Monthly Archives: October 2009

Renovating a Home to Become Net-zero

BOULDER –  With the recent construction of an near net-zero house in Boulder, potential homeowners nationwide might be encouraged to go just a little greener when they build.

Located at 2300 Kohler Drive, the home of David Humphrey and Jamie Gardner was featured in a recent episode of the Discovery Channel’s popular “Renovation Nation,” a program showcasing green-building projects across the country.

The home has 3,547 square feet of living space with a 1,400-square-foot unfinished basement. The entire development project was the result of a collaborative partnership with Boulder-based Ellis Construction Inc., Namasté Solar Electric Inc. and Colorado Geothermal Drilling.

Jonathan Ernst, a solar engineer at Namasté, the photovoltaic panels used for the house are the highest efficiency panels currently available on the market – and are also readily available to anyone who wants to go solar.

While the building partners declined to disclose specific costs on the house, Namasté co-owner Heather Leanne Nangle estimated the current retail cost – before energy rebates or tax credits – to install a 7-kilowatt grid-tied, flush roof-mount photovoltaic system in a similar residential development could typically cost around $47,000.

Nangle said, the Xcel Energy Solar Rewards rebate for this system would be $24,000, while the federal tax credit would be $7,200. Including rebates, this brings the cost of the photovoltaic system down to $15,800.

Nangle said this price range depends on many factors, such as the number photovoltaic panels installed and the kilowatt power of the house. While the average residential system size is 5 kilowatts, the house on Kohler Drive runs at 8.28 kilowatts.

Ernst said there was nothing done to the Kohler Drive house that couldn’t be done to just about any new construction or retrofit project.

“The only thing out of the ordinary is that we were being filmed,” he laughed.

Another key player in the net-zero house is its 5-ton geothermal heating pump system, installed by Dan Rau, owner of Colorado Geothermal Drilling. The system circulates water from 300 feet underground, which is then stabilized to consistent temperatures in order to heat or cool the house.  

Rau said while the geothermal system installed was a standard one used for many houses in Colorado, the house on Kohler Drive will have one special element added within the next few months.

“We’re going to put in an energy-monitoring system that will kick up minute-by-minute and show how much the whole system costs to operate, as well as how efficiently it’s running,” Rau said. “We install a geothermal pump system about once a week, but we only install two or three of these energy-monitoring systems a year,” he added.

Rau said implementing a standard geothermal pump system will typically cost $3 to $5 per square foot more than the cost of putting in a conventional gas/electric heating and air unit.

General contractor David Ellis said these renewable energy technologies will enable the house to produce all the energy it uses.

“In a net-zero house, you’re going to try to use as little fossil fuel as possible to produce  energy,” he said. “In order to do this, we had to apply different levels of building practices to the house.”‘

These green-building practices were put into action before construction even began. First, Ellis and his crew began with a systematic deconstruction of the existing house on the site, sending everything out to be recycled, including construction waste.

During the building process, the contractors applied a tight seal to the house with spray foam insulation, creating an air barrier to prevent heating or cooling from leaking out. The exterior siding was constructed of cement board with recycled content, and a rigid foam insulation was used on the outside of the foundation walls. The entire frame of the house was constructed from forest stewardship council lumber, coming only from sustainable managed forests.

Ductwork in the house was sealed, and a heat recovery ventilator – a device that naturally produces a continuous intake and exhaust of air flow through the house – was installed in the attic.

In finishing the interior of the house, Ellis used low VOC paints and water-based floor finishes, and installed energy efficient windows and lighting.

Ellis, along with his colleagues from Namasté and Colorado Geothermal, agrees that everything done in the house can easily be implemented in any new construction or retrofit project.

“All of this stuff that we did makes sense,” he said. “The house was built really green through a lot of common sense things – nothing exotic, just stuff like good insulation. These are things I’d want to do, whether the house was dubbed ‘green’ or not. These are just good building practices.”

Ellis gives credit to homeowners Humphrey and Gardner for adding to the scope of the work.

“It’s not that difficult to reach the minimum requirements for Boulder’s green building code, but David and Jamie went above and beyond and invested way more than that into this house,” he said.

Ellis said that meeting the new Boulder County green code will typically add on about ten percent above the cost of a new construction project for houses of up to 5,000 square feet. However, Ellis added, costs for the Kohler Drive house probably topped at more than 20 percent above those estimates, thanks to the commitment made by the owners to go as near net zero as possible.

As to whether or not the couple achieved that goal, the proof came when the home was given its Home Energy Rater score. The lower the number, the more energy efficient the building. Boulder’s green codes require a score of 60 or less – and the Kohler Drive house came through with flying colors at a score of 14.

For Ellis, who spent this past year in an intensive study of renewable energy building practices, the timing of the Kohler Drive project couldn’t have been more serendipitous. Now, thanks to the completion of this net-zero home, Ellis is fast becoming known as one of the country’s premier green builders.

“A year ago I had never built anything green, and now I’m one of the few builders who have actually built a net-zero house,” he said. “This is where homebuilding is going, and I’ve embraced it. And the best thing of all is that I can walk away knowing that I’ve built a better, healthier house to live in.”

By Keely Brown, Boulder county Business Report, October 30, 2009.

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Green Stamp of Approval: Which One to Choose?

As more hotels adopt green strategies for their buildings and operations, they are increasingly turning to certification programs as a validation of their efforts — and a key marketing strategy.

“You’ve got all these green programs from different certification programs,” green hospitality consultant Ray Burger said, “and they’re starting to gain traction.”

Burger, president of Pineapple Hospitality, discussed certifications and other green issues at this week’s sold-out Buyer Interactive Trade Alliance and Conference in San Diego.

Don’t know which certification program to choose? With many options, it can be difficult to sort through to find the best certification for your property. In some areas the decision may be made for you as states and cities sign on with different organizations. Burger noted that 22 states that have green programs. Hotels without any certification at all should start with their state program, he said. Some governments restrict travel reimbursements to hotels with green certification.

Some hotels will go for multiple certifications. Some programs only cover the building itself, while others specialize in operations. The Orchard Garden Hotel and the Orchard Hotel, both in San Francisco, have pursued LEED, Green Seal and other designations — and market themselves as a green property to guests.

“You’ll start to see a huge amount of announcements of certifications” from hotels, Burger said.

Read on for a primer on a handful of the most prominent green certification programs.

LEED
The Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design designation may be the most familiar to hotel owners and operators. Run by the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED designations are awarded after a hotel is built and looks at the design, construction and operations of sustainable buildings. Hotels can earn platinum, gold, silver or a basic certification level based on a points system that takes into consideration thing such as sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality. Even providing bicycle racks to encourage alternative transportation earns points. The organization also has developed a LEED for Existing Buildings Rating System to measure operations.

Burger called LEED the “gold standard, especially in reference to new construction.” He said there were 831 registered LEED certified hotel projects, with most of them coming online in the past few years. Projects range from single sites to the mammoth CityCenter development in Las Vegas. Crystals, its the retail and entertainment district, has achieved LEED Gold Core & Shell certification. It is the fourth LEED Gold certification for CityCenter, following ARIA Resort’s hotel tower, ARIA’s convention center and theater and the Vdara Hotel & Spa. CityCenter is seeking LEED Gold and Silver ratings for its remaining hotels, residences, dining and public spaces.

Green Seal
The nonprofit Green Seal, founded in 1989, has an extensive lodging certification program. About 50 properties nationwide are in its lodging program, which has gold, silver and bronze designations.

The program evaluates a hotel’s practices in waste minimization, reuse and recycling; energy efficiency, conservation and management; management of fresh water resources; waste water management; hazardous substances; and environmentally sensitive purchasing.

The certification process can cost up to $3,000 for the initial evaluation and up to $3,000 for annual monitoring, depending on the size of the hotel.

The program has caught on with individual hotels, chains and even entire cities.

Recently the city of Chicago challenged its hotels to earn Green Seal certification through its Green Hotels Initiative, and as a result Chicago now has more Green Seal certified hotels than anywhere else in the U.S. The Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau also recently started an effort with Green Seal to begin a Green Lodging Program.

But Green Seal is not limited to the lodging industry. Its main business is certifying products as meeting science-based environmental certification standards. Green Seal has certified products in more than 40 major product categories, from heating and cooling systems, to cleaning materials to paint.

“We advise these institutions and industry sectors in their efforts to green their purchasing, operations, and facilities management functions,” according to the organization. “Green Seal works with manufacturers, industry sectors, purchasing groups, and governments at all levels to ‘green’ the production and purchasing chain.”

Green Key
The Green Key Eco-Rating Program began as a program for the Hotel Association of Canada — with strong support from Fairmont Hotels and Resorts — but made a strong move into the U.S. market earlier in October when the state of Indiana selected it to be the official green certification program for hotels there.

Based on a comprehensive environmental audit, the program rates hotels on a 1-5 scale and offers guidance on how to improve sustainability at a property. It focuses on five operational areas: corporate environmental management, housekeeping, engineering, food and beverage operations, and conference and meeting facilities. It also considers nine sustainable practices: energy conservation, water conservation, solid waste management, hazardous waste management, indoor air quality, community outreach, building infrastructure, land use and environmental management.

Green Key follows up on the self-report with random, on-site verification of audit results.

Green Leaf
The Audubon Green Leaf Eco-Rating Program made inroads in the certification market this month by becoming a third-party environmental evaluation program for lodging properties throughout the state.

The New York State Hospitality & Tourism Association chose the program, in conjunction with the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation and the state’s Green Hospitality Working Group. The program will award one to five “leaves” based on the sustainable practices of a particular hotel, motel, inn or bed and breakfast. Its focus is on water quality, water conservation, waste minimization, resource conservation and energy efficiency.

EcoRooms and EcoSuites
The program from Burger’s Pineapple Hospitality certifies and promotes hotels that meet its operations standards.

To be included on the list, hotels must: offer a recycling program for guests, use energy-efficient lighting and high-efficiency plumbing, implement a linen and towel reuse program, offer bulk bath amenities or donate semi-used bottles after a guest’s stay, use Green Seal certified or equivalent cleaning products as well as Green Seal certified or equivalent facial and bathroom tissue.

It’s the only hotel program that requires hotels to be 100 percent non-smoking to participate, Burger said.

 By Beth Kormanik, Buyer Interactive, October 20, 2009.

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Energy Star Appliances May Not All Be Efficient

WASHINGTON — The Energy Department has concluded in an internal audit that it does not properly track whether manufacturers that give their appliances an Energy Star label have met the required specifications for energy efficiency. 

Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

An agency audit also criticized the number of compact fluorescent lights approved.

Some manufacturers could therefore be putting the stickers on unqualified products, according to the audit, by the Energy Department’s inspector general, Gregory H. Friedman.

The Energy Star program, jointly managed by the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, has benefited from a renewed emphasis by the Obama administration, as a mechanism for reducing the waste of energy and curbing resulting greenhouse gas emissions. Under the federal stimulus bill, $300 million will go to rebates for consumers who buy Energy Star products.

Some consumers choose energy-efficient appliances for the same reason they might choose a car with good fuel economy: to save money or reduce the environmental impact.

Teams from the Energy Department and the E.P.A. oversee different categories of products. Last December, the environmental agency’s inspector general said the Energy Star ratings for products it oversees, like computers and television sets, were “not accurate or verifiable” because of weak oversight by the agency.

The Energy Department vowed then to scrutinize its performance in evaluating the products that it oversees, like windows, dishwashers, washing machines and refrigerators.

The new audit, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, indicates that the Energy Department has also fallen far short. Those shortcomings “could reduce consumer confidence in the integrity of the Energy Star label,” according to the department’s inspector general. The audit is to be submitted to Energy Secretary Steven Chu this week. While the Energy Department requires manufacturers of windows and L.E.D. and fluorescent lighting to have independent laboratories evaluate their products, the report said, companies that make refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers, water heaters and room air-conditioners, which consume far more energy, can certify those appliances themselves.

One refrigerator manufacturer tipped off the Energy Department that some models from a competitor that carried the Energy Star label did not meet the criteria, the audit said. That problem was also described by Consumer Reports magazine in October 2008 about tests it had conducted. In a settlement last year, the manufacturer, LG of South Korea, agreed to modify circuit boards in the machines already sold, to reduce their consumption and to compensate consumers for the extra power consumed.

The report also noted that while the government said in 2007 that it would conduct “retail assessments” to ensure that all the products carrying the Energy Star logo deserved them, it is still not doing so for windows, doors, skylights, water heaters and solid-state lighting. And the department is not following through to ensure that when inappropriately labeled products are identified, the labels are actually taken off, the audit said.

In one category, compact fluorescent lights, the government has certified nearly all existing products, the audit said. “When 90 percent of the products qualify, the consumer cannot easily judge the relative efficiencies of C.F.L. products,” the report said.

Jen Stutsman, an Energy Department spokeswoman, cited the recent agreement with the E.P.A., and said, “The Obama administration is strongly committed to ensuring that all Energy Star products provide American consumers with significant energy and cost savings, and has moved forward with steps to streamline and enhance the program.”

An outside expert, Lane Burt, the manager of building energy policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said some of the criticisms were justified.

“It’s been a tremendously successful program,” Mr. Burt said. “It’s grown by leaps and bounds, and any time you have that kind of growth, you’re going to have growing pains.”

Nonetheless, he said, “it’s crucial to make sure consumers are actually saving money and energy when buying an Energy Star appliance.” On Sept. 30, the Energy Department and the E.P.A. signed a memorandum of understanding that seeks to address some of the shortcomings detailed in the report.

Mr. Burt said the memorandum committed both agencies to having all of their products evaluated by certified independent laboratories, and to expand the Energy Star program to cover products that were not in common use when it began in 1996. No target date was set.

The memorandum called for a “super star” program within Energy Star to identify the top-performing 5 percent of products, ranked by efficiency, he said.

By Matthew L. Wald, The New York Times, October 19, 2009.

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Energy Firms Find No Unity on Climate Bill

WASHINGTON — As the Senate prepares to tackle global warming, the nation’s energy producers, once united, are battling one another over policy decisions worth hundreds of billions of dollars in coming decades.

Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Energy executives before a House committee in February. Second from right, J. Larry Nichols of Devon Energy and the American Petroleum Institute, says favoring some fuels had a flaw.

Producers of natural gas are battling their erstwhile allies, the oil companies. Electrical utilities are fighting among themselves over the use of coal versus wind power or other renewable energy. Coal companies are battling natural gas firms over which should be used to produce electricity. And the renewable power industry is elbowing for advantage against all of them.

Some supporters of global warming legislation believe that the division in the once-monolithic oil and gas industry, as well as other splits among energy producers, could improve the prospects for the legislation.

“It’s much harder to pass clean-energy legislation when big oil and other energy interests are united in their opposition,” said Daniel J. Weiss, climate policy director at the liberal Center for American Progress. “The companies that recognize the economic benefits in the bill can help bring along their political supporters.”

The American Petroleum Institute trade group, dominated by major oil companies, opposes the legislation, saying it would discourage domestic exploration and lead to higher oil prices. But some natural gas companies, though longtime members of the institute, have formed a separate lobby and are working actively with the bill’s sponsors to cut a better deal for their product.

The proposal moving through Congress would cap the emissions of greenhouse gases each year and allow companies to buy and sell permits to pollute. That approach, known as cap and trade, is meant to guarantee that emissions will decline, while providing market incentives for companies to invest in low-carbon technologies.

The measure would effectively put a price on carbon, raising the prospect that some energy producers might have to pay more than others. For that reason, billions of dollars could be at stake in some of the most arcane language in the bill.

Energy lobbies are using every tactic in the book to protect their industries, producing alarming studies about $5 gasoline and other steep cost increases that might result from a cap-and-trade system. They are also financing protest groups and advertising campaigns. In one case, a public relations firm working for the coal industry even sent opposition letters to Congress under forged names.

The divisions in the energy sector mirror a split in the broader business community. Several large companies like Apple and the utility Exelon left the United States Chamber of Commerce recently over the group’s opposition to climate change legislation.

But the biggest fights are among energy producers. They have spent more than $200 million in the first half of the year on lobbying efforts in Washington, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group, up from $174 million in the same period last year.

“The fact that the lobbying is so fast and so furious is a positive sign that this thing is moving along,” said Mark Brownstein, a managing director at the Environmental Defense Fund and an advocate of climate legislation. “The fact that everyone is rushing to Washington tells you people believe it is real.”

As legislation inches through Capitol Hill, onetime allies in the utility sector, like Exelon, which operates low-emission nuclear plants, and the Southern Company, a big consumer of coal, find themselves on opposite sides of the debate over renewable energy.

Utilities that have access to hydroelectric power or operate nuclear plants tend to favor a national mandate to increase the use of renewable power, because their carbon emissions are relatively low. Many coal-dependent utilities, particularly in the Southeast and Midwest, oppose the provision because they emit more carbon and would have to buy more permits over time.

In past energy policy debates, the oil and gas lobbies were largely united. In 2005, they won incentives for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Two years later, after Democrats had taken control of Congress, producers were unable to block a huge new mandate for alternative fuels like ethanol and biodiesel, but managed to save valuable oil industry tax breaks that some Democrats tried to end.

Today, each energy subsector, fearing any legislation that might give it a disadvantage, is battling for favor. The gas producers, for example, have formed the American Natural Gas Alliance, which is spending heavily on advertising and lobbying to point out that gas emits roughly half the carbon dioxide of coal. The group has also helped organize its allies in Congress into a new natural gas caucus, with two dozen members.

“These fissures are happening because a policy is increasingly seen as inevitable,” said David G. Victor, an energy expert at the University of California, San Diego. “Old coalitions are splintering and fascinating new alliances are being formed.”

The most important fight is over whether companies have to buy pollution permits, called allowances, or whether the government hands them out free in the early years to help ease the cost of the transition.

President Obama has said the permits should be auctioned, an approach that would cost companies tens of billions of dollars. But after fierce lobbying from electrical utilities, the House made the permits free in the first decade of the program, to help finance the transition to cleaner fuels and to shield electrical consumers from higher prices.

Industry analysts say the utilities’ willingness to negotiate with Democratic lawmakers gained them a huge advantage when the House passed its climate bill in June. The oil and natural gas industries, by contrast, felt shunned in the House debate because they would not negotiate, these analysts say.

For example, oil companies complained that their mandated purchase of emissions permits would amount to a tax to be used to clean up dirty coal plants.

“There was an inherent flaw when Congress set off down the road of favoring one fuel source over another,” said J. Larry Nichols, chairman of Devon Energy, an independent oil and gas company, and also chairman of the American Petroleum Institute. “You knew there had to be a feeding frenzy among various competing fuels trying to protect themselves.”

Half of the nation’s electrical power is generated by burning coal, and emission limits are a long-term threat to the business. The coal industry, through a group it finances called the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, is running a campaign to persuade the public that coal is affordable, abundant and can be cleaned up thanks to still-distant technology that would capture carbon emissions and store them underground.

Some coal executives aim to scuttle legislation in the Senate by continuing to cast doubts on the science of climate change.

“A lot of coal-using utilities seem to be on the wrong side of this issue,” said Don L. Blankenship, the chief executive of Massey Energy, the largest producer of Appalachian coal, who has called climate legislation a hoax and a Ponzi scheme. “How can they be so confident that man is changing the world climate?”

By Jon Broder and Jad Mouawad, The New York Times, October 18, 2009.

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Green and Greener in Suburban Towns

For two years, Valerie Williams had been considering making the five-bedroom home she grew up in more energy efficient — hoping to shrink her $350 monthly utility bill — but more pressing expenses always came first. 

Kathy Kmonicek for The New York Times

MEASURING An infrared camera checks heat from an oil burner.

Top, Andrew Sullivan for The New York Times; above, Kathy Kmonicek for The New York Times

Checking air filtration in a home in Babylon, above, and evidence of change in Greenwich, top.

Then the town of Babylon came up with an offer she couldn’t refuse: if she and her husband, Carlos, paid $250 for an energy audit, the town would finance the recommended upgrades. The couple would repay the town at a monthly rate below the savings on their utility bill. The audit, done this month, found that by insulating walls, basement and attic, at a cost of $6,879, the Williamses could save about $1,300 a year.

“It’s an excellent deal,” said Mrs. Williams, 42, a New York City correction officer. “With the bills and the mortgage, sometimes it’s hard to do this at one time.” New York City and other major urban centers have ambitious, high-profile environmental programs. But it turns out that throughout the suburbs, towns like Babylon, on Long Island, are exploring and adopting a wide variety of innovative ways to save energy, protect their residents’ health and reduce pollution.

Some of these towns are offering energy retrofits; others furnish free parking to fuel-efficient hybrid cars. Yet others are limiting or banning the use of fertilizers to avoid chemicals leaching into the groundwater, or imposing strict energy efficiency requirements for new homes.

In a bold action, the Town of Islip changed its zoning ordinance last month to allow windmills up to 156 feet high in industrial zones, for warehouses and other businesses that may want to produce their own electricity and sell any excess energy to the local utility. Last November, Islip also allowed wind turbines in residential backyards and on commercial property, but town officials say there have been few takers because of height limitations of 45 and 70 feet, respectively.

“There’s a very strong environmental sensibility among suburbanites,” said Lawrence C. Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., and the driver of a Prius (which he can park free in his town, Huntington). “One of the reasons that people move to the suburbs is for the cleaner air and open spaces. They guard this zealously and with their votes.”

In Greenwich, Conn., the Board of Selectmen has banned pesticides on all municipal and school playing fields, and now requires that all cleaning products used in government buildings be certified.

Sometimes, the smaller size of these towns gives them an advantage over big cities in promoting these changes. To begin its energy audit program last year, for example, Babylon, which has about 60,000 homes, had its garbage collectors deliver an energy-efficient fluorescent bulb to every household during their rounds.

Buildings are a major target of local environmental action because, through their heating, cooling and other uses of energy, they are among the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide, the main gas linked to global warming. Neal Lewis, executive director of the Sustainability Institute at Molloy College on Long Island, said representatives from Suffolk and Nassau Counties and their towns and villages came together five years ago with their eye on building-related pollution. Since then, 10 of 13 towns in the two counties have set new energy efficiency standards in their building codes for new construction, Mr. Lewis said.

Among these towns is Southampton, which decided to tailor its energy conservation to building size, so that homes that use the most energy are required to become the most energy efficient. Southampton is a wealthy resort town with many houses of more than 10,000 square feet; its law, passed last year, creates a tier system that calls for stricter energy-saving measures, like higher levels of insulation and more window glazing, for bigger homes. “The premise is that if you can afford a house that’s 10,000 square feet, you can also make sure it’s highly energy efficient,” Mr. Lewis said. “It’s completely changed how houses are built.”

Besides its attractiveness as a money saver, the code appeals to residents who realize that the alternative may be more smokestacks on the local horizon.

“People don’t want a big power plant out here, so what do we have? We have conservation,” said Robert S. DeLuca, president of Group for the East End, an environmental group, and a member of the committee that produced the new code.

Builders for the most part have been supportive of these measures, but Michael Watt, executive vice president of the Long Island Builders Institute, said his group has worked closely with legislators to make sure the environmental goals are attainable and affordable. He said green features can make a home more valuable but in the short term add to building costs, so one question to consider is, “Is the consumer willing to pay for that?”

“Sometimes the municipality, in its desire to do good, would mandate changes when incentives tend to work better,” Mr. Watt said.

And there is only so much change the towns can impose. Requiring that homes be built smaller would greatly shrink the carbon footprint of buildings, but even environmentalists agree this is not realistic.

“There would be no political support to work on that side of the equation,” Mr. DeLuca said.

There are other obstacles to going green. Marcia Bystryn, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, said villages, wary of changing their character, often resist increasing building density even if that means forcing development to go elsewhere and contributing to suburban sprawl. And poor suburbs are less likely than affluent ones to join the movement, she said.

“There are no real resources, and it’s unlikely that you’d have the kind of galvanizing leadership in these communities to take on climate issues,” Ms. Bystryn said. “Leaders usually advocate for affordable housing and things like that.”

But even wealthier areas need financial incentives in order to draw participants like Mrs. Williams. So far more than 200 homes have been audited, with potential savings of close to $1,000 a year each on average.

The town pays for the program, now a pilot, with $2 million from its solid waste reserve fund. New state and federal laws, and millions of dollars in federal stimulus grants, have also helped spur such initiatives.

“This is a program that helps the environment, helps homeowners save money, creates local jobs, reduces our reliance on fossil fuels and it’s at no cost to taxpayers,” said Steve Bellone, Babylon’s town supervisor.

Mr. Levy, of Hofstra, noted that the fragmented government on Long Island, with its many towns and special districts, often means competition for development projects or government grants — and that the quest to go green has created healthier rivalries.

“All the town supervisors want to be known as the leanest and greenest,” he said.

Mr. Bellone said he strongly believed that sustainability was a matter of survival.

“Over time, residents are going to demand it, and housing stock and commercial stock that are green are going to be more valuable,” he said. “This positions Babylon to be a prosperous community for the long term.”

By Mireya Navarro, The New York Times, October 9, 2009.

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Dow’s Solar-Powered Shingles

Dow’s announcement this week that it developed solar shingles is interesting not because it represents a big technological breakthrough—it doesn’t.

Dow: Nail-and-play

Dow’s solar shingles are interesting precisely because they offer the prospect of turning something exotic, like solar power, into something mundane, like new shingles. That’s the kind of thing that all new energies—from biofuels to electric cars—need to do in order to escape their category as “niche” solutions and start becoming ubiquitous.

Dow, the big chemical company, said that after a couple of years of effort, it’s ready to start production of ashpalt shingles that incorporate a layer of thin-film solar panel. For now, Dow will get the thin-film solar from Global Solar, rather than trying to leverage any of the exotic solar-power solutions Dow is working on in-house. Dow will start limited production next year before ramping up in 2011.

Unlike many of the recent announcements in the solar sector—from breakthroughs in efficiency to new production techniques—the thrust of the Powerhouse shingles is simple: Since they can be nailed to a roof like regular shingles, they require no specialized labor or installation. That means lower installation costs, which—just like incremental technology improvements—means electricity generated from solar power will be a little bit cheaper.

Or a lot. Jane Palmieri, the managing director of Dow Solar Solutions, says the new shingles should be 10% to 15% cheaper than a standard solar-power rack, and as much as 40% cheaper than a full, integrated solar-power installation.

Dow figures the new product could be a $5 billion market by 2015. That’s because the market for roofing shingles is huge, and if Dow can tap into just a fraction of that—places where sun shines, with roofs facing the right way, and the like—it could clean up.

To put that in perspective, Dow’s estimate of the size solar-shingle market is bigger than many recent estimates of the market for advanced batteries meant to power electric cars.

One potentially big driver? Last year’s extension of government tax breaks for solar-power systems, which increased the amount of money homeowners could receive for installing new systems.

One state, in particular, will be watching Dow’s shingles with baited breath: Michigan. The initial production will be done at Dow’s Midland, Mich. factory. The full-scale production run has yet to find a home.

By Keith Johnson, The Wall Street Journal Blog, October 9, 2009.

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Thousands of Homeowners Cite Drywall for Ills

When Bill Morgan, a retired policeman, moved into his newly built dream home in Williamsburg, Va., three years ago, his hopes were quickly dashed.

Casey Templeton for The New York Times

Bill Morgan blames Chinese drywall for toxic fumes and corrosion in components of his home.

Casey Templeton for The New York Times

Bill Morgan had to abandon his newly built dream home in Williamsburg, Va., blaming drywall for corrosive fumes that attacked metal objects.

His wife and daughter suffered constant nosebleeds and headaches. A persistent foul odor filled the house. Every piece of metal indoors corroded or turned black.

In short order, Mr. Morgan moved out. The headaches and nosebleeds stopped, but the ensuing financial problems pushed him into personal bankruptcy.

“My house is not worth the land it’s built on,” said Mr. Morgan, who could not maintain the mortgage payments on his $383,000 home in a Williamsburg subdivision called Wellington Estates and the costs of a rental property where his family decamped.

Mr. Morgan, like many other American homebuyers who tell similar tales of woe, is blaming the drywall in his new home — specifically, drywall from China, imported during the housing boom to meet heavy demand — that he says is contaminated with various sulfur compounds.

Hundreds of lawsuits are piling up in state and federal courts, and a consolidated class action is moving forward in Louisiana before Judge Eldon E. Fallon of Federal District Court, who will begin hearing cases in January.

Three hundred cases have been filed in Louisiana alone, many with similar complaints from homeowners — a noxious smell, recurrent headaches and difficulty breathing. In Florida, the health department has received over 500 complaints with such symptoms.

In addition, these suits say, metal objects in homes corrode quickly, causing kitchen appliances, air-conditioners, televisions and plumbing to fail.

“There could be 60,000 to 100,000 homes that are worthless and have to be ripped completely down and rebuilt,” said Arnold Levin, a Philadelphia lawyer and co-chairman of the plaintiffs’ steering committee.

While tainted Chinese imports like toothpaste, pet food and baby formula have been quickly removed from store shelves, drywall is installed throughout homes and does not lend itself to a quick fix.

This month, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, whose investigation into Chinese drywall is the largest in its history, will release the results of a study to determine why the drywall is causing the problem, and what kind of remediation programs might be effective.

Already, the commission has sent six investigators to Chinese gypsum mines and to meet with the government there. The Chinese government’s counterpart to the federal safety commission sent two of its experts here to inspect affected homes.

The commission is also making sure that no more Chinese drywall comes into the country.

“Our ports are on alert,” said Inez Tenenbaum, chairwoman of the commission. “They are not letting any in. The market, too, has corrected. No one wants Chinese drywall.”

Even President Obama is being pressed by members of Congress to raise the issue on his November trip to China — the loudest cry coming from Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, who has traveled to China on his own to learn more about the drywall problems.

Investigators are finding that getting scientific data, establishing legal accountability and following a supply chain is difficult when so many drywall sheets — millions in all were brought into the United States — were simply marked “Made in China,” providing no clues to their actual source. The drywall was brought in because United States supplies ran low, not as a cost-saving measure for builders.

One target of the lawsuits is Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin, a German company with manufacturing plants in China that supplied about 20 percent of the Chinese drywall brought into the United States.

Don Hayden, the company’s lawyer, said that its own toxicology tests from affected homes showed that the drywall presented no health problems. Even so, he said his company was cooperating with American government investigations.

“Unlike other Chinese manufacturers, we are the only one to come to the United States to address this problem,” said Mr. Hayden. “We’ve spent considerable time and energy and hope that we can provide a workable solution to U. S. homeowners.”

One puzzle is why problems have surfaced in the United States and not Asia, where drywall was also sold. According to a safety commission official who declined to be named because of the delicacy of the issue, a theory offered by Chinese officials during their visit to the United States was that American homes are more tightly built, with less ventilation than homes in China.

Casey Templeton for The New York Times

A corroded wiring connector in Mr. Morgan’s home.

Casey Templeton for The New York Times

Venture Supply, on a panel of drywall near the attic access door.

Mr. Morgan said corrosive fumes attacked objects like the lighting fixture.

One drywall manufacturer, the Taishan Gypsum Company, which is controlled by the Chinese government, was found to be in preliminary default last week by a federal judge after the company failed to show up in court.

But whether the Florida builders who brought the class-action lawsuit could ever collect on any future judgment remains unclear, because of the difficulty of gaining jurisdiction and enforcing rulings against foreign companies, especially in China. In other cases, many of the Chinese companies cannot be found or have disbanded.

Homeowners, insurers, home builders, drywall suppliers and Chinese manufacturers, if they can be identified, are often suing each other. Drywall installers and suppliers are also expected to be targets of the next wave of litigation. Many lawsuits need to be translated into Mandarin and follow rules of international law, adding layers of difficulty.

Among the homeowners filing suit are the lieutenant governor of Florida, Jeff Kottkamp; and Sean Payton, head coach of the New Orleans Saints, who has moved out of his Mandeville, La., home.

The product safety commission has received more than 1,300 complaints from 26 states, but the bulk are from Florida, Louisiana and Virginia, where hurricanes led to an unprecedented housing boom in 2006 and 2007.

In 2006 alone, nearly seven million sheets of drywall were imported from China. The federal court in the Eastern District of Louisiana has identified 26 brands of drywall, but 11 others had no markings other than variations of “Made in China.”

Insurance companies, in particular, have become a popular target of lawsuits over their refusal to pay claims filed by homeowners and home builders, stating that their policies do not cover problems caused by pollutants.

There are estimates that it costs $100,000 to $150,000 per home to rip out and replace tainted drywall and the electrical equipment attached to it. In these cases, homes are being stripped down to the studs and new drywall is installed.

Some home builders, worried about their reputations, are doing just that. The Lennar Corporation has set aside $40 million for home repairs, while it tries to collect from its insurance company and sues several Chinese suppliers and American middlemen. Lennar declined to comment.

But many smaller home builders, hoping to survive the downturn, do not have such deep pockets. “This couldn’t have come at a worse time for the industry,” said Jenna Hamilton, assistant vice president of government affairs at the National Association of Home Builders.

For that reason, some members of Congress hope the federal government will provide financial assistance for their constituents, just as it does after natural disasters.

There may be local relief, too. Broward County, Fla., has cut property assessments as much as 20 percent in some affected areas and Miami-Dade is considering a similar tax break. “Florida is hypersensitive to hurricanes and this is like a silent hurricane,” said Representative Robert Wexler, Democrat of Florida. “Whole neighborhoods are being wiped out in terms of property values and people’s ability to remain in their homes.”

Help could not come soon enough for Mr. Morgan’s Virginia dream home.

“Every piece of drywall in the house except for four pieces is Chinese,” said Mr. Morgan. ”We built our home to be safe from floods, and for three years we’ve been breathing this stuff.”

Mr. Morgan said that metal fixtures in his house turned black. His air-conditioner and electrical outlets failed. Lamps and mirrors tarnished immediately. Neighbors, too, had similar problems..

Mr. Morgan bought his house in 2006 after his family spent two years living in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency when their previous home was destroyed in 2003 by Hurricane Isabel. Mr. Morgan has lost the equity in his home, but he still drops by to cut the grass.

“When I drive by my house, it breaks my heart,” he said.

By Leslie Wayne, The New York Times, October 7, 2009.

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