Iceland Blends Renewable Energy into the Landscape

Icelandic landscape / Landsvirkjun

Iceland, a land of glaciers and volcanos found directly over the Mid-Atlantic ridge, is entirely powered by renewable energy. More than 70 percent of the country’s energy comes from hydro power, while the rest is from geothermal sources — the incredible heat found just below the surface caused by red-hot subterranean lava fields. As the millions of tourists who visit each year cause the country’s power needs to grow, Iceland is expanding its geothermal systems. In the face of intense public protests that these systems are marring the stunning landscape — not to mention the usual Not-In-My-Backyard (NIBMY) complaints — Landsvirkjun, the national power company of Iceland, created a new landscape policy designed to create a more harmonious relationship between land and energy. And landscape architect Björk Guðmundsdóttir took the initiative to make this all happen.

At the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Guðmundsdóttir explained that when she started her multi-year effort, there wasn’t a single design guideline for renewable energy projects. Her task was to create a new national landscape policy for these systems, while being the only women — and landscape architect — working with a team of all-male engineers.

Her first step was to understand the geothermal energy system development process, the legal frameworks that shape energy production, and the broader energy policies. One important high-level Icelandic policy guided her work: energy systems “should operate in harmony with the landscape.”

She spent time finding the gaps in the renewable power plant operations that were “open to the influence of design.” Establishing a working group within Landsvirkjun, she ended up creating a process that brings design into every stage of the renewable energy project development process — from the early environmental and visual impact assessments to the design concept, detailed landscape plans, and maintenance approach.

Guðmundsdóttir said creating design guidelines required thinking through all the ways how development touches the landscape. For example, “do you require buildings to be white so they blend in with the snow that covers Iceland for much of the year? Or instead should they be a neutral color so they blend with the summer landscape, when there are the most numbers of tourists?”

Landsvirkjun eventually settled on a series of design guidelines — seemingly simple but with a positive impact on new projects — that also create new roles for landscape architects. Guidelines include: create projects in harmony with their surrounding landscape, including careful site selection to minimize impact and roads that follow the topography. Minimize cut and fills. Re-vegetate, re-forest, and restore the landscape. Re-use all natural surface materials. Orient pipelines, which must be on the surface due to the extreme heat found in some places just a few feet below the surface, so they blend in as much as possible. And design every power-related building to be multi-use.

Aðalheiður Atladóttir, with A2F Architects, showed how the new landscape policy is shaping their work on a geothermal power station — Hagonguvirkjun, near Hagongulon Lake in the center of the country — and associated worker housing and hotel.

Hagonguvirkjun / Landsvirkjun, A2Architects

A2F created a power plant with a warm, inviting restaurant and visitor center — its entire form mimics the glacier and mountain ranges in the background.

Hagonguvirkjun / Landsvirkjun, A2Architects

And nearby there is a building that is both housing for the plant workers and a hotel that features a spa and greenhouse — a “nice place to chill.” The team will build gabion walls from stones collected nearby, so the “building looks like it grew out of the landscape.”

Hagonguvirkjun / Landsvirkjun, A2Architects
Hagonguvirkjun / Landsvirkjun, A2Architects

To bring in some fresh thinking and expand the conversation with her engineer colleagues, Guðmundsdóttir partnered with SUNY Syracuse landscape architecture professor Matthew Potteiger and his graduate students, who spent a semester studying in Iceland. The Americans completed a two-week planning and conceptual design charette with Landvirkjun in the very-hot landscapes of Krafta in northern Iceland, where both the first geothermal power plants and the newest are found. The goal was to create a new interpretation system for a geothermal power plant for Icelanders and tourists.

Potteiger said interpreting the “landscape of geothermal power” was challenging because the unique geophysical forces at work under the ground and the surface engineering systems are equally enigmatic. Plus, there are sheep, who strangely only hang out in groups of three, randomly grazing amid all the “industrial sublime.”

Exploring the site and all its sensory experiences, Potteiger and his students proposed some inventive, small ways design can enhance the visitor experience. For example, plumes from the geothermal vents can be used to create “steam paths that act as a wayfinding device.” Once a geothermal well has gone cold and its equipment is removed, the original soil, stones, and vegetation could be returned to the site, which would create a marker revealed through stages of vegetative growth. And sheep, which are “heat-seeking devices who love to cuddle in winter,” could be given designed social spaces, protective structures along pipelines, so they can cuddle in style.

New Report: US Cities Already Feeling Impacts of Climate Change

Flooding from Hurricane Harvey in Port Arthur, Texas / Wikipedia

According to a new report from the Alliance for a Sustainable Future, some 95 percent of 158 American cities surveyed have experienced a “change related to at least one climate impact in the past five years.” A vast majority of cities — some 76 percent — have seen more damage from heavy rain events or inland flooding. 65 percent saw greater impacts from heat waves; 51 percent noted changing drought conditions; and 18 percent stated that wildfires were growing more destructive. Some 5 percent of cities have relocated populations due to extreme weather.

The Alliance for a Sustainable Future, a joint effort of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), polled some 158 small, medium, and large U.S. cities in both red and blue states that represent some 50 million Americans. The group presented their findings at an event at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.

To address changing impacts, the report stated that 60 percent of cities have “launched or significantly expanded a climate initiative or policy in the past year.”

Most common climate-smart policies and programs include:

  • Bus transit (94 percent)
  • Bike lanes (92 percent)
  • Promoting bicycle commuting (81 percent)
  • Greenhouse gas emission tracking (75 percent)
  • Energy efficiency policies for existing municipal buildings (72 percent)
  • Routine energy audits for municipal buildings / operations (71 percent)
  • Energy efficiency policies for new municipal buildings (70 percent)
  • Purchasing renewable electricity for city operations (65 percent)

Some 83 percent of cities also seek to increase their partnerships with businesses in order to achieve their goals for renewable energy, building energy efficiency, and sustainable transportation.

At the event hosted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and C2SE in San Francisco, C2SE president Bob Persciasepe, who was deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the Obama administration, said cities must dramatically scale up their partnerships with the private sector, especially given the absence of any meaningful federal action on climate change.

“From 1850 to 1999, we put 1,000 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. From 2000 to 2018, we put in 500 gigatons. We can only put in 300 more gigatons before we start to see catastrophic effects. That means we can put in 30 tons a year for the next 10 years. We don’t have much time. We must increase our ambitions. We must build more partnerships so we can go faster.”

Mayors then highlighted a few partnerships between city governments and businesses that demonstrate how to achieve a carbon-neutral economy and society:

Mayor Jackie Biskupski from Salt Lake City, Utah, explained how her city partnered with Rocky Mountain Power to create a plan for achieving 100 percent clean energy for all municipal operations, including Salt Lake City airport, by 2032. As part of their agreement the city, Rocky Mountain Power expanded their WattSmart communities program, which offers incentives and discounts for energy upgrades in homes and businesses, and promised to spend $10 million on electric vehicle infrastructure, including a new e-bus charging complex.

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie said Iowan governments at all levels are partnering with MidAmerican Energy to achieve 100 percent renewable power for the entire state. The company has invested $7.5 billion in Iowan wind farms since 2004.

And Mayor John Mitchell from New Bedford, Massachusetts, said his old whaling city is now a port for the giant wind turbines that will soon be installed off the coasts of Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. Vineyard Wind, a company established by Danish off-shore wind firms, is already using New Bedford to launch a $2.2 billion wind farm off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard with turbines approximately double the size of ones found on land.

Mayor Mitchell said the US offshore wind market is on the “cusp of a rapid expansion” and could potentially overtake the capacity installed in Europe’s North Sea. “Millions of square miles of the east coast have already been leased by renewable energy companies.” He also sees opportunities for state and local governments to partner with offshore wind companies in California, Hawaii, and elsewhere.

Unequal Progress in the Renewable Energy Transition

Solar powered electric buses in the United Kingdom / The Ecologist

Around the world, adoption of renewable energy is expanding rapidly, but progress within the energy field has been one-sided. The electricity sector has made much more progress than the building and transportation sectors in changing over to renewable energy, despite significant demand.

During an event for the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, Rana Adib, executive secretary of Ren21, an international non-profit association based in Paris, said the discrepancy comes down to an issue of ambition.

Many countries have power generation targets, but far fewer have set goals for increasing renewable energy in buildings and transportation systems. What’s more, targets set in the power sector have been more aggressive, with many countries aiming for 100 percent renewable power in their electricity systems.

Comparatively, goals set for buildings and transport have been more modest and less imaginative. Slow progress in these sectors is compounded by the significance of their energy footprint. Together, buildings and transport account for 80 percent of global energy demand.

2017 was an extraordinary year for renewable energy in the power sector. Total installed renewable energy capacity increased 9 percent over 2016 — the largest annual increase to date — and supplied over 26 percent of global electricity.

“It’s a no brainer to invest in renewable power,” she said, adding that investments in new renewable energy capacity were about three times that of new fossil fuels and have been driven by advances in solar photovoltaic (pv) and wind, which have far outpaced projected growth due to advances in policy, cost competiveness, storage technology, and grid integration.

According to REN21’s 2018 Global Status Report solar pv installed capacity “…nearly double those of wind power (in second place) — adding more net capacity than coal, natural gas and nuclear power combined.”

But where the power sector is making exponential gains, renewable energy progress in transportation and buildings lag far behind.

Electrifying transportation systems is the first step, then these systems can use renewable power. Last year, renewable energy accounted for only 3 percent of the energy share in transport, which currently relies largely on liquid biofuels, accounting for 90 percent of current energy. But electrification has gained traction through electric rail, shipping, and aviation systems and the expansion of electric vehicle sales.

Just over 10 percent of heating systems in buildings use renewable energy, and progress remains slow for renewables in cooling despite growing demand in the sector.

To achieve a total renewable energy transition, Adib said we need a systems approach that brings together all of the sectors.

Adib’s remarks kicked off a panel discussion on how to turn aspirations into reality. Speakers underscored the need to better collaborate and invite new voices to join the dialogue.

“The main thing is proper collaboration between the different layers in which we operate in,” said Lasse Bruun, the global head of energy transition at Climate Action Network (CAN). He said that people working to advance renewable energy need to work with non-profit organizations, cities, businesses, and community members.

He added: “it’s also because people still do not make the link between renewable energy and what happens in their own lives.”

Antonio Mozqueira, senior manager of climate change policy with the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government, reiterated the importance of building awareness of the value of renewable energy in communities.

The ACT government aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020 and a 100 percent renewable energy target by 2020 — the most ambitious targets set in Australia. Engaging people is essential to achieving these targets. To successfully change a community’s behavior, advocates for renewable systems have to present more desirable alternatives.

“If you have a public bus system that everyone hates you really have to address that. You have to look at how to make it more convenient and efficient.”

“How do you incentivize people so they’ll think about leaving the car at home or not buying that second car and take public transport? And if people are really so attached to their cars, how can we actually move them to the path of buying more efficient, fuel-efficient cars?”

Jens Neilsen, founder and CEO of World Climate LTD, said the solution won’t be found in just one part of the renewable energy arena. In addition to policy, he noted the need for cheaper storage.

And from an investment standpoint, subsidies in fossil fuels continue to outpace those for renewable energy. “To achieve the energy transition, you need a whole systems change.”

As we think critically about how to increase renewable energy use, we need to define the future we seek to create.

“Advancing environmental and social well-being is integrated with this energy transformation,” said Paulette Middleton, secretary of the board of directors of the International Solar Energy Society. “We have already gone over the tipping point.”

Amid the Climate Crisis, Glimpses of a Sustainable Future

The world’s largest solar power plant in Kamuthi, Tamil Nadu, India / Financial Express

Amid the constant stream of dire news about the climate, shrinking groundwater supply, increasing air pollution, and the virulent anti-environment policies coming out of Washington, D.C., there are snippets of positive news that offer glimpses of a more sustainable future. Widespread concern about the climate is leading to a new environmental consciousness. National policymakers and companies are taking action because communities and consumers demand progress.

Here are just a few examples of that progress:

1) Renewable energy is where the growth is. The International Energy Agency (IEA) states renewable energy sources are expected to account for nearly 26 percent of global electricity production by 2020. According to BP, over the course of 2016, renewable power generation grew 14 percent, accounting for 8 percent of global electricity generation, but represented 40 percent of the total growth in power generation and a majority of the new infrastructure.

Denmark now gets almost two-thirds of its power from renewables, while a number of European countries, like Germany, Spain, Italy, and the UK, already get around a quarter of their power from wind, solar, and hydropower. After stops and starts, the U.S. has hit a major milestone — 10 percent of its electricity from renewables. And Texas now gets 37 percent of its power from wind and solar.

2) Fossil fuel divestment is nearing a tipping point, at least in the West. Religious groups are now nearly united in divesting from oil, coal, and gas investment. In addition to the Church of England and Islamic Society of North America, more than 40 Catholic organizations with billions in funds recently announced they will divest. TreeHugger argues this is a sign big oil, coal, and gas companies have lost the “moral authority to operate.”

Governments are also making major commitments: Ireland and Norway‘s public funds have divested from fossil fuels, and New York City recently became the largest city in the U.S. to take the same step. In addition, universities, with hundreds of billions in endowments, are divesting in record number.

3) Countries are creating massive terrestrial preserves to protect against development and resource extraction. The New York Times reports that philanthropists spent $345 million to purchase one million acres of pristine land in Patagonia, Chile. They then told the Chilean government they would donate it if the government added more territory and preserved the land as a park. In a huge win for conservation, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet ended up contributing nine million acres and creating five new national parks and expanding three.

National park system in Patagonia, Chile / Conservation Action Trust

Colombia just expanded its largest national park by 1.5 million hectares, so that it now totals 4.3 million hectares, an area the size of Denmark, and added $525 million to its conservation budget.

And, last year, Papua New Guinea created its largest conservation area: the Managalas Conservation Area, which covers some 1,390 square miles in the southeast corner of the country. According to Mongabay, conservation groups and local communities had been working towards this goal for 32 years.

4) New marine preserves are protecting fish from over-harvesting. Blue Planet II, which some critics argue is the greatest nature film ever made, makes a convincing case that we are over-harvesting many fish species, threatening their long-term sustainability, the biodiversity of our oceans, and the livelihoods of millions who live along the coasts. Fish need protected spaces where they are safe from the fleets of fishing boats in order to regain their numbers. A number of countries recognize this and are thinking long-term:

  • According to Mongabay, Niue, a small island country in the South Pacific, which is home to only 1,600 people, created a protected 49,000-square-mile marine zone that covers 40 percent of the island’s economic zone.
  • Chile announced a 285,700-square-mile marine reserve around Easter Island, which is now facing erosion caused by rising sea levels, and two new preserves — a 54,170-square-mile one off of Diego Ramírez Islands and a 186,870-square-mile preserve around the Juan Fernández Islands in the southern Pacific.
  • Mexico created the 57,900-square-mile Revillagigedo marine park to “protect sharks, rays, whales, turtles and other important marine species.”
  • And, finally, the Seychelles just created two new massive marine preserves, covering 15 percent of the island country’s ocean, in exchange for debt relief, using an innovative new financing model that is expected to improve upon the nature-for-debt swaps of the past.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) states that almost 15 percent of the Earth’s land and 10 percent of its waters are now protected as national parks or preserves. The amount of water bodies that are protected has jumped 300 percent in the last decade. The target set by Convention on Biological Diversity is 17 percent of the globe by 2020, and we may reach that yet.

5) China is undertaking an ambitious reforestation campaign. In addition to rolling out a nationwide system for valuing and protecting vital ecosystem services, China is actively trying to restore damaged forests and plant new ones. China Daily and Reuters report China will plant some 6 million hectares of trees in 2018 alone, covering an area equal to Ireland. The goal is to have 23 percent of China covered in trees by 2020 and 26 percent by 2030, up from 21.7 percent today and just 19 percent in 2000. Some 33.8 million hectares of forest had been planted over the past five years at a total cost of $82 billion.

Moving forward, though, Chinese foresters must plant more diverse tree species. New, monocultural forests have succeeded in reducing flooding and erosion, but they are also reducing biodiversity.

Reuters writes that the Chinese central government is also promoting an “‘ecological red line’ program which will force provinces and regions to restrict ‘irrational development’ and curb construction near rivers, forests, and national parks.”

6) Veganism and vegetarianism are on the rise. In his latest book Drawdown, Paul Hawken ranks the top 100 solutions for reducing carbon emissions. Number four in terms of possible positive impact is switching to a plant-based diet. Ruminants such as cows and sheep, which number in the billions, produce huge amounts of methane — about 1/5 of global greenhouse gas emissions. Producing meat also requires vast amounts of grain, land, and water. Meat consumption is then closely connected with the expansion of agricultural land at the expense of forests.

Hawken writes: “According to a 2016 study, business-as-usual emissions could be reduced by as much as 70 percent through adopting a vegan diet and 63 percent for a vegetarian diet, which includes cheese, milk, and eggs. $1 trillion in annual health-care costs and lost productivity would be saved.”

A recent video from The Economist states that some 5 percent of the world is now vegan or vegetarian. In 2014, just one percent of Americans said they were vegan; today, that number is 6 percent. And 44 percent of Germans now eat a low-meat diet, up from 26 percent in 2014. Just Eats, a food company with 20 million customers worldwide, said demand for vegan and vegetarian foods increased nearly 1,000 percent in 2017 alone.

While these success stories show that much more progress is possible, there are still causes for alarm. The last four years were among the planet’s hottest. After multiple years of flat greenhouse gas emissions, they are rising again. Furthermore, water shortages will increasingly be a cause of worry. According to the World Water Development Report just released by UN Water, some 5 billion people will face water shortages by 2050, because of climate change, pollution, and increased demand. Nature-based solutions — or green infrastructure — is seen as a key solution for increasing water quantity and improving quality, so landscape architects and designers have an important role to play yet.

Design Competition: Make Renewable Energy Beautiful

Regatta H20, 2016 LAGI winner / LAGI

While solar power accounts for only 1.3 percent of global energy production, it grew 50 percent last year, due to a “sun rush” in China and the United States. In 2010, there was just 50 gigawatts (GW) of capacity; now there is 305 GW. Similarly, global wind power generation has also grown incredibly fast over the past decade, reaching 469 GW by the end of 2016 and is now nearly 4 percent of total power.

To further speed the transition to a clean energy economy and society, the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) believes solar, wind, and other renewable power must be more artfully incorporated into our public realm. They believe “renewable energy can be beautiful” — and, indeed, must be if we want green power to capture the imagination of the world. Every two years, LAGI organizes a global design competition to prototype clean energy-producing public art installations that can increase demand for these technologies in the future.

This year, LAGI hosts their competition in Melbourne, Australia, which is aiming for net-zero carbon emissions by 2020. Through the competition, LAGI hopes to answer the questions:

“How much of the clean energy infrastructure required to attain this goal will be implemented within urban areas, and what is the impact of these new installations on our constructed and natural environments? How can solar and wind energy be integrated into public spaces in ways that educate, inspire, and are responsive to the history, culture, and nature of place?”

LAGI invites landscape architects, artists, architects, scientists, engineers to form interdisciplinary teams to create proposals for “large-scale and site-specific public art installations that generate clean energy.”

Submit entries by May 6. Winners will be announced in October. The first place winner will receive $16,000 USD and the second place, $5,000 USD.

Check out winners from the 2016 competition in Santa Monica, California, and learn more about their ambitious plan for 2020, which aims to create “real net-zero energy infrastructure in twenty destination art sites (urban or rural), with combined annual capacity of approximately 140,000 MWh, or offsetting the energy needs of 20,000 homes.”

Also, the National Endowment for the Humanities is offering challenge grants, which cover “capital expenditures, such as the design, purchase, construction, restoration
or renovation of facilities and historic landscapes.” Apply by March 15.

Lessons Learned from the First Generation of Net-Zero Communities

BedZED / Wikipedia

The first generation of net-zero communities, which were designed to add no carbon to the atmosphere, are entering their second decade. Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED) in London is about 15 years old now; and the first phase of Dockside Green in Victoria, Canada, is now 10 years old. In a session at the 2017 Greenbuild in Boston, Steven Dulmage with Urban Equation and Justin Downey at RNWL outlined lessons learned from these early sustainable communities and how they informed second-generation developments, such as Zibi in Ottawa, Canada, and Hazelwood Green in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

According to Dulmage, BedZED, which has 82 homes, “didn’t hit net-zero carbon projections.” While the project successfully reduced emissions from transportation — as more residents walk, bike, or take mass transit — the biomass plant built onsite didn’t work out. It ran for a few years and then was discontinued. “It wasn’t economic to run, so they converted to gas. The business case for the biomass plant wasn’t well-thought through.”

Dockside Green in British Columbia, which has 26 buildings that house 2,500 people, was “built up at the front end during the recession, which was very painful for the developers,” explained Downey. While the developers used a phased approach to development, Downey seemed to say the roll-out of those phases was too aggressive. “They didn’t wait for absorption,” meaning they didn’t build to the pace of tenants buying apartments.

Dockside Green / Times Colonist

Also mentioned: One Brighton in the UK, built in 2009, was the first major development built using the One Planet Living framework. While the development reduced carbon emissions by 70 percent in comparison with the average neighborhood development, that’s not 100 percent. Still, homes there sell for a 10 percent premium over comparable real estate because of their inherent sustainability and resale value. There are also other benefits: residents who move there sell their cars as they can walk and bike everywhere. No cars means much less spent on transportation and fewer carbon emissions.

One Brighton / Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

The latest generation of net-zero communities have learned from these first models and may have greater success reaching environmental goals.

Hazelwood Green in Pittsburgh, which is now under development and will transform 178-acres of old industrial property along the Mononogahela River, could achieve net-zero by using onsite renewable energy for 40 percent of energy needs and a “geothermal field” connected to the river for the rest, explained Downey. “It’s a smart design concept — the ambient geothermal loop and renewable technologies can get us to 100 percent.”

Mill 19 at Hazelwood Green / Business Journals

The Zibi in Ottawa, another community now in development, is using very ambitious sustainability goals to “find synergies among stakeholders,” Dulmage said. While developers are often conservative and “reluctant to invest in sustainability strategies, ” at Zibi, “sustainability is instead used as an alignment tool to reduce risk.” The developers are pursuing a thermal distribution pipeline using waste heat from a nearby Ottawa Hydro facility, with a 50/50 split on the cost and savings for the system between the district energy company at Zibi and the utility. The developers are also using “values-based procurement.”

Zibi, Ottawa / Zibi

As for the future of net-zero communities, Downey sees developers now dictating hard energy performance requirements. For example, in a recent RFP for a new building, Hunter College put in a 100 kwh per square meter performance target.

The conclusion seemed to be getting net-zero, or, really, near net-zero communities, right is still a challenge, but a worthy one given “we can only add 600 more gigatons to the atmosphere before the planet hits dangerous levels of warming. We are going to max out emissions by 2025.”

Sadly, the public may or may not care about these numbers. But if these developments are sold from a human health and happiness perspective, they may be more likely to succeed. The average BedZED resident knows 19 of their neighbors, which is four times the UK average, said Dulmage. On that front alone, this early sustainable development sets a model all its successors should follow.

Using Film to Tell the Story of a Sustainable Future

Solar landscape / Huffington Post

“Principles of sustainability have to be at the center, not at the margins of design,” according filmmaker and eco-activist Shalini Kantayya, particularly in our era of dramatic population growth and resource scarcity. “Sustainability can no longer be a thing of the privilege, but something that is accessible to all sectors of society and the masses.”

She spoke at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Los Angeles about her films, which explore efforts to bring clean water to all and the global transition to clean energy. 

Her films demonstrate the power of storytelling in inciting positive change. “The stories we tell as a culture have the power to shape the future,” Kantayya said.

She began with a clip from, A Drop of Life, her film about two women, on opposite sides of the world, and their access to water.

Kantayya used the film to underscore the fact that global potable water scarcity is an increasingly dire situation. Today, more than 2 billion people lack access to clean and safe drinking water, according to the World Health Organization.

“80 percent of illnesses in the developing world are due to water-related illnesses,” she said. “There are just no borders on this crisis.”

Kantayya pointed to the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico where millions of American citizens are still without electricity, healthcare, and clean water a month after Hurricane Maria hit the island.

“This is a failure of a story. That somehow we have failed to frame this story as an American crisis, that this is happening to our fellow citizens,” she said.

In light of the lack of environmental leadership at the federal level, states, cities and communities can act to advance a more sustainable future. 

Her film Catching the Sun is about the global transition to a clean energy economy. She tells stories of people working in the solar industry to illustrate the economic, social, and environmental impact of the movement.

Globally, the transition is moving rapidly ahead. China is the leader in solar with over 43 gigawatts of solar capacity, compared to the United States capacity of just over 27 gigawatts. 

“You have seen China, in the last ten years, move from the factory of the world to the clean tech laboratory of the world,” she said, adding that the United States needs to better capitalize on this movement.

“What we need is smart policy, decisive leadership, and visionary landscape architecture that bring sustainable solutions into public spaces and to scale,” Kantayya said.

ASLA Extremely Disappointed in Clean Power Plan Repeal

Coal power plant / Wikipedia

ASLA is extremely disappointed in Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision to repeal the Clean Power Plan, which was projected to cut U.S. carbon emissions 32 percent by 2030. It comes at a time when American communities are bearing the destructive effects of climate change, with ravaging wildfires in the West and disastrous hurricanes in Florida, Texas, other Gulf Coast states, and in the U.S. territories of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

These catastrophic events are costing our nation billions of dollars in property and infrastructure damage, imperiling human health and well-being, and destroying fragile ecosystems.

While Pruitt’s announcement is devastating, it is not surprising. Since taking office in January, this administration has taken several steps to roll back critical environmental and climate change policies. However, ASLA continues to fight for federal, state, and local programs and policies that allow landscape architects to use sustainable design techniques to help communities become healthy, resilient, and climate smart.

Recently, ASLA convened a Blue Ribbon Panel of planning and design experts to develop a set of policy recommendations for mitigating and adapting to climate change through resilient design. The panel will publicly present its findings and policy recommendations in the form of a report in January 2018.

With the repeal of the Clean Power Plan, the EPA must soon go through a full notice and comment period on the plan—I hope that all landscape architects and others interested in protecting our communities from the damaging impacts of climate change will join ASLA in weighing in on this critical issue.

This post is by Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, executive vice president and CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA).

New Guide: Energy Efficiency at Home

By using passive solar heating and an extended roof of photovoltaic panels, these houses produce more energy than they consume. The Solar Settlement in Schlierberg, Freiburg, Germany / Wikipedia

Inefficient home energy use is not only costly, but also contributes to the growth of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the primary cause of climate change. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the residential sector accounted for 21 percent of total primary energy consumption and about 20 percent of carbon emissions in the U.S. in 2013. And according to Architecture 2030, building construction and operations-related energy use accounts for almost 50 percent of total GHG emissions.

Through integrated site design, a comprehensive approach to sustainable building and site design, sustainable residential landscape architecture practices can not only improve the environment, but also result in net-zero or even climate positive homes. If part of a broader integrated site design, sustainable residential landscape architecture can help eliminate the need for fossil fuel-based energy, while creating a healthy residential environment.

ASLA has created a new guide to increasing energy efficiency through sustainable residential landscape architecture, which contains research, projects, and resources. Developed for homeowners and landscape architects and designers alike, the guide is designed to help spread more sustainable and resilient practices.

Homeowners can go net-zero or climate positive by tapping the potential of landscapes. As an example, residential green roof and wall systems, which are often key features of integrated site design projects, can reduce energy use and home heating and cooling costs.

According to The Sustainable SITES Initiative™ (SITES®), homeowners can use trees and dense shrubs to shade their home and any external HVAC systems or block wind and thereby further reduce energy use.

Homeowners can further leverage clean energy technologies, like solar-powered LED outdoor lighting.

The environmental and economic benefits of energy efficient technologies increase as homes are tied together into multi-family housing complexes with shared infrastructure. Research shows dense development lowers water and energy use, conserves natural habitats, and reduces transportation-related GHG emissions by encouraging walking, cycling, and taking public transportation. Communities like Freiburg, Germany and Malmo, Sweden are examples of residential communities that have taken innovative approaches to design and planning by implementing sustainable energy, water, and waste management systems.

Landscape architects can help homeowners by undertaking a comprehensive energy audit and then identify landscape-based solutions for generating renewable power or reducing energy waste.

State and local governments also work with design professionals to incorporate sustainable residential landscape architecture codes throughout urban, suburban, and rural areas. For example, South Miami just recently mandated that new buildings, and some renovations, must include solar panels.

Source: Drivers of U.S. Household Energy Consumption, 1980-2009, U.S. Energy Information Administration

Explore the guide:

Green Roofs
Green Walls
Tree Placement for Energy Efficiency
Solar

Renewable Energy Is Soaring, but Debate Rages on How Far It Can Take Us

Wind farm in Guazhou, China / Carlos Barria, Reuters via National Geographic

Renewable energy is gaining momentum. Within a quarter of a century, one third of global electricity generation will be supplied by wind and solar, according to a report from Bloomberg Renewable Energy Finance (BNEF) released this month.

BNEF, which produces long-term forecasts on the global energy sector, says wind and solar will make up nearly half of installed capacity and 34 percent of electricity generation globally by 2040, a significant increase from today’s 12 percent and 5 percent respectively. The plunging cost of renewable energy is making it cheaper than coal generation in many countries. The cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels will fall by 66 percent and onshore wind, by 47 percent. The report predicts a $7.4 trillion investment, approximately $400 billion per year, in new renewable energy generation globally by 2040.

Meanwhile, the United States just hit a renewable energy milestone. Last week, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) announced for the first time wind and solar made up over 10 percent of the nation’s electricity generation in the month of March.

This record-breaking share was aided by low demand, common in the spring and fall months, longer days with more sunlight, also typical of spring months, and higher winds in parts of the country like Texas and Oklahoma. Wind and solar will likely hit double-digits again in April before dipping in the summer.

Some experts argue the U.S. could run solely on renewable energy by mid-century – and that’s caused some controversy among the scientific community.

Last week, a group of over 20 researchers published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) assessing the feasibility of that 100 percent target. The assessment is a response to a 2015 paper, also published by PNAS and led by Mark Jacobson, a professor at Stanford University, which argued that wind, solar, and hydroelectric power could meet U.S. electricity needs affordably and without risk to grid stability between 2050 and 2055.

Jacobson’s report has been both popular and contentious. It has been supported by many environmental organizations and touted by public figures, like former presidential candidate and U.S senator Bernie Sanders.

Now, researchers led by Christopher Clack, founder of Vibrant Clean Energy, are taking issue with Jacobson’s paper, arguing this week in PNAS that its analysis “involved errors, inappropriate methods, and implausible assumptions.” The rebuttal contends that Jacobson’s paper does not make a sufficient argument against previous analysis holding that a diverse set of technologies beyond wind, solar, and hydroelectric power are needed in the transition to a low-carbon future, and that a target of 80 percent is more feasible renewable power generation goal.

Jacobson fired back with a counter response, also published in PNAS, and in an interview with the MIT Technology Review, he called into question his critics’ motives. “They’re either nuclear advocates or carbon sequestration advocates or fossil-fuels advocates,” Jacobson told the online publication. “They don’t like the fact that we’re getting a lot of attention, so they’re trying to diminish our work.”

Those questioning a fully renewable-power U.S. electricity system say some nuclear and carbon capture and storage as well as continued use of some fossil fuel-based sources are also needed, because of the intermittent nature of wind, solar, and hydroelectric power, and, as of yet, there is insufficient storage capacity.

The Trump administration is among critics who say a large-scale conversion to renewable energy could be destabilizing to the U.S. electric grid. Energy Secretary Rick Perry is expected to release a report in the next month reviewing federal regulations to determine whether policies supporting renewable energy, like the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, have made the national electricity grid less reliable. Anticipating the department of energy analysis, two industry organizations released their own report this week, finding that wind and solar have not threatened the reliability of the grid.

It’s no secret President Trump supports the coal industry. Earlier this month he announced plans to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, making good on a promise he reiterated throughout his White House bid and isolating the U.S. from the 194 other countries supporting global carbon reduction efforts. Previously, he ordered Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt to scrap the Clean Power Plan, which was expected to reduce power sector emissions by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Regardless, the U.S. will come close to achieving those power sector emission reductions even without the federal policy. According to the BNEF report, the U.S. is expected to reduce emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. And renewable energy sources are giving coal and fossil fuels a run for its money. The BNEF report also predicts that by 2040 coal consumption will have dropped 51 percent and be replaced by cheaper renewables and natural gas.