HAPPY EARTH DAY!
WEIGHING THE COST OF ENVIRONMENTAL REGULATIONS
The US House of Representatives has passed bills ordering government officials to weigh relative risks and figure economic costs before imposing new government regulations. The debate over regulatory reform raises provocative questions, including: Is the current $6,000 per year too much for the average American household to pay for government regulations? According to EPA administrator Carol Browner, risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis are important tools for protecting the environment "but the issue is how best to use these tools in making...very difficult decisions". While calculating health and safety risks and their relative costs is complex, the economic benefits of regulation are harder to calculate. Quantifying the benefits of protecting nature for future generations is harder yet. -The Christian Science Monitor, March 27, 1995, p. 4, by Brad Knickerbocker.
Energy-efficient buildings make sense for many reasons, including economics, yet for other reasons energy-efficient features are rarely incorporated in buildings. Performance-based compensation for designers, energy consultants and builders attempts to reverse this by offering financial incentives or requiring guarantees to meet energy-efficiency objectives. For example, the City of Oakland is requiring a design-build contractor to meet an energy target of $450,000 per year, about 25% below state code. Performance-based compensation has not been widely adopted. According to Gregg Ander at Southern California Edison, that could be due to "significant technical and legal obstacles". –Environmental Building News, March/April 1995, p. 1, by Nadav Malin.
RENEWABLE ENERGY: DREAM OR REALITY?
The cost of renewable energy is still too high to make it commercially viable. Plants fired by natural gas produce electricity at 3 cents or less per kilowatt-hour, wind turbines at about 5 cents, geothermal plants from 5.5 cents, and solar power at 14 cents and higher. Besides economic obstacles, a recent ruling from the Federal Energy Regulation Commission effectively gutted a provision of a 1978 Federal law. The law enabled states to force utilities to use some renewable sources through long-term contracts at what turned out to be above-market rates. Southern California Edison has taken advantage of the ruling, agreeing to pay the wind-power producer Kenetech an undisclosed amount to keep it from producing 420 megawatts of power. The net savings to SCE are about $200 million. -The New York Times, April 11, 1995, p. C1, by Agis Salpukas.
FURNITURE COMPANIES COMPARED
Commercial furniture companies are going green-in manufacturing, raw material acquisition, packaging, and refurbishing. Haworth, Herman Miller, Kimball, Knoll, and Steelcase all use environmentally-responsible woods. Some companies, such as Herman Miller, reduce VOC (volatile organic compounds) emissions by incinerating them, harnessing the residual steam to heat their facilities. Haworth has reduced their packaging waste by 24 million pounds since 1988 by shipping product with reusable blanket wraps. Herman Miller buys back office panels, refurbishes them, and sells them at substantially lower prices than new panels. -The Green Business Letter, April 1995, p. 1.
EARTH MATERIALS: ADOBE, RAMMED-EARTH, STRAW BALE
Pioneering designers and builders are rediscovering old thick-wall materials. Adobe buildings are well-suited to Western sunny days and clear nights. The adobe wall mass creates a thermal lag, slowing heat transfer from inside to out. Rammed-earth walls are made by compacting a moistened mixture of soil and cement in an open-bottom form built upward as the wall grows taller. Straw bale walls are user-, environmentally-, and pocketbook-friendly. A 24-inch thick wall tests at about R-55. -Sunset, April 1995, p. 100, by Peter O. Whitely.
CFC BAN PROMPTS ICE STORAGE
Spurred by the 1996 Clean Air Act ban of chlorofluorocarbon production, Chicago building owners are switching to a district cooling system using ice storage. Ice storage systems take advantage of off-peak utility rates by making ice at night, and using the chilled water melt for cooling during the day. -ENR, April 3, 1995, p. 24, by Rob McManamy.
INTERNATIONAL ECOLOGICAL DESIGN SOCIETY
Last October a group of like-minded environmentalists met at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California to share ideas. Organized by ecological designer Sim Van der Ryn, the participants included John and Nancy Todd, Pliny Fisk, Paul Hawken, David Orr, Wes Jackson, and Joan Olsen. They formed the International Ecological Design Society that will serve as a clearing house for information, a place where designers can network, and an advocate for the teaching of ecological design at every level. -I.D., March April 1995, p. 54, by Karrie Jacobs.