Subscribe to our newsletters & stay updated
It wasn’t enough that havoc from the global pandemic has continued for more than 18 months and despite vaccines, seems as if it could push well beyond two years. Now, the latest report in August from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes it clear: The future on this planet will be unlike the past, and not just a little.
But not many of us need reports to tell us things aren’t right. We can see it every day in the streets outside our doors. In cities like Portland, Ore.; Seattle; Vancouver, Canada; and others in the northwest, the climate is generally temperate and not many people have air conditioning. In June, an unprecedented, record-smashing heat wave parked itself over the area and killed hundreds of people.
A town called Lytton in British Columbia exploded into an inferno and disappeared in under an hour. The southwest continues in drought conditions; the west coast wildfire season started early; Ontario fires quadrupled; homes in Greece, Italy and Spain were in flames; and 10 million acres burned in Siberia.
The warmer atmosphere means the clouds fill up longer, creating bigger rain bursts and massive floods — this year in Texas, Nebraska, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Alabama, Missouri, Michigan, New York, Louisiana, Kentucky, Oregon, West Virginia, Indiana, Tennessee, Hawaii and Arizona. Flash floods also hit China, Turkey, Germany, Belgium and the UK.
Turkey had floods plus wildfires. India is experiencing floods, landslides, drought and drinking water shortages for millions of people. There has been a continuing spike in glacier melting in Greenland, and at the poles, and significant abnormalities with the Gulf Stream.
These events also increase the chance of diseases, so scientists say the current pandemic might be followed by more. Climate change is here and we need to both solve it and adapt our homes and businesses for health threats and intense weather events.
In July, GreenBiz.com contributor CJ Clouse wrote:
“In one of my favorite summer memories, my older brother and I run along our suburban Phoenix street during a monsoon. It’s after dark and the rain pours down warm and the wind blows wildly. When we reach the wide-open expanses of the schoolyard, we twirl like Dorothy, whisked away, and fall on the ground drenched and muddy and laughing.
“Like much of life back in the day, we took the monsoon rains for granted. They came most every year, a long-term average of 5.37 inches across Arizona between June and September, bringing moments of relief from the heat, and leaving behind the sweet, earthy scent of desert rain.”
The writing is good but the news in her article is bleak (https://bit.ly/2WdDLOp). The 2020 monsoon rainfall was just 1.51 inches of rain. Lake Mead, a key reservoir on the Colorado River, is at its lowest level. The Federal Bureau of Reclamation is requiring all states in the Colorado River basin to reduce water withdrawals.
Barclays says the average price of water increased by 60 percent in the 30 largest U.S. cities between 2010 and 2019, and California water futures have regularly jumped as much as 300 percent in recent years.
California has long been in crisis, not least because its economy is heavily dependent on agriculture, which brings in $20 billion and uses about 70 percent of the state’s water supply. An old study from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says that as much as 60 percent of water diverted or pumped for irrigation is wasted, mostly due to inefficient irrigation technology and methodology (https://bit.ly/3D7pBie).
This may still be true in many places, but in California, after years of drought, there has been a great deal of efficiency improvement, according to the California Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiative (https://agwaterstewards.org/). Soil moisture monitoring, irrigation software and scheduling, drip and micro-irrigation, center pivot technology, and deficit irrigation have all helped in this effort.
While the southern and western states grapple with adapting to the symptoms of climate change, governments such as the Biden administration are attempting to find ways to address the problem itself by mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Political negotiations continue in Washington and in state capitals, but it never seems urgent enough, especially considering the health effects and significant economic impacts of severe weather, fires, floods and pandemics.
Smaller governments are more nimble and perhaps more sensitive to the human face of extreme weather, family losses during temperature events, not to mention air pollution, which kills about 60,000 people in the United States each year, mostly city dwellers. That may be why municipalities are now moving the most ambitiously to electrify vehicles and buildings, with numerous incentives and regulations phasing in over five or 10 years.
Not surprisingly, eliminating gas from buildings is a particular preoccupation in the colder north and northeastern states.
Mass Save Public Residential Building Program
In Massachusetts, the state is helping demonstrate a building electrification model through a public residential building program called Mass Save. Although it was established just two years ago, it has already made great progress, according to Kristen Simmons and Luke McKneally, developer/administrators with ICF, a government consulting firm managing the program. In August, Simmons and McKneally provided updated details during a webinar for a few hundred engineers, architects and developers.
The program is built around the Passive House certification of projects of five or more dwelling units. It provides a $3,000 per unit incentive for developers plus extensive support before the final “it’s-a-go” decision. These include feasibility study and energy modelling subsidies, design charrette incentives, and three kinds of training for people new to Passive House.
Two years after it was introduced, the consultants say it has resulted in about 200 residential units built this year. Next-year predictions are for 1,200 units and about 2,500 in 2023. About 58 percent of these will be affordable housing, with a decent balance of project sizes: 44 percent under 40 units, 21 percent in buildings with 100 or more apartments and the remainder in the middle.
The success of this program is that its design addresses the key challenges of ensuring developers are comfortable with new and better ways of building, ensuring a given project is right for passive house, and de-risking the undertaking. Feasibility, energy modelling and design charettes together provide a high level of confidence and information on a specific project, making it a no-brainer to proceed to a successful conclusion.
Multifamily buildings are a great place for the state to battle-test these kinds of heat pump building models because on these projects there is no shortage of number crunchers. They can monitor, test and gather data to show that naysayers, who inevitably claim that new approaches are expensive and unworkable, are quite simply wrong.
As I’ve reported in the past, Pennsylvania travelled this path previously and Passive House projects came in with a 3 percent higher cost in the first year, then cost a bit less than code-built equivalent buildings in subsequent years.
North Carolina’s Modern, Resilient Agrihood
The Olivette agrihood is attracting people who are yearning for social and economic recovery and new community models, connections among residents, and stronger connections with nature in what many hope is a post-pandemic world.
The 346-acre community along the French Broad River near Asheville, N.C., includes seven acres of riverfront beach, a large private river island, trails, a working organic vegetable farm around which the community is built, a flower farm, community gardens, an amphitheater, community center, and modern amenities such as fiber-to-home broadband Internet and connections to municipal water and sewage systems, although a section of the development does rely on septic systems.
The agrihood concept offers resilient housing and pesticide-free farm-to-table food supply, “the ultimate slow food,” says the website (www.olivettenc.com). “You're watching it grow and really connected in that way. And those connections spill over in community.”
When public parks were closed during the pandemic, Olivette residents were unaffected because they are surrounded by nature.
Agrihood specialist Bridget Shirvell wrote in March that more than 100 agrihoods exist across the country, most of which have sprung up in the past few years (https://bit.ly/3sJ9z9u). We’ve reported on a few communities that might fit the category, and one that definitely does, The Jacobson Farm Net Positive Agrihood in Amherst, N.H. I covered it in early 2020. It consists of 64 Passive House homes built around a modern organic farm, designed by Carter Scott, a net-zero home pioneer.
Olivette homes are not necessarily Passive House; however, builders are required to use geothermal wells and ground-source heat pumps as heating and cooling primary systems in all homes built in the community. In addition, homes must offer efficient building envelopes that do not exceed a HERS rating of 55.
What Is a HERS Rating?
HERS is a rating scale developed by RESNET (Residential Energy Services Network). Certified RESNET Home Energy Raters conduct energy ratings on homes to determine energy performance and assign HERS Index scores to them. The score gives the homeowner an indication of how energy-efficient their home is in comparison to other similar homes. With HERS, low scores are better than high scores.
According to RESNET: “A typical resale home in the United States is rated at 130 on the HERS Index, while a standard new home that conforms to the current International Energy Conservation Code standards scores 100. These figures have been determined by the U.S. Department of Energy. In layman’s terms, what this means is that a home with a HERS Index score of 70 is 30 percent more energy-efficient than a standard new home, and a home scoring 130 is 30 percent less efficient than the standard new home.”
Because Olivette homes must be efficient, less cost is associated with their geothermal system. Elliott Nailen, HERS Rater, realtor and specialist in energy-efficient, sustainable building practices, says owners usually drill “a couple of wells about 200 feet deep,” which he says costs about $7,000 through a contractor with which the community has a relationship.
Olivette also has an arrangement with WaterFurnace, a ground-source heat pump (GSHP)manufacturer. “Builders are not obligated to use these vendors, although many do,” Nailen says. “Some homes feature Bosch and Carrier GSHPs.”
Community documents describe geothermal as “quite simply the most cost-efficient and environmentally friendly way to heat and cool your home (U.S. Dept of Energy, EPA). Energy savings of up to 65 percent can be achieved … saves money, saves fossil fuels by reducing demand on power plants. It’s been estimated that installing a single geothermal heat pump is the environmental equivalent of planting 750 trees.”
The literature talks about geothermal systems now being eligible for clean energy tax credits and promotes an aspect of geothermal that has increasingly come to the fore in southern places and communities that want to be seen as progressive: quiet operation. In very hot communities, if homes are located near each other, the noise from outdoor compressors seems to be a complaint.
It also makes a statement that some professionals may not agree with, suggesting that traditional heat pumps and air-conditioning units with outdoor fans and compressors have a shorter life at about 15 years, due to the effects of rain, dirt, leaves, and insects. It suggests ground-source heat pumps last about 25 years, which does seem to be the consensus among engineers I’ve asked over the years. There also seems to be agreement that if installed correctly, the ground loops last a very long time, more than 50 years.
Pittsburgh Energy Hub
Cynics might suggest that agrihoods are for more affluent people. I won’t speculate, but better resilience, better food and greater community connections are also being achieved in the town of Millvale, a small Pittsburgh suburb, where local governments and community-based organizations are working together to enhance resilience and address underserved community needs.
After several climate-exacerbated flooding events, Millvale’s municipal officials, a community development group, the town library and a local nonprofit joined together to upgrade a centrally located vacant social hall (above the floodplain) and create an “energy hub.” It would also help mitigate the neighborhood’s food insecurity and underemployment challenges.
The building was upgraded for community activities, equipped with a 26 kilowatt/hour solar array, a 30-kWh smart battery storage system and sophisticated controls that may set the stage for a multibuilding, highly resilient microgrid in the coming years. The group rented some of the space out, generated event revenue and attracted a few grants to create a going concern.
The area had been considered a “food desert;” once the pandemic struck, food insecurity became even more pressing. Through the hub, the group has been able to distribute nearly three tons of fresh produce each week to families in Millvale, in partnership with the USDA’s Farm to Families program.
Whether we’re talking about water shortages in the Colorado River basin, affordable housing in Massachusetts, an agrihood in North Carolina or a community hub in Pittsburgh, Americans are pulling together. The extremes of climate change, pandemics, economic disparity and fresh food are being solved with cooperation, ingenuity and simple, clean technologies. Some or all will likely become more widely adopted. Let’s continue refining and ramping up!