fracking debate, and I recently came across an article about green buildings that exactly demonstrates the carelessness and misinformation that frustrates me so much.
There has been a lot of harsh criticism surrounding the validity of New York City's so-called "greenest building" - the Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park. This began with an article from New Republic referring to the building as Bank of America's "Toxic Tower", of which the author Mr. Roudman claims that instead of being the pinnacle of the green building for high-rises, it is actually one of the city's largest "energy hogs." Many articles followed with a version of this, without so much as to investigate the claims stated within the article. I guess the words "Bank of America" "LEED" and "Toxic" were enough to grab the headlines. Views on the Big Corporate that is BoA aside, while some of the observations about the Tower are indeed valid, much of the green-building/LEED- bashing seems unwarranted and somewhat heavy-handed.
Let me begin by looking at what I agree with. The Bank of America Tower, which is rated Platinum (under the LEED Core and Shell Rating System) is reportedly doing worse than one of its counterparts, the Goldman Sachs building, which was certified at a lower level. While I don't know why exactly this is, there are a few possibilities.
One of the main components that has been sending the building's energy consumption sky-high, and Mr. Roudman's article is right about is its energy-intensive trading floors. With 3-6 computer monitors to each desk, and hundreds of desk on each floor, that is surely going to rack up a high energy bill. Not surprisingly, these computers are left switched on after work hours and on weekends. One major difference between the trading floors of BoA and Goldmans is that at BoA the CPUs for each computer are situated under each workstation, whereas at Goldmans they are operated through a central network. That may incur somewhat higher upfront costs but would also save a lot of energy and money in the long run. What he did not account for is population density. The trading floors are much more densely packed with people than the average office space, which should also count for something. But yes, although even with those savings a trading floor would still be heavily energy intensive. But what are you going to do, tell banks to stop trading?
The other point is that the Bank of America Tower was certified under the LEED Core & Shell Rating System, which is designed for buildings who do not have control over the majority (50% or less) of the building and so many of the calculations are based on default occupancy numbers and energy modeling, and not actual numbers and statistics.
Yes, technically as the building received certification for the Core & Shell program once, it does not have to recertify, which seemed to be a sore point for Mr. Roudman. But that was not intended as the be all and end all. As a new building ceases to be new, it's certification also loses its significance. Which is why LEED has another rating system - Existing Buildings - Operations & Maintenance, intended to certify existing buildings and provide an ongoing assessment of a building, with reapplication mandatory every 5 years in order to retain its certification.
Since the Bank of America Tower opened in 2010, it should ideally pursue LEED - Existing Buildings O+M certification in around 3 years time, and every 5 years after that, in order to maintain LEED certification. Since the Existing Buildings rating system require continual assessment of the building's operations, if the building is indeed falling behind in any one category, as Mr. Roudman is suggesting it to be, particularly in energy use, it will lose points and be at risk of not achieving Platinum status again. Whether or not BoA intends to pursue this certification is another question.
There are a few other issues tackled unfairly (in my opinion) by Mr. Roudman in his assessment of the BoA Tower's LEED certification and current performance. Many of these are articulately rebutted by Lloyd Alter at TreeHugger.
The first of these is the claim that the Tower is "New York's largest energy hog" according to New York City data released last fall - when it is actually ranked 53rd among office buildings and financial institutions on an energy per square foot basis (and 13th for greenhouse gas emissions). So, not great, but definitely not the worst, and setting quite a misleading note as he uses this to set the tone of the rest of the article to say "it symbolizes a flaw at the heart of the effort to combat climate change."
Mr. Alter also accurately critiques Mr. Roudman for acknowledging that LEED "'takes into account a variety of factors, like building materials, air quality, water conservation, and- of course - energy performance' - and then proceeds to ignore everything but energy performance." Indeed, not anywhere does the article comment on how the building is performing against any of the other LEED metrics.
Finally, Mr. Roudman picks on some of the "easy" credits that were earned by the Tower to achieve Platinum certification - including "working with a LEED-accredited professional, building near public transportation, and protecting or restoring habitat in Bryant Park."
Working with a LEED AP only gets you a maximum of one point, and most projects do that anyway. But what is wrong exactly with achieving "easy" credits? Mitigating the effects of climate change is an enormously daunting task, so when we are presented with a few "easy" options that will help the cause, why not? If one manages to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging the use of public transportation and protect and restore natural habitat in the middle of one of the most urbanized parts of the planet "easily"- surely that would be a win-win situation? Looking at it another way, they could have built the Tower in the New York or New Jersey suburbs, where construction would probably be easier and cheaper, and have all the employees commute to the building by single-passenger cars. I don't think the fact that a credit can be achieved easily should take any significance away from the effectiveness of its objective.
I don't believe that the LEED rating systems are perfect. There are loopholes and ways that people can game the system. I am also not pro-big banks like BoA. However whenever I come across an article as one-sided as this, I feel like you need to look on things from the other side. I hope you'll agree with me too.
Thursday, August 8, 2013
Tuesday, July 9, 2013
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Over the years the auto market has begun to warm up to electric and hybrid vehicles, and this trend looks set to continue as people become increasingly conscious of the consequences of the continued use of fossil-powered vehicles. There are of course other alternatives, including biofuels, natural gas vehicles, and fuel cell vehicles, too, but in the race to reach the mass market, the electric vehicle has emerged to be a clear winner at this point in time.
This did not seem to be the case a decade ago, however, when there were many that were actually in the fuel cell camp, believing that hydrogen was the way forward. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the world, and its combustion produces only water vapour, seeming like the perfect solution. All we needed was a way to extract the hydrogen in a clean and economic way. Which turned out to be quite a problem unfortunately. Production via electrolysis continues to be expensive and energy intensive, and steam reforming from methane, while cheap, defeats the point of using carbon-free fuels, leaving the dream of the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle on the back-burner for many.
Hydrogen continues to get a bad rap, with Tesla CEO recently saying fuel cells should be called "fool cells" instead because they were never going to be competitive with lithium-ion batteries, claiming that “You could take best case of a fuel cell, theoretically the best case, and it does not compete with lithium-ion cells today. And lithium-ion cells are far from their optimum.” (Of course that isn't a biased statement in any way, coming from the CEO of an EV company)
This could be about to change, with Toyota, Honda and General Motos still clinging to the hydrogen bandwagon to bring a fuel cell vehicle to the market as early as 2015. GM and Honda recently signed a long-term agreement to develop a "next-generation fuel cell vehicle powertrain"to be used by around 2020, while also working on hydrogen storage technologies and improving hydrogen refueling options. Toyota will be aiming to launch a Lexus fuel-cell model in 2015, to be price-competitive with a mid-size BMW or a Tesla Model S, at an estimated price in the region of $50,000. Ford, Nissan and Daimler AG are also holding out for fuel cell technology, having signed an agreement earlier this year with the goal of producing a mass-market fuel-cell vehicle by 2017.
One of the reasons why the push for hydrogen continues, in the US, at least, is the requirement by the state of California that automakers build zero-emission vehicles. Furthermore, the US Energy Department launched the H2USA program in May, a public-private partnership involving automakers, government, gas suppliers and the hydrogen and fuel cell industry, focused on advancing hydrogen infrastructure to provide increased alternative transportation energy options for consumers. According to the Energy Department, research has already helped to reduce fuel cell costs by over 35% since 2008, and by over 80% since 2002, while doubling fuel cell durability over the same period.
Whether or not we will see market-ready fuel cell vehicles hit the road before 2020 remains to be seen. But it is clear that major carmakers have not completely mothballed the notion that fuel cell vehicles may still become an essential component of the future of green transportation. But until a breakthrough comes along that can put them on par with electric vehicle technology, hydrogen and fuel cells will be playing catch up in a race where the EVs continue to extend their lead.
Friday, June 21, 2013
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Microgrids are becoming a worldwide phenomenon. Currently an estimated $4.5 billion market in the US alone with 1,459 MW online and 1,122 MW in planning or development, the microgrid market is expected to continue to grow as the world demands ever more electricity usage and the grid struggles to keep up. The truth is that the traditional grid was not built to cope with the extraordinary level and fluctuations of present-day demand, and microgrids present the perfect solution. The question (to the utilities) is whether we are ready to embrace the change and adapt.
The electricity generation system has been traditionally driven by demand, as a consequence of the high cost of storage systems. Therefore generation follows demand extremely closely, making many adjustments to keep the grid balanced. This is done with many power plants running at part load as well as reserve plants running on standby, which is inefficient. Line losses and inefficiency results in typically only 30% of generation reaching customers. Furthermore increased demand over time plus complexity of the grid coupled with the increased use of intermittent renewable generation such as wind and solar puts a strain on the system. PV systems installed on roofs are generally not compatible with the traditional grid system.
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The Pecan Street demonstration project in Austin, Texas, aims to test how effective demand response with EVs can be. Most of the residents of this small community own Chevy Volts, and it has already been noticed in preliminary monitoring that most owners plug in the EV for charging when they return home from work, putting a strain on the grid. GM's demand response program looks into controlling this flow of electricity, by decreasing the amount of electricity that enters the vehicles as necessary - for example, on a hot evening when the electricity is in high demand for air-conditioning.
However, there is some degree of confusion over how to engage in microgrids outside of single-owner properties, for example, schools, hospitals and military bases, to which they are currently limited. Who owns the electricity? Is it the grid, or each individual owner? There are technical as well as legal aspects to this issue, and as microgrids become increasingly commonplace and necessary, these questions will need answering.
The other key issue is how utilities will cope with this change. At the moment the answer is overwhelmingly nothing- yet, anyway. These corporations seem undecided about this new development, even seeing microgrids as a threat to their industry, as these systems could potentially bypass the grid by generating their own electricity and reduce their reliance on these giants. In most of Europe this is not a problem, as most utilities are state owned. Renewable generation and demand response are all ways of reducing carbon emissions and so for the governments who have an obligation to reduce emissions, microgrids would be a welcome development. A few utilities have begun to adapt, although they are in the definite minority. Sempra, Duke, PGE, SMUD, Integrys are all embracing the change and finding ways to profit from this. Other utilities will have to be quick to follow, as microgrids are now just getting off the ground, and are definitely here to stay.
Friday, June 14, 2013
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Back in the 90's, the only place where you would see and LED would be on the on/off buttons of your electrical devices, and only came in red, yellow, green, and more red. With a couple of technological breakthroughs, LEDs are now the next big thing in efficient lighting, increasing the efficiency of a regular lightbulb from a measly 10% (from the tungsten bulbs) to the range of 80 to 90%, and increasing the its lifetime so that you only need to change it once every seven to ten years. That is a huge feat, considering just how much we rely on artificial lighting.
The quality of light is getting better now too, when just a few years back the only LED lighting on the market produced a cool clinical, blueish light that felt not at all homely - today you would hardly be able to tell the difference. Most importantly, they are affordable. Unlike installing solar panels on your rooftops (for those of you lucky enough to own one), or pricey electric vehicles, the LED is only slightly more expensive than the regular and CFL alternatives. What's more, you make it back very quickly with its super long lifetime and efficiency. LED televisions are still on the pricey side, but give it a little more time and its higher price tag might just about justify your purchase, considering the superior image quality it provides and the savings off your electricity bill - yes, televisions are big electricity guzzlers!
So what's next? Well, in a few years time, OLEDs might be giving LEDs a run for their money. An OLED is basically an LED (light-emitting diode), but in which the semiconductor layer that emits light (the emissive electroluminescent layer) is made of an organic compound instead of an inorganic one (like plastics, which are organic polymers). What this means is that OLEDs can be in effect printed onto a surface, and the technology lends itself really well to manufacturing ever-thinner and bendable electronic displays for televisions, mobile phones and the like. OLED devices would not require a backlight either, since each pixel generates its own light, so that the blacks are even more vivid than on current devices. A few of these products are already on the market despite coming with a hefty price tag, with a larger selection projected to become available in the next few years. For example, LG's 55-inch curved OLED TV is already available in a few countries, including the UK, if you are willing to shell out £10,000 for one now.
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The big question is, with LEDs hailed as such a monumental breakthrough for efficient lighting, will there be room for the OLED as the technology matures? IDTechEx research suggests that while the OLED market is predicted to be a $1.3 billion industry by 2023, that will remain only 1.3% of the LED market at the time. It cites a few reasons for this, firstly that in terms of cost and efficiency the OLED is still not quite up to LED standards. Today LEDs cost around $5/klm (kilo-lumens) compared to $400/klm for OLEDs. The LED is also expected to last around 50,000 hours compared to the OLED which typically lasts 5,000 to 15,000 hours. The following chart compares the attributes of existing LEDs and OLEDs:
|Source: IDTechEx report OLED vs LED Lighting|
Because OLEDs are still a relatively new technology one usually only finds them in trade shows and tech fairs. However, if you are in New York City you can see the technology first hand, at the Blackbody showroom in SoHo. Their items are for sale, although unless you are a designer/architect or are have very deep pockets you'll just window shop for now. However, it is a very interesting experience and you get to see what the latest technologies have to offer. It is a taste of things to come, and hopefully in a few years time we will get to see a lot more at much more affordable prices.
Friday, June 7, 2013
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A recent multi-agency study led by the World Bank and the International Energy Agency has found that if we continue as we do, i.e. a business as usual approach, it will be nowhere near sufficient to achieve the goals of the UN's Sustainable Energy for ALL (SE4ALL) Initiative. As a natural cynic, I am hardly surprised, as the report concludes that the world needs to almost triple its spending to about $400 billion a year, to fulfil the Initiative, bringing clean water and modern electricity to the entire population by 2030.
So how are we doing then? Well, according to the report, 1.2 billion people still don't have access to electricity. That's almost the population of India. A whopping 2.8 billion people still have to use wood to cook and heat their homes, and of this, every year 3.5 million women and children die from respiratory illness directly related to inhaling the wood and biomass fumes. This is more than twice as high as deaths due to malaria (1.2 million) and even HIV/AIDS (1.5 million). So you can say that energy poverty is a gigantic problem.
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A seemingly encouraging statistic shows that 1.7 billion people did gain access to electricity between 1990 to 2010, however, factoring in population growth of 1.6 billion during that time and the numbers don't look so good. In fact, the pace of electricity expansion needs to double to meet the 100% energy access target by 2030. And to put that into perspective of just how much energy we in the developed world use, bringing electricity to that 1.2 billion people using conventional energy sources would only increase global carbon dioxide emissions by less than one percent.
What about the largest polluters, China and India? Both countries have achieved a lot, but they still face huge challenges. India has moved faster than any other country in the world to deliver electricity to people, extending its grid to reach over 24 million more people each year since 1990. China has been the best in the world at achieving energy efficiency, with energy savings that add up over the past 20 years to an amount equal to the amount of energy the nation used over the same time frame. To date, there are still 306.2 million people in India without electricity and 705 million still relying on wood and biomass cooking fuels. In china the number is at 621.8 million. Both countries have come a long way, hopefully they will keep at it.
The report recommends that a broad range of initiatives be used to fight energy poverty and boost clean energy development, including government actions to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, establishing a carbon floor price. It also claims that achieving the massive funding necessary to achieve these goals will not be possible without "substantial investment" from the private sector. And as for the public, we too can do our part, by supporting non-profits that aim to end energy poverty and engaging with our politicians and asking them to put energy poverty at the top of their agendas. The energy poverty issue is one that is larger than most of us realize, but is one that is so fundamental to human development. Providing access to clean fuel and electricity is the foundation that enables improvements and developments in health, education and business and provides the key to leaving poverty behind.
Monday, June 3, 2013
It is a bit of a relief to hear that Beijing is actually attempting to tackle the pollution crisis for real instead of just banning roadside barbecues. With smog levels in the city dangerously high and classified as hazardous last winter, the Chinese government actually does have a $16 billion plan to deal with the pollution problems in the capital over the next three years, including cleaning up the air quality, improving sewage and waste disposal and putting an end to illegal building.
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One of the major factors contributing to the terrible air quality in Beijing is the sheer number of vehicles on the roads. The government had sought to reduce that number by banning vehicles with a certain number at the end of their licence plates from being used once a week, an effort that began with the Beijing Olympics back in 2008 (when the rules were more rigorous) but has since become effectively useless (and made worse, possibly) as citizens worked around the restriction by simply buying a second or third vehicle.
So it will come as welcome news as the city will be implementing a new automobile pollution tax before the end of the year, according to Gasgoo. These taxes will effectively charge a 17% base tax per litre of gas purchased, as well as a 0.07% urban construction tax and 0.03% percent education tax, raising the current price of gas from $1.30 to $1.62 per litre. This tax will also later be tried out across other Chinese cities.
The air in Beijing (and Hong Kong, for that matter) is normally so bad that whenever a clear day does come along I usually find out about it quite quickly with friends posting pictures of the blue sky all over facebook and instagram. Hopefully these measures really do make a difference and we get to see some more of those blue skies that those of us living in the US and Europe all too often take for granted.
Thursday, May 30, 2013
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As shares of the company reached and surpassed the $100/share mark, Tesla is the hottest hottest name in the EV, no scratch that, entire auto market. They made the EV cool. But it's important to take a step back and note that, as Green Car Reports excellently explains, Tesla did not make a profit from it's core business, its Model S electric sports-sedan.