Going carbon neutral : Caliifornia pours a foundation for cities to build on

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Let’s look at California as an example. The state is leading the nation down the green path overall, adopting statewide policies that encourage residents to reduce their carbon footprints and change their wasteful ways.

It is implementing the first-ever law that uses regulatory and market mechanisms to reduce green house gas (GHG) emissions. AB 32, or the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, is expected to reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% by 2050. But that’s only the start.

Another law, AB 375, sets GHG targets for different regions and connects land use with AB 32 goals by offering a roadmap for halting urban sprawl. Signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2008, it encourages cities to adopt a general plan with a Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) that requires new development to be near transit or clustered with existing development. Cities are not required to adopt the SCS, but only those that do will be eligible for a share of the state’s $6 billion annual transportation budget. It also exempts qualifying smart-growth projects from the state’s onerous environmental review process.

Faced with California’s GHG mandate, many local governments have already implemented green building standards for public and commercial projects, as well as programs designed to conserve resources and reduce waste and GHG emissions.

Santa Monica, Pasadena and Los Angeles, for example, have adopted “green” building ordinances that require new and renovated public and commercial buildings to meet criteria for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver rating.

Attorney Elizabeth Watson, a partner at the Los Angeles law firm Greenberg Luster, which specializes in land use, notes that cities started by imposing LEED standard on themselves before requiring them in the private sector. She predicts that local governments will eventually require existing buildings to be upgraded to sustainable standards, too.

Los Angeles has already begun sustainable retrofits on its own buildings, Watson notes. Once the city determines a sustainable upgrade is reasonable to expect, it is likely to make sellers upgrade buildings to LEED standards before changing hands.

This concept got a shot in the arm last year with California requiring building owners to disclosure a building’s energy rating to prospective buyers and renters. While this policy is intended as a “buyer beware” statue, the state is using this information to create a database of building energy use.

The idea is that if building owners are forced to disclose this information periodically or when a property is sold or leased, they will upgrade the building’s energy systems to improve marketability, says Toni Liou, a principal at Los Angeles-based Partner Energy, an energy consulting firm that works with building owners and users to improve a building’s energy rating.

Updates to California’s new Title 24 building energy efficiency standards, which came online Jan.1, also increased building energy performance standards, as well as water conservation and waste reduction requirements for all types of projects. For instance, 75% of water heated for swimming pools must be from solar, native plants must be used for landscaping, and 65% of waste must be recycled.

The state also was first to offer PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy), a municipal solar finance program that enables home and building owners to install solar energy without any upfront costs and repay the loan over 20 years with savings from electric bills. It launched the Million Solar Roofs Initiative, which provides $2.9 billion in incentives for home and building owners who install solar electric systems. It also increased the amount of excess electricity utilities must buy back from owners of rooftop solar systems. Its Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) calls for 20 percent of California’s energy to come from renewable energy sources by 2010.

Cities Lead the Way


While the states are laying the foundation for sustainability, it is forward-thinking cities that are the leading the way toward true zero-emissions development, in California and elsewhere.

Cities have the flexibility to lead because they have the greatest control over sustainability processes, explains Claire Bonham-Carter, a principal and director of Sustainable Development, Design and Planning in the San Francisco office of AECOM who is developing Climate Action Plans (CAPs) for several California cities.

San Francisco, Berkeley, Chicago, Seattle, Portland and Boulder have all developed Climate Action Plans that outline strategies to bring down greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for climate change.

So far, Austin, Texas, is the only U.S. city that has formally committed to going carbon neutral, but a number of projects attempting to reach the same goal are under way or proposed. The economic downturn has created challenges for many, delaying some of their grandest plans, but projects are still in the works.

For example, Quay Valley is a proposed $25-billion, 13,172-acre new city of 150,000 people in central California that would produce all of its power with renewable energy technologies. That would include 100 solar arrays, wind turbines and geothermal to help with efficiency, according to Dustin Watson, a LEED-certified architect and vice president at Baltimore-based Developers Design Group, master planner for the project.

“We’re starting to see clients like this one in California pushing the envelope,” Watson says.

In New Mexico, Mesa del Sol, a 12,900-acre sustainable master-planned community under way south of Albuquerque, will utilize regionally available renewable energy resources to eventually power 37,000 residential units and 18 million square feet of commercial space.

In fact, developers plan to make alternative energy technology the community’s primary economic driver and has already attracted two world-class solar energy companies. New Mexico is a national leader in alternative energy research, one of the highest concentrations of Ph.D.-level scientists in the nation. Both Sandia National Laboratory, just minutes from Mesa del Sol, as well as Los Alamos National Laboratory are focused on sustainable energy research.

The federal government is also moving forward. The largest net-zero commercial building in the nation is under way in Golden, Colo. The $64-million, 218,000-square-foot building home for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a unit of the U.S. Department of Energy, will consume so little energy that it won’t need to draw a single electron from the grid.

According to project manager Eric Telesmanich, this high-performance, LEED platinum building will attain net-zero status through conservation and alternative energy production. The goal is to limit energy use to no more than 32,000 BTUs per square foot a year, so that the one-megawatt solar array on the NREL campus meets all the building’s energy requirements. The typical commercial building in Colorado requires 65,000 BTUs per square foot annually.

Getting to Net Zero


Getting to net zero energy requires a closed-loop system, where everything onsite is used to produce energy, which is the way energy production is going in future, notes Dustin Watson.

“What it boils down to is the most cost-effective way to get there,” he says, pointing out that the process begins with the free stuff, like taking advantage of natural breezes and daylighting, then applies conservation to decrease demand, and lastly introduces technologies for onsite energy production.

Ideally, each community someday will operate on its own micro-grid system that derives energy from different sources, so that when one system has downtime the others pick up the slack, he explains. “It would be great if everyone’s house produced its own energy, and whatever isn’t used goes on a local grid for use by other buildings.

“There’s lots of possibilities out there for the future. It’s an exciting time to be in this business,” he adds. “Things are happening so fast, it’s a full job just keeping up.”