DJC Green Building Blog Covering green building issues in Seattle and around the Pacific Northwest

Bill Gates says technology holds the key to energy, climate. What do you think?

Posted on May 11, 2011

When we're talking about solving big problems there is a division between those who believe new technology will hold the key and those who believe things need to change now, even if we don't have the perfect tools. That division was highlighted at yesterday's talk on energy and climate by Bill Gates.

Bill Gates, former Microsoft CEO and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, spoke at Climate Solutions' annual breakfast May 10. Our story on his talk is here and there are

Image courtesy The Seattle Times
multiple other articles and accounts on the web. Gates basically said what he's said before: we need major technological breakthroughs to solve climate and energy problems. To do this, he said the government needs to spend more than double the amount it currently does on research and development, and the private markets will follow. By breakthroughs, he means far-out technologies that will create a zero or very low carbon energy source. More money should be spent on renewable energy, carbon sequestration and nuclear energy, he said.

“The thing I think is the most under-invested in is basic R&D,” he said. “That's something only the government will do. Over the next couple of decades, we have to invent and pilot, and in the decades after that we have to deploy in an unbelievably fast way, these sources.”

But even during the breakfast, this division between work in the future and work now was felt. Dean Allen, CEO of McKinstry, spoke before Gates did. He said technological silver bullets are great but "it's often not best to wait for superman. It's sometimes better to figure out how to take practical and profitable real time solutions where we live."

Image courtesy Climate Solutions
Allen has a guest post on the Climate Solutions Blog here, if you're further interested in his ideas. To watch Gates' TED talk on a similar topic, go here.

Later, in a briefing with journalists, KC Golden, Climate Solutions' policy director, said he doesn't think all our problems will be solved by public funding. Public money isn’t a panacea, he said, but it is a critical piece of the solution for the energy sector “because the way the regulated economy works starves the energy sector of R&D money and innovation.”

If we are going to solve the energy and climate problems, what do you think we should be concentrating on - innovation or current work? Of course, the true solution would and most likely will (if we find it) include both. But which area do you think deserves more attention?

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New Puget Sound Energy wind farm gets first turbine

Posted on April 6, 2011

Because wind energy is such a trendy topic with so many arguments for and against, it's easy to put the turbines that actually generate electricity to the back of your mind. We don't stop to think about how massive these things actually are.

This week, I came across some gorgeous images to illustrate just how gigantic these things can be - and what a huge operation it is to install them.

The project is Puget Sound Energy's third wind power plant, called Lower Snake River Wind Project, near Pomeroy in Garfield County. It recently erected its first wind power turbine. The project should be operating in spring of 2012 with 149 wind turbines, enough to create 343 megawatts or enough energy to power 100,0000 homes. Here is the first turbine:

The first turbine to be installed. Image courtesy PSE.

To install this sucker, huge cranes with booms extending 390 feet in the air set the turbines' lower sections, nacelles and three-blade rotors in place. Many of the nacelles, which contain the turbines' gear boxes and power generators, are being made at a Siemens plant in Kansas. A Siemens factory is Iowa is producing all the turbine blades.

Lifting part of the turbine.

Each rotor is 331 feet in diameter, more than a football field's length. The turbine towers are bolted to concrete foundations taht are up to 8.5 feet thick and weigh more than 600 tons, equal to the weight of more than 100 bull elephants, according to a PSE press release. The turbines weigh more than 240 tons.

A giant crane lifts the turbine's core.

The project began in May of 2010. RES America is PSE's lead contractor. To see more photos, click here. It also includes a 15,000-square-foot operations and maintenance building that will have office, warehouse and workshop space. Opp & Seibold from Walla Walla is PSE's general contractor. About 25 permanent employees will occupy the building when it opens this fall.

Check out those blades!
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Is the smart grid the new smart phone?

Posted on February 4, 2011

Recently, a story of mine appeared in the DJC called "Smart grid experts say AEC firms should start getting ready." It's about the smart grid, and how it will likely affect many aspects of your life - from the space you live in, to the car you drive to the way you use energy.

If you haven't read it, I suggest you do. One of my sources, Mani Vadari, Battelle's vice president of

The potential smart grid. Image courtesy GreenBeat.
electricity infrastructure, compares the smart grid to the smart phone. Even 5 years ago (2006) who'd have thought they would be so ubiquitous as they are today? At that point, I had just gotten my first iPod a year before and was still spellbound by it. I had a Razr (ugh). I think I knew one or two people that had Blackberries but they didn't seem useful to me in the least.

Vadari said there's a ton of money heading into this industry and the game changing technology, if it's not already here, isn't far off.

He said the idea of a green building will change from a minimal energy user to an energy producer. As more people get electric cars and pull energy from the grid through buildings, he said a structure that produces extra energy would be ahead of the curve.

“You've got to start thinking holistically because if you just lean more into the grid, you're not helping your carbon footprint,” Vadari said.

Vadari said more thought will be given to combining technologies to save and produce energy, or to achieve multiple goals. For example, he said windows and roofs could become energy-producing solar cells, forcing changes in the market as no one will want traditional windows and roofs anymore.

We're just at the beginning of the smart grid now, with regional demonstration projects funded by the stimulus in motion in all corners of the country. Regionally, Battelle is leading the $178 million Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project. Electric cars, like the Nissan Leaf, are just coming to market and charging stations are just beginning to be installed.

But the potential for the smart grid and its related technologies to change our lives is huge. There's no telling now which direction will move quickest but changes could include market-priced energy with monitors that allow you to control when you purchase energy based on price; electric cars; and homes and buildings that produce energy and feed it back into the grid.

Is there anything -- energy wise -- that you're excited about or looking forward to? Would love to hear your thoughts.

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In 2011, Seattle moves towards district energy

Posted on January 13, 2011

This week, we ran this story in the DJC about Yesler Terrace, CollinsWoerman and the effort to start considering resources on the broader scale.

For those of you that don't live in the area, Yesler Terrace is a 28-acre publicly subsidized housing community owned by the Seattle Housing Authority. It is  in the process of being redeveloped.

Imaging one energy and water system for all this space.
CollinsWoerman is a local architecture and planning firm.

District energy systems are common in Europe, especially Denmark. They allow buildings to connect to each other, increasing efficiency and reducing costs by letting several buildings share energy from a main source, such as steam, geothermal, biomass or waste heat.

But they are often cost prohibitive because streets must be torn up for a network of pipes to be built underground.

Steve Moddemeyer, principle of sustainable development at CollinsWoerman, said according to a CollinsWoerman study for SHA, a district water system could cut water use by half for Yesler Terrace and reduce wastewater flows by 70 percent for the same or less cost as a traditional system. Just imagine if you could do that for an entire city!

The fact that Yesler Terrace is considering a water and energy district is really exciting. But what's more interesting is what it says about Seattle. District energy has long been a buzz-term in the city's green community. It seems like we might finally be moving towards getting momentum on new projects.

The city of Seattle hired AEI and Cowi to study district energy opportunities for the city. They are looking at where these systems would be feasible and will identify the top three places. Moddemeyer has seen such interest in district energy and water, he said Yesler Terrace might not be the first project to employ the system. If private developers move forward, he said district systems could be the norm within five years. (Can you even imagine that scenario...?!)

Separately, the city is also working with Trent Berry, a partner with Vancouver, B.C.'s Compass Resource Management. Berry is also providing expertise on district energy systems.

The city of Bothell is also looking at installing a district energy system.

The new projects point in the direction Seattle is heading. But we are also lucky to have Seattle Steam here. Seattle Steam, a district heat provider for 200 downtown buildings, has been around for over 100 years. I'm sure there's a lot of experience they can add to this discussion.

It seems like Seattle has an opportunity here to be a real leader.

Moddemeyer said the biggest obstacle to progress is our faith in the current system. Projects like King County's $1.8 billion Brightwater Treatment Plant put all our water treatment eggs in one basket, betting that water will continue to be treated the way it is in years to come.

What do you think?

P.S. Like me on Facebook for regular updates on blog posts and similar green building information:

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The UW’s Paccar Hall: creating places people love

Posted on October 11, 2010

Last week, I toured the University of Washington's Paccar Hall at the Foster School of Business. I'm not an architectural critic so I won't pass judgement on the space itself (Lawrence Cheek was on the tour, so  you might look forward to his take sometime). I will say the space itself almost tempted me to go back to school.

I wrote about the building in the DJC here. But what I didn't write about was the way it made me feel.

Often, I tour a space and listen to the words of the architect. They speak about aesthetics, connections and a building's grand goals. In Paccar Hall, I didn't so much need to hear Mark Reddington of LMN speak about what the building was meant to do --- as I needed to look around and see everything he was talking about playing out in person.

Creating space that fostered random conversations between people? Check. Creating space with lots of nooks and comfortable areas for people to rest and do their own thing both indoors and out? Check. Creating space that felt like a broader piece of the UW's campus, rather than a segmented section of learning? Check. This is a building that was crawling with students interacting at all different levels, I'm guessing not all from the business school.

The sustainability features were also interesting, the most obvious one being daylit space. I've been in a lot of buildings that are "daylit" and sure, you see the outside and notice that you're getting natural light. But in Paccar Hall, the daylighting wasn't just a feature. It was the building and screamed for your attention. Having said that, I do wonder about the efficiency of a building that is over 45 percent glass. Architects on the tour assured me that numerous strategies had been put in place to take care of the solar load - very visible interior sunshades, exterior sunshades and glazing. I'd like to see the concrete operational numbers for the first few years to see how much energy it saves (it is LEED gold, after all).

The building has a number of other green features - it saved trees on the property, has automatic lighting controls and displacement ventilation. A planned green roof was value engineered out, though a decorative green space lines the outdoor terrace.

I've been thinking about the building and it raises a question for me: is it more sustainable to create a building that people love and will use thoroughly, or should teams concentrate on the green credentials?

In a perfect world, all green/sustainable/LEED certified buildings would also make you want to stay inside them. But the thing is, they don't. Often, a LEED building feels just like any other building with the addition of that familiar plaque by the door. Personally, I wanted to spend more time in Paccar Hall. The more I digest this space, the more impressed I am. People end up loving buildings like this. And in 30 years, they won't let it get torn down - a stark contrast to the original 1960s business school building just visible in the right corner of the first picture below that people can't wait to demolish.

Can we say that for all the "green" buildings out there?

Here are a number of pictures I took from the tour. For more check out my Facebook fan page.

The backside of Paccar Hall
Ground floor of Paccar Hall, opposite the open cafe area
Open cafe space on the ground floor

Interior atrium

The front of the building, facing the UW\'s north entrance

Someone enjoying the sun on the building\'s outdoor terrace
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Giuliani says clean tech is America’s next big market

Posted on September 29, 2010

This week, I interviewed former Mayor of New York and Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani on clean tech. The story is in the DJC here and nicely sums up our conversation. But if you're interested in why

Rudy Giuliani. Photo By Katie Zemtseff
Giuliani is interested in clean tech or what he thinks the next big thing or heck, whether he likes Seattle or not, I suggest you view our discussion.

The discussion is split into three video interviews. Here they are:

Click here for part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:


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Help some students out with 5 minutes of your time…

Posted on March 3, 2010

Recently, I received an e-mail from a senior studying business at Seattle Pacific University named Jamie. The student said they are part of a team writing a comprehensive business plan regarding a power strip that automatically shuts off power in stand-by mode. Turns out two of her teammates have created a working prototype, which will participate in a number of competitions.

The student, Jamie Durbin, sounds pretty excited: "We are super passionate about our product: it would save

Is this your home?
energy and save consumer(s) $100+ on their annual energy bills. We are seeking venture capital at the competitions to launch our product line and hopefully serve the environmentally-minded (smart) consumer."

Basically, the device senses when something switches to idle mode and can turn it off, saving energy.

Sounds kinda cool, eh? Here's where you can help: Jamie's team needs 1,000 respondents to an online survey. If you click here and spend 5 minutes, you could really help them out.

Overall, the product seems pretty handy. Even though I have power strips, there are often times when I simply forget to switch them off. Having a device do that automatically would take care of those moments.

Here's a description of the product:

The controlled outlets have four main functions.

1) Able to sense when an appliance switches to idle mode

2) Able to turn the appliance off after a period of time in idle mode.  To achieve this functionality, the device will monitor how long an appliance has been in an idle power state and remove power when it has been in the idle mode for a user specified period of time.

3) Able to restore power to each appliance once the user wants to use the appliances again.  When the power is cut, the device will use a motion sensor to determine if anyone is around the device. If the motion sensor is tripped then it will reconnect power to the appliance; when the user turns the appliance off the cycle will begin again.

4) MOST IMPORTANT, the device will reduce power consumption.  The maximum expected consumption of the power strip itself will be under 1 watt. It will completely eliminate the standby power for the controlled appliances.

What do you think? Are they on the right track? If you think they are, answer the survey and help 'em out.

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Electricians: the next hot profession

Posted on February 10, 2010

Are electricians the next hot profession?

Houston Neal just published an interesting post on the topic at The Software Advice Construction Blog.

Neal says "electrical contractors" will transition to "energy contractors" to support the green construction market, and that the profession will grow tremendously.  Neal cites a study by the American Solar Energy Society of Boulder, Colo. that says renewable energy jobs for electricians will grow about 900 percent by 2030, just in Colorado.

Neal calls this "a coming renaissance in electrical contracting." However to really benefit, he says electricians need to focus on changing now by gaining the right skills, promoting green credentials, and updating their bidding process to win green electrical jobs.

It's a pretty extensive and interesting post. But it makes me wonder, what other professions this applies to? If there is a coming renaissance for electricians, what other trades or jobs could see huge growth or significant change? What do you think?

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Measuring building energy use: is information the answer?

Posted on December 14, 2009

Energy efficiency has been a big topic this week. On the left coast, the city of Seattle moved closer to requiring that many buildings measure and publicly disclose energy use while on the right coast, New York City passed a package requiring energy audits and tune-ups every 10 years, among other actions.

These steps make sense. But they also seem to bypass a really big

Where should technology take us?
elephant in the room: our own, personal energy use at work.

Think about it. When you are at work, you aren't paying for energy so it doesn't seem to be that big of a deal if you leave the computer running all weekend or maybe run a space heater in the dead of winter. You likely work in an efficient building or you work in an energy hog. But either way, it's the building's energy use that gets measured when (or if) it applies for Energy Star status. There is no accountability between that number and your use of energy while at work.

Even energy software programs like this one, look at a building as a whole (though its "eggs" can be located on floors).

But a building as a whole is only part of the solution to improving energy efficiency. The other part, which is consistently ignored, is the users.

See, you never really know how a user will treat a building. Even that brilliant LEED platinum project can turn into an energy hog if everyone in it is plugging in multiple devices or using extra electronic equipment. Architects can guess at how a building will be used but that's all it is: a smart, qualified guess.

To really get efficient buildings, there needs to be a connection between the building itself and the user. How do you make that connection? How do you get people to care about resources they are using when they aren't paying for it?

One idea: instead of just measuring the entire building's performance (which, I know is a feat in and of itself), why not also find a way to measure separate sections of a building and give that information to tenants? That way, users can at least begin to make a connection between the very nebulous idea of "building energy use," and well.... us. The workers. The people using energy. That way, we no longer have the excuse of thinking "this is a LEED certified building, it will be efficient enough for me." Or "this is an energy hog anyway, it doesn't matter what I do."

Heck, if I had a pop-up system on my computer that was half as annoying as my virus detector that told me when I'm using more than my fair share of energy and when I'm being efficient or even gave me that information on a floor by floor basis, I could understand how much I'm using. Maybe it would get people to turn off their computer during the weekend. Or maybe it would remind me to turn off my task light when the sun comes out (because hey, sometimes, I forget).

So, um.... how do we do that?

Locally, Washington Real Estate Holding's LEED Platinum (for existing buildings) Park Place is at least starting down this very interesting road. I wrote about the building, constructed in 1971, in the DJC here. In the story, I said Park Place has a new online system that lets tenants, staff and eventually the public

Image courtesy Chris J. Roberts Photography
Park Place in Seattle

Image courtesy Chris J. Roberts Photography

see its operation in real-time, including water capture, reuse, lighting and HVAC loads. The system measures water on a building level but also measures utility use on a floor by floor basis!

Floor by floor measurement still might not seem like it goes far enough, but it sure is a great start to at least seeing how much you - or you and your counterparts - use compared to the rest of a building. Park Place has 10 floors that are occupied by the EPA. Don't you think actual energy use will affect the actions of people working on those floors?

What do you think about all of this? Are the politicians on the right track by starting with building energy use? Should that information be made public or is it proprietary? Do I have the right idea? Should we - as tenants of a building - see how much energy we are using or is our energy use not worthwhile when compared with building operation as a whole?

Heck, is there a building out there that already sub-meters individual spaces for tenants to this level?

I'd love to hear from you on this topic!

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What Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. had to say in Seattle this morning

Posted on March 6, 2009

This morning, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. keynoted the BuiltGreen Conference 2009 at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center. It was not your typical green conference keynote.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Most talks focus on one topic and explore it. At green events, that talk is usually centered around a project, a theory or a problem that we need to fix. This talk was mostly political and discussed everything from the benefits of "true free market capitalism" (many), to how the Bush administration tore down environmental rules and tenets (disastrously), to who was who in Washington, D.C. politics (lobbyists), to how much mercury human beings have in their bodies (a lot), to how the press has covered these issues (very poorly).

Honestly, he spoke about so many different things I don't really know what to tell you, dear reader. So I'll start with energy.

Kennedy spoke a lot about the energy grid. The largest technical problem in weaning ourselves off oil, he said, is that we don't have a grid that can handle new sources of energy like wind or solar. Developing a system that would reach every American home would cost $1 million per mile, he said, or $150 billion. It's a one-time expenditure, he said, and would benefit national security. He said we've done it before with computers and the Internet; all we have to do is make the commitment.

He also said we need to change the way the energy business works. Utilities today, he said, benefit by creating and selling more energy. We need to redevelop it to focus on conservation. "We have to change that incentivized system," he said, "So that they can make the same money by getting people to conserve, not consume."

He also spoke a lot about a business he is a part of called Better Place. Better Place is a venture-backed company that seeks to build an electric car network based on today's technology. Kennedy said the company is beginning with Israel, where it hopes to transform the market over the next three years. The company will give electric cars away for free - made by Renault and Nissan - to anyone who signs a contract with the company. Under the contract, the person owns the car while Better Place owns the car battery (which costs $20,000). The company pays itself back by charging a premium on the power the car needs to run, outlined in the contract. He said the company has similar contracts with Denmark, Australia, Hawaii and north California, and would love for all of North America to follow suit.

"The electric car is the way this country is going to go," he said.

Kennedy also took a hit at the mainstream media, calling it "negligent" in reporting important stories over the past decade. Instead, he said the media has become entertainment rather than information, which appeals to the prurient interests in the reptilian parts of our brains. Ouch.

Were you there? If so, what did you think was the most interesting thing he said and how would you rate his speech?

P.S. The information Kennedy shared about his personal levels of mercury (if he were a woman, he said a doctor told him his children would have cognitive impairment) was pretty frightening. If you want to test your mercury levels, visit the Waterkeeper Alliance, another organization Kennedy is affiliated with, here.

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