Can the U.S. Become Like Denmark?

The U.S. isn’t going to become like Denmark, which relies on wind power for 22 percent of its energy needs, anytime soon. In that sustainable northern European country, sometimes the total share of wind power even jumps up to 60-70 percent during really windy periods, said Willet Kempton, Professor, Center for Carbon-free Power Integration, University of Delaware, at a green energy forum organized by The Atlantic magazine. After nearly $100 billion in investment over the past few decades, wind power is still just nearing 4 percent of the total U.S. energy system and won’t get up to Denmark’s levels without a dramatic shift in how energy is created and distributed, added Michael O’Sullivan NextEra Energy Resources’ Senior Vice President. NextEra, one of the world’s largest solar and wind energy providers, has alone invested some $20 billion in U.S. wind power to date.

According to Martin Klepper, co-head of the energy and infrastructure projects group at law firm Skadden Arps, federal financing, which has totaled $20 billion, has also helped bring the cost of solar and wind power down. Solar is down from $4 a watt to around $1. There are similar trends for wind.

Just a few states really offer the opportunity for “utility-scale” wind power. The same goes for solar power. That’s because there are only a few states with enough wind and sun to justify the expense of rolling out the expensive transmission lines and systems that can store power when there’s no wind blowing or sun shining.

The price trends are positive so the share of renewables is slowly growing though. The U.S. is now in the process of installing some of the largest solar, solar thermal, and wind power installations anywhere in the world. However, China may be eating the U.S.’s lunch given the rapid way they are scaling up.

O’Sullivan didn’t seem scared by China’s great progress though. He said some 25-30 percent of the enormous wind capacity China has built isn’t “connected to the grid. It’s wind to nowhere.” While China is adding 50-100 mega watts each year, the U.S. has a more “mature regulatory environment.” Comparing China to the Wild Wild West, the U.S. 75 years ago, O’Sullivan said “there’s a simpler regulatory regime there.” Klepper said it’s amazing but in one day a new power plant can receive land, water, air permits and financing, whereas in the U.S. that process can take anywhere from 2-5 years and involve lots of risk. A number of those proposals fail to win approval, meaning all those consulting fees go down to the toilet.

Perhaps the main stumbling block to turning the U.S. into Denmark is the lack of a national smart grid and any hope of one in the near term. A national smart grid could help transmit wind power collected in the central great plain states (the windy core of the country) and quickly move it to other parts of the states. O’Sullivan said the policy and regulatory landscape among the 48 lower states is so different that there are almost “48 different countries.” Within that mess of regulations, there are some 500 utilities that “own some piece of the grid.” As a result, infrastructure investment has to be done state by state or maybe regionally. “The technology is the easy part. It can decades to permit infrastructure. This isn’t like the interstate system.” The policy and regulatory differences between states and lack of cross-border coordination are slowing the U.S. down in a big way.  

While the U.S. federal government and utilities have invested in research and development, it’s a fairly small number: a few billion. O’Sullivan said private equity and capital — see the energy entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley — are really driving the industry. They saw a “positive price signal from the federal government” and have gone for it.

What do all these firms now still need to boost wind production? Certainty that policies won’t change in the future so they can get busy building out these long-range projects. Klepper says the industry needs a federal renewable energy standard (see earlier post) and measures to reduce the cost of financing. Kempton would like policymakers to internalize the “externalities” in energy production, all the health and environmental costs that the public now covers. If the true cost of those were included in the price of energy, the story goes that the true benefits of wind and solar power will become clearer and the cost of these energy sources will be cheaper than dirty coal and oil.

Check out a map of American wind resources and explore the state of wind power generation in the U.S. In the midwest at least, farmers and communities could even benefit from wind farms.

Earlier in the day: Given much of Washington, D.C. now considers natural gas a clean energy, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, a former geologist and fan of “clean coal,” made a multi-pronged defense of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” to improve extraction. Saying he’s been doing fracking projects since the early 1980s, he believes these projects can be safe and he knows very few instances where fracking has led to groundwater contamination or earthquakes. Still, earthquakes are “possible” if the fluids cause earth plates to slide. He said that “like any industrial process, it can be done well or sloppily.” To be sure damage doesn’t occur, Colorado has doubled its fines for any damage to the groundwater. “We have a zero tolerance” policy on water pollution. Gas is clearly big business in Colorado.

Image credit: Wind farm mixed in with a real farm in Kansas / Grit

D.C. Offers a Bold Vision for a More Sustainable Future

At a historic church in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray said there are either two future directions for the city: “The gaps between us could further divide our city,” or the city could become “greener, more equitable, and more prosperous” for all. Outlining a bold vision for a Sustainable D.C., Gray said he wanted the city to not only be the greenest in the U.S. but among all world cities. D.C. is currently ranked 8th in a recent ranking of North American cities by the Economist Intelligence Unit so the city has quite a ways to go to get to number one in this continent, let alone the world. In the near term, can D.C. beat New York City, Vancouver, or San Francisco? That’s a stretch and only possible with deep collaboration with the non-profit and private sectors.

Gray is giving the city one generation — 20 years — to accomplish his ambitious objectives, which weave in health, economic, employment, and environmental goals. The idea is that D.C. will not only become greenest but healthiest, with the most number of green jobs. On top of this, Gray wants to continue to grow the city’s population in a big way. Gray said “sustainability will need to be a continual process.”

In terms of carbon dioxide, the city wants to cut emissions by 50 percent by 2032. In presenting the goals, Christopher Tuluo, head of D.C.’s Environment Department, said “climate change is happening. If someone says it isn’t, they are flat out wrong.” A key part of achieving this goal will be reaching objectives on energy use and efficiency. The city seeks to cut district-wide energy use by 50 percent while increasing renewable energy use to 50 percent. Given some 75 percent of emissions come from buildings, the District will push for adaptive re-use of old buildings so they can become greener. The idea is to maintain and improve the current building stock and increase the number of LEED buildings (the city is already number one for that metric). Another way to fight the effect of climate change: strengthening D.C.’s already considerable urban forest, which stores much of the city’s carbon, reaching a 40 percent tree canopy by 2032. Here Tuluo added that “trees are important when it’s 100 degrees out because of climate change.”

Investing in more sustainable transportation systems is also key to both reducing transportation-related emissions and adapting to a carbon-constrained world. The district seeks to make 75 percent of all trips walking, biking, or transit in 20 years. Harriet Tregoning, D.C.’s planning director, said “this is a stretch goal but these trips already make up 50 percent of all trips right now.” She discussed how more young people may be moving to D.C. because the city’s transportation system is so affordable. This younger generation is so in debt with college loans they can’t afford cars. In fact, just 60 percent of D.C. residents own cars and that number is falling.

Sustainability means improving D.C.’s waterways, which are amongst the most polluted in the country. Gray wants 100 percent of District waterways to be fishable and swimmable, and 75 percent of D.C.’s green space to be used as green infrastructure that captures and filters rainwater for reuse. Tuluo wants the city to become much “spongier.” He wants the city to become “a much more natural place — not just for the environmental benefits. We want return on investment” in terms of stormwater management benefits.

The process for dealing with waste, which the Economist Intelligence Unit report said was among D.C. weak points, will need to be totally transformed if the city is going to reach zero waste in 20 years. Tuluo asked, “is zero waste a pipe dream?” Perhaps not. Organic waste is already turned into compost as a matter of practice in San Francisco, one of the best cities at dealing with waste. He sees D.C. residents “becoming urban farmers,” using their compost daily, and other waste consumed by digesters that turn other garbage into energy.

The front end of the reuse chain is local food production, which will also need to ramped up if the 75 percent of all food is to be grown within a quarter-mile of the population eating it. Tregoning argued that “it used to be really difficult to find a supermarket in the District.” While that has changed, improving the availability of local produce will be sped along by a network of food-productive roofs. She wants one million square feet of these vegetated roofs in place funneling produce to local shops and co-ops. (According to Gray, the city is already number-one in terms of green roofs so this may be possible). Getting local produce to D.C. residents seems to be a key focus. Health must be at the top of a sustainability agenda in a city where 22 percent of the population is obese. Gray wants to cut that rate in half in 20 years. 

D.C.’s plan won’t work without more equitable economic and employment growth. Right now, the unemployment rates in the city differ dramatically from ward to ward. In Ward 3, it’s as low as 2 percent, while in poorer parts of the city, like Ward 8, it’s 24 percent, among the highest in the country. Gray wants to boost the number of green jobs by five times — providing opportunities at all levels, from the PhDs experimenting with biofuels to the landscape architects designing parks, from the green roof installers to the maintenance crews keeping green infrastructure and waste reuse systems working.

Explore the plan. There are a few short, medium, and long-term actions listed. As Tregoning said, “the vision is a painting of what’s possible in the District.” A design and implementation strategy with hundreds of actions comes next. To see some actions that should be considered, explore ASLA’s 30-page set of recommendations: Becoming Greenest. One big focus of ASLA’s report was the need for a climate adaptation plan. If local species in D.C.’s great urban forest were to die off due to higher temperatures, none of the other goals related to water, air quality, or health will be possible.

Image credit: City Center, Washington, D.C. / SWF Institute

A New Life for an Industrial Landscape in California

California’s Burbank Water and Power (BWP), one of the first power companies in the U.S. to procure a major chunk of its power from renewable energy sources and develop an ambitious carbon reduction plan, is transforming its main campus from an “industrial relic” into a “regenerative green space,” bringing the utility to the forefront of sustainable landscape design. The new landscape is among the 150 sites selected around the country to participate in the Sustainable Site Initiative™ (SITES®) pilot program. Los Angeles-based landscape architecture firm AHBE Landscape Architects was hired by BWP to create an ambitious “EcoCampus.”

Already, the new campus has three of the 50 LEED Platinum buildings found in California, including its first super-sustainable warehouse. Beyond the buildings, though, the campus offers green roofs, which were designed to “reduce the urban heat island effect, help channel and filter storm water, and reduce the building’s air conditioning requirements;” water reclamation and filtration systems, and new employee green spaces carved out of a reclaimed substation.

The green roofs were installed across three buildings in the BWP campus. According to the utility, “the timing was perfect as our aging roof needed to be replaced.” Adding green roofs also saved the company, which is promoting energy conservation as a key cost savings measure, a bit of money themselves, some $14,000 annually.

AHBE Landscape Architects designed a number of filtration and stormwater capture systems that compliment each other. Green streets with permeable pavers and “infiltration bump outs” along three city streets filter runoff before it enters the campus’ stormwater system, where it’s then captured by the built planters and trees set within silva cells, which enable the trees to grow taller. Roof runoff is filtered down to the landscape, where it’s used up by the greenery. “By California law, all projects are required to mitigate at least the first ¾ inches of rainfall. Thanks to the innovative technologies that AHBE has integrated into the design, the BWP EcoCampus already mitigates the first inch.” The end goal is zero runoff on site.

A substation structure was left in place, providing a repurposed outdoor meeting room. “The skeletal remains of the substation will soon be covered in living vines, creating a poignant juxtaposition of industry and environment.”

Calvin Abe, FASLA, President, of AHBE, made the case for transforming the utility’s industrial landscape into a productive one: “Landscape has a key role to play in the regeneration of our cities. Beyond the aesthetics, it can proactively counteract many of the problems that we face in urban environments.”

But their job was made a lot easier because their client’s vision is a bold one. Ron Davis, BWP General Manager, said: “BWP chose to do this to show that sustainability is not just about a single action or decision; it’s about the ripple effect that consistent, sustainable decisions can make. BWP’s EcoCampus is literally powered by innovation. We want this to cause a ripple.”

Watch a video about the BWP’s new campus.

Image credits: © Sibylle Allgaier, Heliphoto

Power Freshkills Park with Art

In partnership with the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation, the 2012 Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) ideas competition asks landscape architects, architects, planners, artists, and engineers to submit proposals for a 100-acre “pragmatic art installation” in Freshkills Park, Staten Island, New York City that can generate power from renewable energy sources.

According to Freshkills Park, the park will total 2,200 acres when completed, making it almost three times the size of Central Park. In an amazing transformation of what was formerly the world’s largest landfill, a decrepit garbage dump of a landscape may become a “symbol of renewal and an expression of how our society can restore balance.” Designed by James Corner Field Operations, the park will provide hundreds of acres of recreational opportunities. A full-scale ecological restoration by ecologist Steven Handel is also underway, which will underpin the environmental education programs.

LAGI’s idea competition, like the one held in 2010 in Abu Dhabi, is designed to unleash wildly creative thinking about how renewable energy can be made beautiful. The idea this year is to design a public artwork for Freshkills that will not only have “conceptual beauty” but can also harness energy from nature and convert it into electricity. The group’s organizers emphasize that they don’t want a timid public art work, but instead seek to leverage the “expansiveness” of Freshkills to create a massive 100-acre art project that can power thousands of nearby homes from Freshkills’ East or North parks. 

Specifically, entries must include a “three-dimensional sculptural form” that can inspire visitors to think deeply about “broad ideas as ecological systems, human habitation and development, energy and resource generation and consumption,” but can also sit within the historical and ecological context of the site. The artwork must capture energy from nature (in the form of wind, solar or solar thermal, or another renewable energy mechanism), convert it into electricity, and be capable to transmitting energy via a power grid connection point. “Consideration should be made for artfully housing the required transformer and electrical equipment within the project boundary.”

Entries cannot have negative environmental impacts on the park or release greenhouse gas emissions. Each submittal must then include a brief environmental impact assessment. Given the park rests on top of a landfill cap, the designers will also need to discuss how the project will fit in with those carefully engineered systems. “The cap shall not be penetrated in any manner for any reason.” 

Furthermore, LAGI asks teams to use scalable and tested technologies. “It is recommended that the design team make an effort to engage the manufacturers of existing technology in preliminary dialogue as a part of their own research and development of the design entry.”

Submit your concepts before July 1, 2012. The jury considering the entries includes top designers like James Corner, ASLA, and Bjarke Ingels, as well as senior officials from Staten Island, the NYC Departments of Sanitation and Parks & Recreation, the NYC Public Art Commission, and U.S. Department of Energy.

Winners will take home $20,000 in award money. LAGI writes that the award will not guarantee a construction commission, but the “most pragmatic and aesthetic” designs will be promoted to local NYC stakeholders. Separately, a competition for high school students interested in how to power NYC with art will be open at the same time, with $1,000 up for grabs.

Image credit: Freshkills Park, North Park / NYC Department of Parks & Recreation

Best Books of 2011

Last year, we only have five top books (see earlier post), but this year we’ve expanded the list. A range of great books came past our desk and any of these may be of interest to your favorite landscape architect. Here are the top ten books of 2011, along with five other notable books:

Landscapes in Landscapes by Piet Oudolf (Monacelli Press, 2011)
In his complex, endlessly interesting landscapes, Oudolf says he prizes form and texture as much as color. He almost exclusively uses perennials, which he values for their “beauty throughout their natural life cycle.” Requiring little maintenance, his naturally sustainable landscapes, which feature drought-resistant plants, evolve over time. As Charles Waldheim, chair of the landscape architecture department at Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD), wrote in The New York Times, “he’s gotten away from the soft pornography of the flower. He’s interested in the life cycle, how plant material ages over the course of a year.” Read the full review.

The Altered Landscape: Photographs of a Changing Environment by Ann M. Wolfe (Editor) (Skira Rizzoli, 2011) 
From the book: “This comprehensive look at the work of 100 contemporary photographers captures the impact of human activity on natural landscapes. The Altered Landscape is a provocative collection of photographs representing a wide range of artists, techniques, visual styles, subjects, and ideological positions. Organized chronologically, the more than 150 images-by artists such as Andy Goldsworthy, Chris Jordan, Catherine Opie, and Edward Burtynsky-reveal the ways that individuals and industries have marked, mined, toured, tested, developed, occupied, and exploited landscapes over the last fifty years.”

Field Notes from Science and Nature by Michael R. Canfield  (Editor), Edward O. Wilson (Foreword) (Harvard University Press, 2011)
The Los Angeles Times writes: “This gorgeous book reproduces samples from the notebooks of 12 naturalists in all their glory, accompanied by short essays on methodology and why field notes are still so critical to the art of science. These drawings, notes (in spectacular handwriting), photos, and maps are a reminder that natural history is the root of all biology, and observation is a critical skill. George Schaller’s drawings of a lion hunt in the Serengeti, Bernd Heinrich’s delicate drawings of leaves, Kenn Kaufman’s lists, Jonathan Kingdon’s drawings of acacia trees in Kenya, Jenny Keller’s spectacular drawings of moon jellies–these and others make science look not only appealing, fascinating and fun but human and creative as well.

Genius of Life: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted by Justin Martin (Da Capo Press, 2011)
Genius of Place: the Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, a new biography by Justin Martin, illuminates Olmsted’s major achievements as a visionary artist, social reformer, pioneering environmentalist, and founder of the modern profession of landscape architecture. Olmsted is best known for creating several noteworthy landscapes, including New York City’s Central Park. Martin, a journalist who has written two acclaimed biographies on Alan Greenspan and Ralph Nader, paints a portrait of Olmsted as a preeminent American figure, revealing that “as a park maker, environmentalist, and abolitionist, Olmsted helped shape modern America.” Read the full review.

High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky by Joshua David and Robert Hammond (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2011)
The New York Times writes: “This lushly illustrated volume showcases the range of imaginative designs [Joshua David and Robert Hammond] explored and, in some cases, rejected. In recounting their decade-long experiment, they provide an inspiring primer for grass-roots urban planning.” Paul Goldberger at The New Yorker writes: “In this book Robert Hammond and Joshua David, who led the grass-roots movement to rescue the High Line from demolition, tell with energy, passion, and refreshing candor the story of how this industrial artifact became, against all odds, a magnificent park.” 

Making Healthy Places: Designing and Building for Health, Well-being, and Sustainability by Andrew Dannenberg (Editor), Howard Frumkin (Editor), and Richard Jackson (Editor) (Island Press, 2011)
Dr. Richard Jackson (see earlier post) and Dr. Howard Frumkin (see earlier post) have been long-time advocates of marrying public health and design. In this book, they offer a how-to that is essential reading for all landscape architects. “The authors have crafted an exemplary look at the various components of community design that promote and support health. Through their perspective we see clearly how much community design matters to our health and well-being; and it matters a lot.” – Georges C. Benjamin, MD, Executive Director, American Public Health Association. Read the full review.

MAPS by Paula Scher (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011)
Map making is not just about creating visual representations of physical spaces, but can also be about documenting impressions and emotions. Paula Scher, a partner at Pentagram and one of the most influential graphic designers of her generation, has a new book that conveys the rich, complex feelings she has for the process of map making itself. As she writes in the introduction, “I began painting maps to invent my own complicated narrative about the way I see and feel about the world. I wanted to list what I know about a place from memory, from impressions, from media, and from general information overload. They are paintings of distortions.” Read the full review.

The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening by Thomas Christopher (Editor) (Timber Press, 2011)
Instead of exacerbating environmental issues, gardeners must harness the many ecosystem services provided by natural systems and design gardens that support and strengthen local ecologies. This how-to guide clearly demonstrates how gardeners’ sustainable practices can positively shape our shared enviroment. Read the full review.

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward L. Glaeser (Penguin Press, 2011)
“Edward Glaeser is one of the world’s most brilliant economists, and Triumph of the City is a masterpiece. Seamlessly combining economics and history, he explains why cities are ‘our species’ greatest invention.’ This beautifully written book makes clear how cities have not only survived but thrived, even as modern technology has seemingly made one’s physical location less important.” – Steven D. Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, professor of economics at the University of Chicago.

The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World by Carl Safina (Henry Holt & Co, 2011)
From the Booklist review: “From his home base, this celebrated scientist and activist travels to places where the impact of climate change and environmental abuse is starkly evident. With the spiral of a year as his structure and with what Einstein termed the ‘circle of compassion’ as his moral compass, MacArthur and Guggenheim fellow Safina illuminates the wondrous intricacy and interconnectedness of life in a book of beautifully modulated patterns and gracefully stated imperatives.”

Other notable books in 2011:

The Agile City: Building Well-being and Wealth in an Era in Climate Change by James Russell (Island Press, 2011) Read full review.
Gateway: Visions for an Urban National Park
by Alexander Brash (editor), Jaime Hand (editor), Kate Orff (editor) (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011) Read full review.
Pulled: A Catalog of Screen Printing by Mike Perry (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011) Read full review.
Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-carbon World by Catherine Tumber (The MIT Press)
Urban Green: Architecture for the Future by Neil Chambers (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011) Read an interview.

In addition, check out a few other best book lists: Planetizen offers their top 10 planning books for 2011. The University of Cambridge compiled a list of the top 50 books on sustainability.

Lastly, these “painstakingly hand-printed” t-shirts of some great U.S. cities by City Fabric aren’t books but they make great presents.

Image credit: Montacelli Press

The U.S. Needs a National Renewable Energy Standard

At The Atlantic Magazine‘s Green Intelligence forum, which has become an annual event in Washington, D.C., Carol Browner, who was very recently climate change “czarina” at the White House and once head of the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.); Jim Connaughton, Constellation Energy, and former head of the Council for Environmental Quality under President George W. Bush; David Hawkins, Natural Resources Defense Council; and Dave McCurdy, American Gas Association, all emphasized the need for a national renewable energy standard given no big climate change and energy legislation will be coming out of Congress in the next 18 months to 2 years. A new national standard, many said, could also help achieve many of the goals of the failed 2010 climate change and energy legislation. As Senator Amy Klobuchar noted in an earlier speech that day, Minnesota’s “aggressive” renewable energy standard (25 percent renewable energy by 2025) had led to skyrocketing growth in wind, solar, and biofuels in her state.

No Big Climate Change Legislation Coming Soon

Asked by Ed Luce, The Financial Times, how the debate in Washington could get steered back to climate change, the panelists punted a bit. Browner said “we could pass legislation, but not large legislation anytime soon.” She said there’s a set of tools available to the administration, including new rules and standards, which are now being used to ensure cars hit 54 mpg by 2015. Browner noted that 65 percent of total emissions in the U.S. can be dealt with through existing laws, regulations, and administrative tools.

For Connaughton, who is said to be Mitt Romney’s choice as the head of the E.P.A., there are already “six different types of regulatory programs” in the U.S., including the mandatory cap and trade program approved in California. Also, at the Federal level, the House and the most recent administrations, through their many attempts to pass major climate change legislation, have already laid an important “foundation.” This solid base has led to “10 billion tons in carbon reductions.” He said the foundation is now in place for moving many smaller pieces of legislation, like a national renewable energy standard, that would help with the climate.

NRDC’s David Hawkins thought the big climate change legislative failure in 2010 was due to the economy, the slogan that got associated with climate change – it’s “a jobs-killing energy tax,” and the growing belief that “this is not a problem that needs to be addressed.” He thinks these issues are just a “dam and not a permanent fixture in the U.S. political economy,” meaning all these obstacles can be overcome.   

According to Dave McCurdy, American Gas Association, which has been promoting fuel efficiency, there are “more opportunities on efficiency,” including fuel economy standards. He wants smarter incentives that can push firms to work with state governments and environmental groups, and said there needs to be a stronger emphasis on state action.

What Does Solyndra’s Failure Mean?

Will the failure of Solyndra, a major U.S. solar panel producer, which received nearly half a billion in recovery funds, do permanent damage to the case for investing in clean energy in the U.S.?, asked Luce. Browner said the U.S. has been making investments in energy and technology for more than 100 years, including long-term investments in the oil industry and nuclear power. “If we want a different future, we need to use the appropriate incentives.” She added that 100 years of pro-oil tax policies “have been enough.” Incentives, in the form of a national renewable energy standard, could lead to “huge investments” in cleaner energy. Connaughton basically argued that Solyndra was an “unfortunate, sad lesson” but it doesn’t change the overall program of government investment in clean energy.

For Hawkins, the government played its role. “Governments don’t give loan guarantees to companies that have no risk. If there was less risk, the private sector would do it.” He said Solyndra, which set its business model on rising prices for solar panels, was the “victim of progress in the solar industry.” Prices came down dramatically, which is good for the solar industry and consumers, but “bad for them.” McCurdy thought it was the “dynamic of the stimulus funds,” which had to “push lots of money out the door fast.” The result: some projects “fail, spectacularly.”

What Can Happen in the Near Term?

Connaughton says Congress was already questioning the value of big investments in clean energy before Solyndra failed. He wants mandates that are “performance-based,” meaning incentives that can enable the market’s competitive forces to do their stuff.

“Waxman-Markey (the 2010 comprehensive climate change and energy legislation) got too big, there were too many add-ons.” Interestingly, he added that cap and trade was “originally a Republican idea,” but in this instance got swamped by excessive add-ons so the legislation lost its shape. He sees “phased-in standards” organized by sector as the way to go, then a process of “national simplication” to align the sector standards into a bigger picture.

He used a range of examples to show how “market structures have had impact on energy efficiency.” Browner seemed to agree in part, but added that what’s really key is “incentives, investments, and creating demand so the private sector can make the changes needed. ”

Hawkins reminded everyone that some Republicans are set on limiting the powers of the E.P.A. to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. “We can’t dismantle these tools that exist” while hoping to make progress through standards and other approaches.

Interestingly, none of the panelists mentioned two of the most important recent stories that should figure in this conversation. The world’s population recently hit 7 billion, which means a complete “rethink of climate approaches” is needed, says National Geographic. According to its Newswatch site, climate change, population, and food production are all deeply linked: “Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, famous for his book The Population Bomb, said people will have trouble feeding themselves as climate change worsens. But it’s a catch-22, he said, because we need to expand agriculture, but as it’s practiced today, it is also one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.”

Also, according to The Guardian, World Energy Outlook 2011, a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report, was very negative on the prospect of the global energy system changing enough to effectively combat climate change. The report said that “the world is likely to build so many fossil-fuelled power stations, energy-guzzling factories and inefficient buildings in the next five years that it will become impossible to hold global warming to safe levels, and the last chance of combating dangerous climate change will be ‘lost for ever.'”

Image credit: Biomass power plant, Cadillac, Michigan / We Are Michigan

Becoming Greenest: Recommendations for a More Sustainable Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C. leadership has requested input from a range of organizations as it develops a new “unified vision” and “comprehensive framework” for a more sustainable Washington, D.C. The end goal: to connect sustainability with economic development and become the number-one, most sustainable city in North America. Washington, D.C. is currently ranked eighth in a recent Economist Intelligence Unit report sponsored by Siemens.

As part of this process, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) polled members from its Potomac, Northern Virginia, and Southern Maryland chapters and incorporated their input into a set of bold recommendations in the priority areas identified by the city government. Because the categories of recommendations will be evaluated by different D.C. agencies, recommendations are repeated when appropriate and relevant. Among them:

Energy: Reuse brownfields as solar energy farms. Through revised building codes and local tax incentives, expand use of smart tree placement and green roofs and walls. Reduce building energy use through green infrastructure. Incentivize the use of rooftop solar panels. Read research and recommendations >

Climate Change / Mitigation: Reduce total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by expanding urban park land, further improving bike and pedestrian infrastructure, incentivizing the growth in the number of bicycle and pedestrian commuters, creating highly walkable pedestrian-only areas, and introducing new innovative forms of public space such as parklets and underpass parks. Read research and recommendations >

Climate Change / Adaptation: Increase coverage of street trees for shade and expand use of green and cool (white) roofs in order to adapt to higher average temperatures along with more varied temperature fluctuations within the District. Improve building and landscape water efficiency measures. Develop resiliency plans for Washington, D.C.’s plant and animal life within parks and green spaces, including the introduction of wildlife migration corridors and heat and drought-tolerant plants. Read research and recommendations >

Water: Develop a comprehensive green infrastructure plan that leverages existing grey infrastructure. Use Sustainable Site Initiative™ (SITES™) guidelines to improve water efficiency measures, require the use of appropriate plant species in public and residential landscapes, and enable rainwater capture and filtered or treated greywater (and even blackwater) reuse for landscape irrigation. For stormwater management, require the use of green roofs for new buildings exceeding a minimum size. In addition, approve the use of rainwater cisterns for irrigation of green roofs and other green infrastructure. Improve the permeability of the District’s park surfaces and their ability to capture and store water. Create multi-use infrastructure, or rain gardens or bio-retention systems in District parks, turning them into green infrastructure and water treatment systems. Increase the use of bioswales near transportation systems, and add in permanent green street corridors and green alleys. Continue to expand urban tree canopy and preserve larger trees to manage stormwater runoff. Spread use of tree boxes and permeable pavements for stormwater capture. As part of a public education campaign, parks and public green space should follow the highest water efficiency standards. Read research and recommendations >

Transportation: Expand bike and pedestrian infrastructure. Create safe bicycle infrastructure. Connect the Metro system with bike infrastructure and bikeshare stations. Require secure bike parking within office and residential buildings. Incentivize the growth in the number of bicycle and pedestrian commuters. Create highly walkable pedestrian-only areas, and introduce new innovative forms of public space such as parklets and underpass parks. Read research and recommendations >

Waste: Set clear, ambitious targets and deadlines for achieving zero waste in the District and measure progress against targets. Ensure all building materials are reused in new buildings (if the materials are non-hazardous). Use Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) guidelines for park maintenance and eliminate grounds waste generated from Washington, D.C., parks through composting. Read research and recommendations >

Built Environment: Invest in turning more brownfields into parks. Apply bio-remediation and other safe environmental remediation technologies during park development. Develop an Internet-accessible inventory of all brownfields in the city to enable easier remediation and redevelopment of derelict sites by local developers. Create a certification program for remediated brownfields to facilitate faster reuse. Invest in retrofitting older school buildings to make them LEED Platinum and also integrate green school redesign activities into school curricula. Ensure all schools apply Safe Routes to Schools design guidelines. Read research and recommendations >

Nature: Develop a biodiversity and environmental education action plan based on the concept of biophilia. Recreate wetlands along riverfront edges and reintroduce native wildlife. Reduce the mortality rate of trees and extend their lifespan by enabling them to grow in larger tree pits with structural soils and under permeable pavements. Use appropriate trees grown locally for urban forestry campaigns. Experiment with growing trees in park nurseries. Read research and recommendations >

Food: Develop a comprehensive urban agriculture plan. Evaluate all available empty lots (including brownfield sites) as potential opportunities for commercial and community urban agriculture. Develop new codes enabling local food production. As a priority, target food desert communities with high numbers of brownfields. Allow local residential food production. Develop new soil testing and clean-up requirements for growing food in former brownfield sites. Allow and also increase tax incentives for rooftop food production. Read research and recommendations >

Green Economy: Invest in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure improvement projects to boost job growth. Use green infrastructure systems, including green roofs, to increase number of local, non-exportable green jobs. Launch a comprehensive green jobs program, training chronically unemployed and former convicts in brownfield remediation, green roof installation, and other tasks. Launch a national campaign in an effort to lure the best green talent to the District. Read research and recommendations >

Governance: Organize watershed councils at the local level and appoint ward-level sustainability advocates to help implement and align SustainableDC initiatives. Use Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) guidelines as a management tool for achieving high-performing landscapes across the district. Read research and recommendations >

Go to the report Web site and explore the recommendations in detail, or download the PDF version of the report.

Also, be sure to add your comments below on how D.C. can become greenest.

Image credit: ASLA 2011 Professional Design Honor Award. Monumental Core Framework Plan, Washington, D.C. AECOM, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the U. S. Commission of Fine Arts, Washington, D.C.

Interview with Neil Chambers, Author of Urban Green: Architecture for the Future

Neil B. Chambers, founder of Chambers Design, Inc. and Green Ground Zero, is an award-winning green designer with nearly 20 years of experience in the field of green building and infrastructure. He is the author of Urban Green: Architecture for the Future, and a contributing author to Treehugger. He is a national fellow with the Environmental Leadership Program, has taught at New York University and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), and been featured in Architectural Record, Civil Engineering, BBC News, and The Economist.

In your new book, Urban Green: Architecture for the Future, you argue that the number of green building projects in the U.S. (4,000) is abysmally low. Even with an anticipated 30,000 projects in the pipeline, these green buildings are a drop in the bucket and won’t solve our core problems. A far more comprehensive approach is needed if we are going to reduce energy and water use, restore wildlife habitats, and develop sustainable cities over the long-term. What approach is missing and still needed?

We need to revolutionize the entire system of how buildings, real estate, infrastructure, and capital projects are approached, designed and implemented. The green buildings of today are a fair start but not anywhere near what needs to take place in the architecture, engineering, and construction world. We are basically still dealing with water, energy, and buildings the same way we were 150 years ago. I don’t want to come across as anti-green, because I’m not. But the current green building industry is only addressing a small percentage of the problems. In fact, dealing with climate change and energy efficiency is like polishing the silverware as the Titanic sinks. That may sound crazy to anyone within the green building movement.

But the truth is that climate change and many other issues would disappear if we adhered to the ecological principles that govern nature and ecosystems. In my book, I talk extensively about the power of old growth forests, estuaries, and prairies ability to sequester carbon, modulate temperature, manage stormwater, reduce flooding, and purify water better than any technology known to humans. I use specific projects that have re-established habitat and natural lands which provide incredible amounts of clean water, habitat, and better quality of life to people. Everyday there are new inventions that are promising to make our lives better – but if you look at ecological solutions, you’ll find that they outperform every cleantech idea currently in the market. Ecological solutions cost a fraction of what technological solutions cost, and need far less maintenance than the new green gadgets and gizmos being pushed as the great hope for our future.   

You are against electric cars, saying they won’t be great for the environment given they will run on electricity generated from coal, at least in the near term. However, you don’t discuss the fact that car transportation CO2 emissions are some 30 percent of the total. Also, cars create air pollution. On these fronts, isn’t the move to electric vehicles a plus?

Lots of people are in love with EVs, but these new cars are not the answer to any of problems we face. EVs will cause more pollution, more carbon emission and more environmental impact than they solve. This is because of a few factors: the growth of EVs is too dependent on other technologies also growing at the same rate or faster to offset any negative ramifications they may create. These tandem technologies include things such as smart grids, renewable energy production and battery technology. It is unrealistic, and quite frankly misleading, for EV advocates to say these will happen as recommended and hoped. For example, EV advocates expect renewable energy generation to grow fast enough to feed a growing fleet of electric cars in the United States green energy. However, the percentage of U.S. electricity produced by non-hydro renewable energy sources will increase from 4 percent in 2009 to 12.3 percent in 2030, according to the “Annual Energy Outlook 2010″ released by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA). That’s about half of what EVs will need to not use fossil fuels like coal. Moreover, under the current view of EVs, they will be using all of the renewable energy generated in the U.S., so there won’t be any left for buildings. The shortfall of green power will lead to an increase in coal production, which would mean more emissions, particulates, toxins, and pollution. Though oil is dirt, unit to unit, oil emits less carbon. Also, EVs don’t resolve any of the fragmentation problems caused by massive highway infrastructure. So I think it’s a huge waste of time and money to create an alternative to the combustion engine that doesn’t make our lives better, reduce our environmental impact, and improve climate change.

Instead of big renewable energy plants, you call for a decentralized approach to energy production within buildings. What is the benefit of large-scale use of on-site solar panels over big power plants? Also, while you note the possible environmental damage of other renewable energy approaches, you don’t discuss the fact that solar panels require mining elements and the use of chemicals. What are the possible negative environmental impacts of widespread use of solar? Are there more environmentally-sound ways to produce panels for use in buildings?

Decentralized power production is a much more democratic way of generating and distributing energy. Also, building integrated photovoltaic panels (BIPV) don’t take up additional space that large-scale arrays do. For me, it seems counter-productive to build these huge solar energy plants in the middle of nowhere when you can produce the same amount of energy within and on top of buildings where people are. I think one of the unseen benefits for BIPV for houses n this economy is that a PV array would increase the value of your home. Many of the large-scale solar farms that are proposed are sited in wilderness that is extremely fragile. This is the same mentality about energy production as that of coal and petroleum. As the dialogue of sustainability disregards the health of natural lands for the good of society, the movement has broken down and become dysfunctional. I feel the same way about advocates for nuclear power based solely on the fact that these facilities don’t emit carbon during energy production…and they call it clean. However every step in the process before and after the energy is created is highly dangerous and toxic to all living things. 

You do point out that solar panels just like every other type of energy generation device will cause environmental damage – it’s part of the problem with how we conceive of energy from the very beginning. All of the electricity we use is artificially created, meaning it’s not naturally formed electricity such as that from lightning. If we want to really look at how to deal with the energy issue in our society, we should first look to nature and ask the question, “Why aren’t other species using power?” I really think that should be the basis of how we resolve the huge problems with energy production, consumption and conservation. On-site energy production is not that far fetched. Most homes and buildings have their own boilers and cooling systems. This hasn’t always been the case.

In places like NYC, there are large steam networks for heating buildings. Solar panels aren’t the best energy producers out there so I don’t usually advocate for them too much. I really like them but it’s hard to show return of investment without government incentives. I really see hydrogen fuel cells as the future for on-site energy. Everyday, more buildings and homes are disconnecting from the grid because they have hooked up to a fuel cell. There are communities throughout the world that run completely on hydrogen now. The costs of residential size fuel cells are falling too.

You state: “While architects and city planners are the one who design our megalopolises, only conservation biologists are looking at issues of ecological and land management at that scale.” This is false on a few fronts: Landscape architects have long played a central role in integrating nature into cities and, since Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of NYC’s Central Park, have been focused on expanding the amount of green space available in urban areas to maximize public health. You seem to omit landscape architects from your discussion. Why leave out a whole professional field?

When I say architects, I’m including landscape architects. I agree that many designers have contributed to the state of cities and regions around the world. You mention Frederick Law Olmsted and Central Park (a park that is dear to my heart having lived in NYC for more than a decade). Central Park and other urban parks serve as respite from the density and crowdedness of cities. Central Park has recorded nearly 200 different kinds of bird species within it. But it’s not a habitat – at least not in the sense that I layout in Urban Green. Conservation biologists point to specific criteria for what habitat is. For example, wilderness should be able to sustain a large population of megafuana while also contributing to continental conservation strategies of interlinking wild lands together to function as a true ecological system. Many design professionals call their work ecological – in a simpler way as your question suggests. But green buildings and the majority of park spaces, greenscapes, and landscape architecture have not made the jump to a backdrop for total conservation biology. People like Josh Donlan, Illka Hanski, Viviana Ruiz, Reed Noss, Dave Foreman, and Michael Soule are envisioning a world that uses biology to paint a picture for restoring habitat at grand scales – both in size and content. Noss has worked with developers in the past to rethink real estate development in Florida to maintain panther populations. Other conservation biologists have re-examined highway design so that less species are killed by cars. The problem for designers, and I would say landscape architects the most, is that the scope of a project as well as the education and training they receive fight against the level of implementation needed to marry conservation biology with architecture and city design…that is the continental scale. 

I would also say that landscape architecture should be leading the charge for change within building design and construction. You are right to suggest that landscape architects have many of the pieces to really shift the paradigm, but in my experience, landscape architects are so often too dependent on civil engineers and typically never takes a lead role in projects. There are some landscape architects who are the exception, but in general landscape architects are not running projects when a site is dominated by building. I wish landscape architecture and architecture were the same thing…we shouldn’t have them separated. Nor should conservation biologists and ecologists be separated from architecture. Until the entire design professions reinvent themselves to discard methods and mentalities that pre-date our discovery of evolution and understanding of ecosystems, we will, most likely, continue to build buildings and design parks that are no more aligned with biodiversity than, say, a parking lot.   

Caroline Fraser, who writes on conservation for The New Yorker, thinks beavers are the “original landscape architects” given the way they manipulate and redesign the environment, but ultimately provide valuable ecosystem services. In your book, you say more community developers actually need to think like beavers, who may seem to wreck environmental havoc in the near term, but are sustainable in the long-run because they move to new locations when they run out of trees to use to build dams. What lessons can we take from the beaver’s approach?

I love beavers and the lessons they can teach us about ourselves. First, they let us know we are not as unique as we would like to believe – meaning, we are not the only species on this planet that is unsustainable. I realized that as I wrote Urban Green. I had the great fortune of speaking with Dr. Clive G. Jones, Terrestrial Ecologist, Senior Scientist at Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. He pointed out that beavers are incredibly destructive – potentially as destructive as human civilization, except that the way they build things differs from us in three major ways:

1. Their structures are not built to last forever. In my book, I have images of a beaver dam that had to be removed using dynamite. It was that strong! But in general, their lodges and dams will degrade fairly quickly once they leave the area to settle in another place. Our dams like the Hoover Dam would take thousands of years to fall apart if people just suddenly disappeared or stopped managing it.

2. Though they have a large environmental footprint within a forest, they do not take over the entire ecosystem. The resulting beaver ponds will not flood the entire forest nor are they able to eat their way through all of the trees in the forest. This is a critical difference between human development and beaver development. It says that we would be much more intertwined in the natural world, if we built cities, parks, buildings and other things in a way limited in its domination of the natural lands it is within. 

3. The third thing we can learn from beavers is that disruption doesn’t have to equal fragmentation. This is the biggest sin of human development. We build things in a way that cuts off valid pathways for species, and we demolish large chucks of land while also putting under control other parts of the land – the end result is that ancient corridors to feeding, hunting, and mating grounds are completely separated from other areas that would provide water and protection. Beavers definitely build things and cause a disruption – they can flood acres and acres of a forest, they reorient the natural hydrology and have even been shown to cause certain riverbank species to become locally extinct. But the difference is that we don’t create a condition where other animals can’t thrive. For example, though their ponds are a big change to the habitat, they create hunting areas along their edge for fox and raccoon to find food. Birds of prey can hunt fish within the ponds. Moose find saplings along the shores of the beaver’s artificial lake while many other species thrive in the changed environment. The flooding of the forest floor also sets up a good opportunity for enriched soils, because all of the sediment trapped behind the beaver dam will settle and be ideal for new growth once the beavers leave and the water slowly drains.

I think one of the greatest lessons we can learn from beavers is that complex structures and extensive influence on ecosystems can co-exist with living in harmony with nature. In essence, only a few principles within society must change, and not society as a whole.

In your vision of ecological urbanism, you argue that nature can serve as a guide to the design of the built environment using a “ecomimicry approach.” Ecosystems could serve as the “foundation of design.” Ecologically-sound networks of green roofs, eco-corridors, and parks can serve as a foundation that enables co-habiting with nature. However, you also say: “Perhaps the next generation of green roofs will be designed not by architects but by urban designers and planners in partnership with ecologists and conservation biologists. Or maybe there will be no designer at all, and biologists will design the essential parts of our future cities.” Why leave landscape architects out of this mix considering they have long served as an intermediary between architects and biologists and have professional training in ecology and plant biology?

I wasn’t my intention to leave landscape architects out of the mix. Landscape architects should take a leadership role in redesigning the way we design our cities and buildings. I think that landscape architecture should begin to incorporate into their training all of the fundamentals of architecture, engineering, planning, energy, ecology and biodiversity. One of the points I make in Urban Green is that we should become keystone species – and I think that landscape architects have a leg-up on other design professionals such as architects or mechanical and electrical engineers. But for us to really reverse the problems we see throughout the natural world, design projects will need to interconnect with larger topics such as ecological history, biogeography, and meta-populations to insure a much more robust and spirited transformation of our current civilization. When every designer, be it landscape architect or engineer or city planner, is using biogeography – vast wilderness and species reintroduction – as guiding principles of designing the many parts of our society, we will see less and less problems like energy storage, water pollution, climate change, and resource depletion.

Lastly, you argue that people can learn from nature and become a “keystone species.” What are some positive examples of how people are acting like keystone species? What are the models that need to be scaled up?

A project I’ve been involved with is restoring oysters to an area in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to help improve the water quality of the area. Others are also taking this approach to restore shorelines, stabilize tourism, and maintain real estate values. The side effect of using oysters instead of filtration facilities is that you also create nodes for biodiversity for game fish, crab and shrimp. Oysters are also being found to improve the air quality. Such projects are happening throughout the Gulf of Mexico and from Florida to Rhode Island. These are examples of design doing more with ecology instead of always depending on technology. With many of these projects, people aren’t yet the keystone species, but they are beginning to function in the same way beavers do within a forest. You might call these people ecosystem architects. Right now, these oyster restoration projects are not interconnected, and are only locally beneficial. Several challenges face scaling up these efforts to have national and international benefits. For example, some states do not allow oyster restoration projects to be established within estuaries and tidal basins. Of those that are lawfully installed, they have to continue to cultivate new spat to introduce to the colonies because a meta-population of oysters does not exist within the Atlantic seaboard. 

In Urban Green, I also point to the Florida Everglades Restoration Project as a viable example of how people can de-engineer an area to improve the ecological functionality of an ecosystem. The efforts in the Everglades has shown that less engineering is actually better than more…and that ecology serves cities and people better than technology. Likewise, the biggest challenge is to see the Everglades as the tip of the iceberg for a much more encompassing plan to save nature and society because what starts in the swamps of southern Florida should continue up into the evergreen forests of Maine and then across Canada to British Columbia and then back down to Mexico City. This is the size we need to begin to think in as we talk about green buildings and landscapes. This is how we will become keystone species.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Urban Green / Palgrave|MacMillan, (2) Suburban California highways. Image credit: Conversions XXIII, 2008. Christoper Gielen, (3) Building fuel cell education project. UTC Power / Image credit: Connecticut Science Center, (4) Beaver dam before and after. Image credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, (5) Everglades Restored. Image credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Updated Guide: Climate Change and Landscape Architecture

A recent report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” According to the IPCC, average global temperatures are increasing at an alarming rate. In just the past 50 years, northern hemisphere temperatures were higher than during any other 50-year period in the last 500 years, perhaps even the past 1,300 years. The IPCC projects that the Earth’s surface temperature could rise by as much as 4°C within the next century.

The primary cause of climate change is increasing concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs), especially carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. The 2007 Assessment Report by the IPCC indicates that GHG emissions increased by 70 percent between 1970 and 2004. These gases are primarily emitted as a result of human behavior, such as the burning of fossil fuels to produce energy. Building consturction and energy use account for more than 30 percent of worldwide emissions, while the transportation sector is responsible for another 30 percent.

Experts predict that the increase in the Earth’s temperature, if left unchecked, will have devastating effects. According to the IPCC, the projected sea level rise could reach 19-23 inches by the year 2100. Additional impacts could include increased spread of diseases; extensive species extinction; drought and wildfires; mass human, animal and plant migrations; and resource wars over shrinking amounts of potable water. 

There are a range of landscape architecture-based mitigation strategies that, if employed at mass scale, can help reduce GHG emissions by 50-85 percent by 2050 and limit temperature rise to 2 degrees celsius, targets that the U.N. recommends. Given the effects of climate change are already being felt in many communities, landscape architecture-based adaptation measures are also now being planned and implemented across cities and countries.

In a completely revamped climate change resource guide, which is part of ASLA’s series of sustainable design guides and toolkits, there are hundreds of vetted Web sites, research studies, and projects to explore in the following areas:

Climate Change Mitigation and Landscape Architecture

  • Low-Carbon Community Development Through Smart Growth
  • Energy Efficiency

Climate Change Adaptation and Landscape Architecture

  • Climate Resilient Communities
  • Preparing for Sea Level Rise
  • Increasing Density with Green Spaces
  • Combating Urban Heat Islands
  • Water Efficiency
  • Species Adaptation

Go to Combating Climate Change with Landscape Architecture and check out other guides in the series.

Image credit: Dry River Bed / iStockphoto

Cities Use Brownfields to Go Solar

New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia increasingly view their contaminated inner-city brownfield sites as natural locations for large-scale solar installations. At the national Brownfields conference, each city explained how solar farms can be set up in the unlikeliest places, saving the money involved in cleaning up some of the worst sites.

Chicago Launches Largest Urban Solar Installation in U.S. 

In Chicago, Dave Graham, who works on the city’s brownfield program, said the City Solar project just “fell into our laps.” He was called into a meeting in the mayor’s office with representatives from Exelon and SunPower, and found they wanted to create a massive solar farm on a derelict brownfield site. Actually, massive is an understatement for this project: it’s the largest urban solar plant in the U.S. Its 32,000 photovoltaic (PV) panels provide 10 MW of energy, enough for 1,500 local homes. In addition, GPS tracking systems help tilt the panels, ensuring the most efficient use of solar energy.

Heavily contaminated sites can cost up to $150,000 per acre to clean up. The West Pullman site for City Solar, which “has a variety of issues,” would have cost $20 million alone to clean up, “something no one in the city wanted to invest in.” As a result, Exelon simply put solar panels on top of the site, leaving the worst soils untouched underground. In some cases, where PV structures need to be installed, the team did actually discover underground storage tanks, which they then removed.

Throughout the process, the local community was consulted. Some residents had concerns about living so close to the new power facilities. Graham said one plus is that the facility is totally quiet.

In the construction process, some 200 jobs were created, “all local labor.” Additional jobs may be created if Exelon moves into the abandoned lead-ridden site next door.

Philadelphia Takes Advantage of Solar America Grants

Philadelphia won a Solar America Cities grant, which they will use to help create renewable power purchasing agreements. Kristin Sullivan, Philadelphia Mayor’s Office for Sustainability, said a number of city-owned sites are already being prepped for solar. In an example of multi-use infrastructure, Philadelphia Water Department’s treatment facilities will also host panels, generating 250 KW of power.   

In addition, the city will soon be issuing a request for proposals for a new three MW facility. Sullivan said Philadelphia hopes to encourage private sector developers to take the lead on creating solar power plants, even on city-owned lands. This makes more financial sense for the city then owning and operating its own solar power facilities.

The city government will soon release a solar hotspots map covering underutilized centers. The idea is to identify places, including brownfields, with little or no shading issues. Philadelphia also hopes to encourage large-scale distributed power via residential rooftops.

New York City Incentivizes Reuse of Brownfields

New York City launched SPEED, a searchable database of brownfield properties, a “real estate search engine”, that has gotten great traffic from the local developer community. Dan Walsh, Mayor’s Office of Operations, New York City government, said SPEED includes historical maps so developers can “toggle through time” and explore some 3,150 vacant commercial and industrial brownfield sites spread throughout the city. The idea is to use some of these sites for solar power plants.

To make it even easier for developers, the city launched a $9 million brownfield reinvestment fund. Each developer of a brownfield site gets $60-140,000 “fast” if they commit to cleaning-up a brownfield or redeveloping for energy uses. The grants can be used to cover expenses involved in design, investigation, clean-up, or insurance, says Walsh.

For brownfield sites that will be used by the public, the city has also launched a Green Property Certification program, which can be shown on site as proof that the area is fit for its intended use. “This is a voluntary, not regulatory program.”

Interestingly, none of these urban policymakers discussed how to turn parts of these new solar facilities into public spaces. Solar facilities need not be cut-off from neighboring communities. If designed well, they can also offer green space or even wildlife habitat. As an example, see Walter Hood’s model solar campus project at the University of Buffalo, which will be both public art installation and 1.1 MW solar power facility.

Image credit: Chicago City Solar / Northwestern University