[Originally posted at EcoGeek. This was adapted from the Remembrance of Ernest Callenbach that I posted yesterday. It also incorporates the fragment of an interview I had started doing with him for an EcoGeek of the Week profile that never happened. Since the interview is included in this version, I’m re-posting it here, as well, although some of what I’ve written repeats what I had in my first article. But for those unfamiliar with Ernest Callenbach, this may be a better introduction to his work.]

Ernest Callenbach died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 83. You may not recognize his name, but his book, ‘Ecotopia’ was an extremely influential early novel of environmentalism. It has been translated into a dozen languages and has sold nearly a million copies since it was first self-published in 1975. I would have to say that I am the EcoGeek that I am because of Ernest Callenbach.

Ecotopia‘ presents an alternative future where Northern California, Oregon, and Washington State have seceded from a collapsing United States that is choked with pollution. The new country has isolated itself from its parent country, and the book is presented as the journal of the first reporter from the US to visit, some 20 years after secession, to see how Ecotopians live. The Ecotopian lifestyle was more connected to the land, more interpersonal, and more conscious of environmental effects. It may not be a realistic possibility, but it offers a compelling vision for what could be aspired to.

I had a brief email correspondence with Ernest Callenbach for a possible interview for EcoGeek (to be part of the EcoGeek of the Week series). I had only done a few of these interviews; a couple of them went well; a couple others less so (and never got published). Ernest Callenbach was a hero to me, and I didn’t want to screw that one up, and I wanted to ask good questions. I have the first part of that discussion, but things telescoped and other things came up and the interview was never finished. What follows is that interview segment.

The second of the presentations I gave at this year’s Penguicon was titled ‘Alternative’ Alternative Energy Generation.

Alternative energy systems such as wind power and solar panels have become so familiar they really have become mainstream. But these aren’t the only alternative energy systems available. There are ‘alternative’ alternatives that offer other ways of harnessing energy from other sources and in other ways than the ‘mainstream’ alternative energy methods. Find out about river current power generation, wave power, kite wind power, etc.

The PDF of the presentation is here, and the links to articles about the various technologies discussed are after the cut.



Science Fiction Materials for Your Home” is a presentation I’ve given a couple of times now (it’s a little different each time I’ve done it). This past weekend, it was one of two presentations I gave at Penguicon 2012.

The premise for the presentation is that there are a number of construction materials that have very intriguing properties. Even if these aren’t necessarily widely available or affordable, they are products that seem to come from science fiction. And while these aren’t things you’re likely going to put into your home next year, it’s interesting to see what materials are being developed. And perhaps someone will eventually be interested in doing a project that incorporates some of these materials.

Attached below you can find a link to a PDF of my presentation (which is mostly just a set of images that I use to illustrate the discussion), as well as a set of links to original articles (many that are articles I wrote for EcoGeek and JetsonGreen) talking about these materials. The list is long enough to warrant being behind a cut.



[Originally posted at EcoGeek. It’s not entirely new news, since the Army began adopting ASHRAE 189.1 in 2010, but it’s further movement in a direction they were already headed in. It’s probably a greater blow to LEED, since the DoD was one of its biggest adopters.

AIA Michigan COTE has been working to get more information about the new International Green Construction Code (IGCC) out to our members, and I have to admit that I’m still not completely clear about how the IGCC interacts with current state building code. I do think that there will be an increasing move toward having green building practice embedded in code.

At the same time, I think that LEED can maintain its leadership by further pushing the envelope. LEED has become very mainstream, and that is both good (in terms of overall uptake of the message) and bad (in that it has become less distinctive). LEED has to finesse the balance between being cutting edge and being accessible. I think, as it has become more and more popular, it has become too ordinary, and it needs to regain some of its distinctiveness and its status as marking truly exceptional buildings.]

[Edit to add: Some further clarification came out after I wrote this original article. See the followup posted at EcoGeek, as well, for a fuller picture of what is going on.]

While the headline may sound dire, it’s not an indication that the US Army is giving up on green building. Instead, the Army has announced it will use a new construction code of its own which is based on the ASHRAE 189.1 standard for new buildings and renovations, rather than continue to use LEED or the High Perfromance Sustainable Buildings standards. This new standard will “govern all new construction, major renovations and leased space acquisition.” The Army had already adopted ASHRAE 189.1 late in 2010.

Some of the impetus for this change is political. In 2011, Congress acted to prevent any Department of Defense project from achieving LEED gold or platinum certification as part of that year’s Defense Reauthorization bill.

Moreover, LEED is fundamentally a marketing program that recognizes buildings built to a particular high standard of performance. At its core, the Army is more concerned about having better buildings that it can operate more efficiently. Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Dr. Dorothy Robyn stated that, “With more than 300,000 buildings and 2.2 billion square feet of building space, DoD has a footprint three times that of Wal-Mart and six times that of GSA. Our corresponding energy bill is $4 billion annually.” The Defense Department recognizes the importance of green buildings for its overall operational effectiveness.

The armed forces have been one of the biggest early adopters of LEED, and if all of the services are going to move away from using LEED as their standard for improved performance, that is likely to have a strong effect on USGBC, GBCI, and the LEED program as a whole. “The repercussions of this announcement will be widespread,” notes Green Building Law Update. “For federal contractors, this is a game changer. The LEED AP credential will be less valuable. Past performance highlighting LEED certification will be less valuable, if not totally irrelevant.”

ASHRAE 189.1 is not some lesser standard. It was develeoped by ASHRAE (the professional organization of mechanical engineers), US Green Building Council, and IESNA (the professional organization of lighting engineers), as well as the International Code Council. Moreover, the Army’s action is not unprecedented. The International Code Council has also developed the International Green Construction Code (IGCC) which incorporates the ANSI/ASHRAE/USGBC/IES Standard 189.1 as a “jurisdictional compliance option.” Increasingly, building codes are going to directly incorporate green measures instead of relying on third-party standards that are merely optional.

Ultimately, this may push LEED in new directions. LEED was meant to push the envelope and to transform the marketplace. In that respect, it has accomplished much of that initial goal. As the industry has moved to embrace LEED, perhaps in the coming years, LEED will again push for even greater improvements in building technology and again make LEED an indication of a truly elite building.

via: Green Building Law Update

Electron Stimulated Luminescence (ESL) lighting is an interesting alternative to compact fluorescent lights. It is a bit less energy efficient that a good CFL (but far better than an incandescent, like a CFL)**, and its expected lifespan is only about 2/3 that of a CFL, but it has a better color-rendering index (CRI), which addresses one of the biggest complaints many people have about CFLs.

About a month ago, I received a sample ESL bulb from Vu1, the company which has brought these bulbs out, and I have been trying it out in my (basement) office space since then. This bulb is meant as a replacement for a 65 watt incandescent R-30 bulb and, like CFLs, it has a standard screw base to allow it to be used to replace other kinds of bulbs.

My first impression of the light, as soon as I first turned it on, was that it was producing incredibly even illumination. Since then, I have found that this is explained by the company as being “a lightbulb that operates as a Lambert Radiator, meaning the light appears brighter than the Lumens would indicate approaching Lambertian perfection.” It’s a subtle quality of the light, but it’s something I noticed immediately, and that some clients of mine noticed, as well, when I took the bulb to show them for a demonstration.

The CRI of the Vu1 bulb is rated at 90+, which makes it better than most CFLs (which tend to have a CRI around 80), but not quite that of an incandescent (which has a CRI of 100).

As a replacement for an overhead CFL, for my purposes, I like the Vu1 bulb very much. The bulb is directional, with the majority of the light directed downward. The unfinished ceiling of the space is not as lit up as it used to be (which was not a very efficient way to light the space, anyhow), and the work surface is as well lit as before. The increased CRI is subtle; the difference in color temperature between the CFL I had and the Vu1 is the more dramatic change in the space.

(I should note that I have mixed lighting in my office space. When I first tried out the Vu1 bulb, I turned off the other lights in order to judge it by itself. But typically I have a strip fluorescent fixture with daylight color balanced tubes, as well as the Vu1 bulb.)

The Vu1 ESL bulb is also mercury-free, which is one of the company’s major selling points with the bulb. While I appreciate not having any mercury in the bulb, I’m not a mercury alarmist, and I have most of the light fixtures throughout my house fitted with CFLs. The bulb I replaced with the Vu1 bulb was a CFL.

The bulb is surprisingly heavy. The bulb is a vaccuum tube, much like an old television or CRT, and it has a similarly robust envelope. It also works in essentially the same manner as a CRT, using electrons to stimulate a phosphor coated front surface, which glows to produce the illumination (which is why the bulb is best as a directional downlight, rather than as a wide-area illuminator).

My impression is that the Vu1 bulb is best suited for directional uses, like ceiling mounted downlights, rather than for wide area illumination such as table lamps. It is also advertised as being dimmable with a standard dimmer, though I haven’t tried that out yet.

Reviewers like Lloyd Alter at Treehugger and Tristan Roberts at Building Green have criticized the bulb on various counts. I think some of the criticisms levelled at the ESL are reminiscent of those against the CFL. Early CFLs were expensive, but production has ramped up enormously, and they are now available at very low prices.

ESL suffers from being the second incandescent replacement technology to come along. A lot of the investment and development that might have gone into ramping up the ESL has already been spent in developing production and markets for CFLs, and I think that CFLs will (or already have) become as entrenched and difficult to overcome as the incandescents that preceded the ESL. And, at the same time, LEDs are improving in quality and decreasing in cost. With other alternatives out there, and the shifting cost/quality/efficacy landscape, the ESL has a tough road if it is going to become the predominant replacement for the incandescent; I think it’s too late into the game and not enough benefit. But I think there are uses where it will fit in, and it could well develop a niche for itself.

Street pricing for the Vu1 is about $15 (for now*). That’s more expensive than a CFL these days, but that’s in the range of what CFLs were a decade ago. I don’t know if ESL bulbs will see a similar trajectory with price as CFLs experienced. If the Vu1 bulb reaches a point where it is not several times as expensive as the alternative, there may be a real market for the better quality light.

For now, I’m keeping the ESL bulb in my office instead of putting back the CFL. I plan on showing it to other clients of mine on upcoming projects as an alternative to CFL downlights.

[Disclaimer: Vu1 provided the sample bulb to me at no charge for my review.]

[* 15 Feb – Edit to add: After posting this yesterday, I got a call from William Smith, the chairman of Vu1. One thing he wanted to emphasize is that the company expects the price for this bulb to be less than $10 within 18 months, as production ramps up and they start making their own electronics for the bulb and so forth. This isn’t going to match the cheap, commodity CFLs in price, but it’s certainly in the range of other dimmable bulbs (as another commenter also pointed out). They are also going to have A19 version (more of a standard bulb) coming out later this year, which I’m looking forward to seeing, as well.]

[**19 Feb – first paragraph edited for clarity to add the words “a bit” and insert the parenthetical comment.]

[Originally posted at EcoGeek. Wave power is definitely high on the EcoGeek spectrum, but it’s been very difficult to implement (the sea is a harsh place to work) and had to face lots of regulatory hurdles. But the idea of an old tanker filled with batteries and generating megawatts of electricity is a compelling vision.]

Wave power is an intriguing but difficult proposition. It offers a fairly steady source of power that is more regular than many other renewable power systems, but the marine environment is particularly harsh and difficult to work in. A number of wave power projects have struggled in the past few years, which shows how difficult this approach can be.

mobile wave power generating system proposed by Fraunhofer Center for Manufacturing Innovation would install wave generators along with banks of storage batteries onto ships or barges for portable wave power generation. The ship would go to sea and deploy its generators, and then return back to port and connect its batteries to the grid when it was fully charged.

Read the whole article at EcoGeek.

[Originally posted on EcoGeek. One of the topics we love to cover on EcoGeek is airships. This is an intriguing vehicle that is part airship and part flying wing airplane (with the top surface covered with solar panels).]

Incorporating solar power onto airships is not an entirely new idea, but we continue to find interesting developments of the concept. The latest is the Solar Ship,a hybrid aircraft that merges bouyant lifting and aerodynamics as well as thin-film solar panels. The combination makes for a long-range vessel that is able to take-off and land on very short airfields.

Earlier studies have been critical of the efficiency of airships, finding that trucks offer a lower overall cost in time and energy. But that presupposes the existence of a network of available roads. While developed areas may be more readily served by trucks, they are less than ideal for many other parts of the world.

The Solar Ship concept was specifically developed for use in areas without a network of roads available. The two areas being focused on at present are to provide medical services in remote areas and to provide cargo transport alternatives to the “ice roads” presently used to move supplies in the high Arctic.

Read the whole article at EcoGeek.

I recently wrote an article for Jetson Green about the ecobee programmable thermostat (which Matt Grocoff (Greenovation TV) first brought to my attention after he saw it at this year’s Greenbuild. It’s a nice programmable thermostat with wireless connectivity and a number of other good features.

But then, earlier this week, I saw a bunch of posts (including one at Jetson Green that I didn’t write) about another programmable thermostat called Nest that learns about the house over time. It’s also a nice thermostat with a more user-friendly appearance and a number of appealing features.

Of the two, I’m more intrigued by the Nest thermostat. The ecobee sort of struck me as a basic programmable thermostat with some nice features tacked on to it (WiFi connection, color display), but not much to really justify the $300-$400 price. The Nest doesn’t necessarily do a whole lot more, but the adaptive learning that it does perform is certainly intriguing, and the suggested price of $250 is lower than that of ecobee.

I’m less certain that the little green leaf displayed by Leaf is as useful as it is touted. The product literature says the leaf lights up “when you are saving energy,” but does that just mean it’s lit up when the furnace (or AC) is cycled off? Does that really help?

I’m interested in finding out more about how both of these perform in real-world applications, so I will be looking for real users stories about these. Of course, as I said in my article about the ecobee, “…many programmable thermostats are, in fact, never programmed and consequently, the benefits and savings that could come from having it aren’t realized. A smart appliance like this will only save energy (and money) for you if you use it intelligently.”

Links: Nestecobee

Edit to add: After writing about these here, I adapted this and posted another piece for EcoGeek about these thermostats.

[Originally posted on EcoGeek. This seems to be based on a carbon footprint analysis, and there are other metrics that rate ‘green’-ness in other ways, so the argument isn’t as clear-cut (no pun intended) as the headline would suggest.]

Green building advocates and construction product marketers have different views of what the greenest building material is. Different ways of determining what green means will lead to different results. But according to a recent report from the U.S. Forest Service, wood is the greenest building material.

This analysis seems to rest largely on the carbon footprint of various construction materials.

“The argument that somehow non-wood construction materials are ultimately better for carbon emissions than wood products is not supported by our research,” said David Cleaves, the U.S. Forest Service Climate Change Advisor. “Trees removed in an environmentally responsible way allow forests to continue to sequester carbon through new forest growth. Wood products continue to benefit the environment by storing carbon long after the building has been constructed.”

Wood is also unique as a renewable resource that actively sequesters carbon from the atmosphere. As they grow, trees absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and lock it into the structure of the wood. In doing so, wood is a carbon storage material, and that carbon is locked away until the wood decomposes or burns.

The report additionally recommends that USDA further its outreach efforts to educate the construction industry and the general public to be more aware of the suitability of wood for non-residential construction and to further study of the carbon benefits of the use of wood in construction.

image: CC-SA 2.5 by Andreas Trepte,

via: Architect magazine

[Originally posted A couple of good reference links in this, as well as the topic itself. The BuildingGreen discussion of aphorisms and thoughts about building materials is good to look at, in particular.]

Last month, Google announced that it would no longer use any of the construction materials found on the Living Building Challenge’s “red list.” For a company that is opening new office space at a rate of 40,000 square feet (about 3,700 square meters) per week, that’s a lot of construction activity, and a lot of materials that are no longer being used for those projects. It’s also a leadership role from a company that wants to be environmentally positive.

The red list (as opposed to the green list) is a list of construction materials that include components made from products such as mercury, asbestos, PVC, formaldehyde and lead. In most cases, these materials are poor for the indoor air quality of the spaces where they are installed. But, even if the final form is relatively inert, the production of these materials also has a large environmental toll due to the extraction of materials used to produce them and from the processing of raw materials to make the finished products.

The Living Building Challenge goes beyond LEED and other green building programs with a standard for creating buildings that are restorative and balanced, rather than being merely “less bad” than typical construction. The red list is found in the Materials section of the Living Building Challenge 2.0 guidebook (pdf).

Like LEED itself, Google’s size makes this a decision that will have ramifications throughout the construction industry. Manufacturers who use red list materials in their products will see sales declines not only from Google, but from other companies who will follow Google’s lead in this.

The Building Green blog has a wonderful followup that talks not only about these rules, but offers a wider approach to considering appropriate building materials from an environmental perspective.

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