more expensive than traditional
energy, it will be hard to make a good economic argument for a WTC
complex that is fully sheathed in solar cells. Perhaps BP could be
convinced to donate the panels, in what would surely amount to one
of the best publicity stunts of all time.</p>
<p>But even without such dramatic stunts, we shouldn?t despair
about the radical potential of the rebuilt complex. ?Hopefully this
project will be designed with the intelligence to make a transition
to 100 percent renewables down the line,? says Croxton, the
environmental architect who has been advising the Port Authority on
sustainability concerns in the World Trade Center redevelopment.
?It doesn?t all have to happen up front. We can build these
buildings so that they are set up with the intelligence to
gracefully move from the economically viable energy systems of
today into clearly near-threshold systems we see beginning to
become viable. These buildings will last over 100 years, and they
can be built to evolve and adapt to the times.?</p>
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